We were driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Sept. 2004, when Clay Rice, the local musician and silhouette artist I was working for, put on Patty Griffin's Living with Ghosts. It took about 30 seconds for my jaw to drop, hearing her sing the album's opening lines, "Diamonds/ Roses/ I need Moses/ To cross this sea of loneliness/ Part this red river of pain," for the first time.
"Who is this?" I asked Clay. "It's my ex-girlfriend," he answered. I took the bait, going on about how this was the most incredible voice I'd ever heard and how she needed to get signed.
It turns out there's a good contingent of folks across the country who agree. Griffin has a voice that makes grown men cry, broken hearts patter, and ice cream melt in the tundra. She's currently touring in support of Children Running Through, her acclaimed sixth album that may finally push her into the mainstream market.
Singer-songwriter Scott Miller is opening for Griffin on this tour, and he'll be the first to tell you her voice is pure angel. His stature as the Appalachian's resident wit-and-wisdom lyricist has grown since Griffin sang with him on two tracks of his 2003 release Upside/Downside. We bribed him with whiskey to talk candidly with us about Griffin.
CITY PAPER: How'd you meet Patty?
SCOTT MILLER: I met her through our friend Kathi Whitley at one of Nashville's worst bars. When I say "worst" I mean not the kind of bar anyone would really want to be in, froo-froo, fern bar. We talked of our Shenandoah Valley vs. Maine upbringings. Very similar as you might imagine. Or not.
CP: How did it come about that she sang on your album?
SM: I paid her a lot of money.
CP: Did anything funny happen during that experience?
SM: She sang on not just one song, but two. So that was very cool. She actually gave a damn too, which was nice. While driving her back to her hotel, my cell phone rang. It was Tim O'Brien asking if I wanted to come by his house and play some. Tim had been one of my idols since my young days listening to his band Hot Rize. There I was, Patty Griffin in the car, Tim O'Brien on the phone and bam! — I rear-end an old couple in an Oldsmobile Cutlass, one of the old Chevelle-looking ones. No harm, no foul. I think Patty would tell you the worst part of it was me apologizing again and again and again ... not the actual accident.
CP: What Patty Griffin songs come to mind as favorites?
SM: I have yet to hear a bad one. No bullshit. I've watched her set almost every night and have yet to not hear one I like. Different ones stick in my head every night, which is a good sign, I find. The other night it was "I'm Getting Ready."
CP: Is this summer your first tour with Patty?
SM: This spring was. I can honestly say all the way around, from band to crew, these are the nicest people you'll find to work with. Like I tell them every night, Patty Griffin fans get my humor, buy lots of merchandise, and are easy to picture in their underwear, so this tour has worked out great. For me, anyway.
CP: At the shows, are y'all playing together on any songs?
SM: I played some harmonica on one in Santa Fe last week, but her songs are so good that she doesn't need a skinny hillbilly out there with the band she has. On the flip side, she said she would sing with me but insists on my signing over all my publishing and giving her one of my hound dogs.