When Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music,” cut “Blue Yodel #9” with Louis Armstrong in 1930, combining rural mountain music with blues and jazz was a great idea. When Bob Wills expanded on it a few years later, it still was. Servant of Love is the latest iteration of this impulse. Yet at core, it is simply American roots music, which is what Patty Griffin’s art has always been about.
As a singer, she doesn’t have huge range or operatic power. But with tone and phrasing that can occasionally recalls Billie Holiday, Griffin makes magic with what she’s got. Per usual, she’s got beautifully-crafted songs. What’s different is how they communicate, through incantatory vibe and groove as much as storytelling and poetry. “Good and Gone” and “Everything’s Changed” build on hypnotic looped guitar phrases set against kalimba patterns and drones, charting deep folk blues with North African inflections. The same spirit informs “250,000 Miles,” with Griffin’s remarkable guitar work and haunting backing vocals by Shawn Colvin. It’s a sketch about the loss of a daughter, set against a desert, with images of tea and forced servitude echoing the fiction of Paul Bowles.
The stylistic mix recalls territory she has explored before, notably in Robert Plant’s revived Band of Joy project in 2010. But it’s never felt so much like personal vernacular. See the gorgeous “Rider Of Days,” more in the style of country-tinged folk that she’s known for. Abetted again by Colvin’s voice, the song matter-of-factly transcends the conventions of Americana. Which seems to be the point here, if you need one – beyond how deeply felt, artful and unshakable this music is.