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Patty Griffin: Five Essential Rickie Lee Jones Songs

Patty Griffin (photo courtesy of Big Hassle, PR)

Patty Griffin (photo courtesy of Big Hassle, PR)

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"I went swimming in the river with the ghosts and debris," sings Patty Griffin against the woozy blurt of a trumpet in "Hourglass," a gorgeous new track found on her forthcoming eponymous album, released March 8. "Shouldn't a person at least try to be free/Instead of giving up and just pretending to be?"

Like one of her songwriting influences, Rickie Lee Jones, this week's FUV Essentials, Griffin has always had a canny understanding of infinite freedom, in music and matters of the heart. Again like Jones, she also isn't afraid to write about her pain and can be eloquent even when articulating grief, as on 2013's American Kid. written in the aftermath of her father's passing.

Griffin's passage to her latest album, her tenth, wasn't an easy one either — she recently battled breast cancer and worked on the new album during her treatment for the disease. She's arrived at her happy destination as a survivor with triumph and a tenacious grasp on what's most meaningful to her these days. Griffin is not about to waste any time on not being true to herself or her work. As she told the Vineyard Gazette last year, her cancer diagnosis recalibrated her perspective.

“Life tends to put you through these moments of suffering to shoot you out somewhere you never expected, but somewhere great,” said Griffin. “You grow in so many mysterious ways.”

Over the years, Griffin has spoke about her reverence for Rickie Lee, especially as a girl growing up in Maine, searching for inspiration on the radio in the late '70s. Falling upon Jones's self-titled debut album threw open a door to Griffin's own destiny as a musician. When FUV asked if she might want to write about her "Five Essential Rickie Lee Jones Songs" for FUV Essentials, Griffin sent on this beautiful and very personal recollection — from one "serious badass" to another.

Patty Griffin: Five Essential Rickie Lee Jones Songs:

"Danny’s All Star Joint," Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
I got this record when I was about 15 or 16 years old and it changed my life forever. There weren’t a lot of women singer-songwriters out there on the airwaves at the time and Rickie Lee was the first one I fully connected with. No matter what happened after that, within all the lonely-as-a-female situations you might find yourself in as a woman in sea of mostly men in music, I think she has been a North Star for me. Knowing how undeniably sublime she is as a songwriter and performer has kept me more grounded. I mean, with songs like hers, I’ve reminded myself over and over, women have voices that need to be heard  and that have great value. This song is sexy and rebellious in a gorgeous, very lived-in and falling apart kind of way. Incredible timing and word play. Pure fun. The production on this record is so good too: Lenny Waronker. Not taking herself too seriously, RLJ is revealed as a serious badass.

"Living it Up," Pirates (1981)
The lyrics in the song are pure poetry. They haunt me on a regular basis. It’s a story song of a story you might walk past every day on your way somewhere. It makes you look a little longer and see a little farther. And the movement of the music is magical and pure of heart — notice the bridge section from “Well at first it was this way” all the way to the last, “Oh yeah, we’re living it up.” It takes you pretty far into someone’s heart.

"Skeletons," Pirates (1981)
My brother gave me this record for Christmas in 1981 (and a black felt fedora with a feather in it! Went so well with the roach clip earring). He knew I really wanted this record and back then there weren’t really previews of anything. You got the vinyl and you were hearing it for the first time. We sat in his room and listened to the whole thing together. When we got to this song we were both in tears. Again, she’s telling huge stories that are living silently inside of people among you everywhere every day. What a heart — and what a good brother.

"Letters from the 9th Ward/Walk Away Rene," Girl at Her Volcano EP (1983)
I had this EP on cassette and wore it out, living in a little cypress shack in South Florida and waiting on tables. Growing up on mostly AM radio and whatever records showed up in the house,  I had not heard ["Walk Away Renée"] before then. It’s still my favorite version of it.

"Rainbow Sleeves" (Tom Waits cover), Girl at Her Volcano EP (1983)
In this song, her heart is so wide open that I don’t even know how she survived singing it. And that is kind of the point of the song for me too. If you get out there and live,  you’re definitely going to get hurt. And you have to get out there and live. So some days you are just scratching around for that part of you that knows mystery and magic truly are in everything. Some days are too cloudy to see that. You just hang onto those rainbow sleeves. I love RLJ. Thank you, RLJ.

- Patty Griffin
February 2019

Patty Griffin is on tour now and plays New York's Town Hall on April 6, a WFUV-sponsored show.

Catch up to all of FUV's Five Essential Songs and Albums here.

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