Patty Griffin in a Downtown Church

Patty Griffin’s new album, Downtown Church, was recorded in Nashville at The Downtown Presbyterian Church, at the corner of 5th and Church. Seemingly an obvious name, it takes on significance when thought of through the November 8, 1914 words of the Rev. James I. Vance, from The Contributor:

“We are a downtown church. Some regard this as a handicap. I look upon it as an asset. Give me a church where life is densest, and human need is greatest – not a church in some sequestered sylvan retreat, not a temple in some lonely solitude removed from the walks of life and attended only by the children of privilege and leisure, but give me a church whose doorstep is on the pavement, against whose walls beat and lap the tides of labor, whose hymns mingle with the rattle of cars and the groans of traffic, whose seats are within easy reach of those falling under heavy burdens, and whose altars are hallowed by the publican’s prayer. God grant that this old church on the busiest corner in town may increasingly be that kind of church.”

Church takes on a multitude of meanings in our minds. For some it represents a place of refuge; for others it’s the last place they want to be found. No matter one’s faith, or lack thereof, the word likely conjures up strong feelings. And that’s what makes this project so interesting.

NPR’s Elena See describes it most eloquently:

“…What makes Downtown Church even more relevant – and, frankly, more touching – is that Griffin says she’s working through complicated feelings about religion and her own sense of faith. Downtown Church is her way of exploring those feelings. For the rest of us, the music is just plain good. And, for some of us, it’s a feel-good re-introduction to ideas and feelings that might be uncomfortably familiar.”

Traditional Gospel music isn’t exactly released to increase one’s commerciality, so it’s not hard to infer that Griffin recorded this project from a deep place in her heart, mind and soul.

I read about the actual recording process of this project through the words of Mark Lemley in Nashville’s homeless newspaper, The Contributor, in his article “Downtown Church: Searching for Gospel, Upstairs and Down.” In the article, Lemley provides context for the importance of the album’s recording location by not only sharing about its history (it started in 1816), but about this particular church’s embrace of society’s outcast. The church serves over 500 plates of food in its downstairs to homeless people every week. Lemley goes on to point out the sincerity felt through the art and person of Griffin, after sharing a quote he received from her about the importance she sees in Gospel music, that it is “the foundation” to all music.

“This gives Downtown Church a different kind of edge than most ‘Gospel’ music that comes out of Nashville. Griffin brings in an understanding of what happens downstairs – addiction, homelessness, poverty, doubt, fear and loss – and she doesn’t check all that understanding at the sanctuary door. She allows her own vision and experiences to remain at the root of these Gospel songs.”

If “church” was more closely associated in our minds with Patty Griffin-level art, and the sense of one’s fellow man mentioned above, it would probably be a far more popular word.

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