For Patty Griffin, ‘Downtown Church’ Opens a Door to Gospel

Alt-country singer Patty Griffin was not an easy convert to the idea of making a gospel music album.

“I’m really a lapsed Catholic at best, [I have] very non-descript religious practices, if any at all,” says Griffin.

At 17, she left the church over frustration with what she felt was a tradition of gender exclusion against women: “I couldn’t make peace with the ‘he he he, king king king, lord lord lord’, male-everything terminology.” And yet, Christian imagery was something she kept inserting into her own songwriting. “So much of my music that I’d previously written is influenced by my Catholic upbringing,” says Griffin.

Although she tested the waters with songs like “Heavenly Day” off her 2007 album “Children Running Through,” she had never considered recording a full gospel album until an executive at EMI floated the idea. Griffin saw it as an opportunity to confront her uneasiness about the religiosity of the genre. It was also her idea to record the album in a church.

“I love those old Staples [Singers] recordings where you can hear it live in the church, and you can hear people shuffling their feet,” she says.

Something changed in Griffin while she was recording in Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, the house of worship that gives her new album its name and which once served as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

“I just felt the power of the music, and I just got over my crap at that moment.”
Art Beat talked to Griffin at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., in June:

Support PBS NewsHour: