November 22, 2009

covered in birds who can sing a million songs without any words

patty griffin

Lately I’ve been hung up on a Patty Griffin song. She’s a songwriter whose waters I have wandered into deeply with a few specific songs, but I know she has so much more out there than what I have experienced. My first introduction to this Maine musician was her song “Top of the World,” covered by the Dixie Chicks on their 2002 album Home – and I just noticed she also wrote the closing track “Let Him Fly” on their 1999 album Fly. Both are astonishing, uncommonly potent songs.

I’ve said for years that “Top of the World” is probably one of of the saddest songs I know of by any artist, just this distilled essence of ache that is so hard to capture in a song. It’s a tale of regret and dead dreams, and not being able to do anything to fix what’s laying before you. You can listen to it here; the line about “I pretend to be sleeping when you come in in the morning, to whisper goodbye, go to work in the rain, I don’t know why…don’t know why” kills me every time. Everyone’s singing, we just wanna be heard.

She’s toured in recent years with folks I love like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlins, and I’d forgotten her contributions to Cameron Crowe’s splendid Elizabethtown soundtrack until I read a friend’s blog post this morning.

In recent weeks the song of hers that I’ve re-discovered is “Mary.” It’s this razor-sharp rumination into motherhood and the beautiful humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s not a religious song. Griffin takes a look at Mary as a common, complex woman weighted with (and sometimes obscured by) responsibilities, yet wreathed in beauty. I would postulate maybe even the latter because of the former.

Mary – Patty Griffin

you’re covered in roses
you’re covered in ashes
you’re covered in rain.
You’re covered in babies
covered in slashes
covered in wilderness
covered in stains.

You cast aside the sheets
you cast aside the shroud
of another man
who served the world proud
You greet another sun (son?)
you lose another one
on some sunny day
and always you stay

Jesus said, “Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer…”
he flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind
and starts cleaning up the place.

…Mary you’re covered in roses
you’re covered in ruins
you’re covered in secrets
you’re covered in treetops
covered in birds who can sing a million songs
without any words…

For me, the song speaks to the beautiful and complicated ways that caring for another, particularly in this case through motherhood, transforms both the individual doing the caring and the world. Mary is in the shadows of the blazes of glory in the chorus here, but she is doing the work that needs to be done through crippling loss. And there’s so much more to her than anyone knows.

Secrets, ashes, beauty.

Tagged with .


  • Beautiful – thank you for sharing!

    wumples — November 22, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  • Thanks for posting. I should mention that her voice is mindblowing, especially in the link you posted for Top of the World. I think I’m going to have to have that song played at my funeral. AMAZING

    KC — November 22, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  • Your posts are right up my alley lately. I only have a few tracks from Flaming Red and hadn’t heard ‘Mary’ before this… so thanks.

    I recently took a close look at ‘Moses’ from her 1996 debut – very moving.

    Payton — November 22, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  • Well said. She’s like the Anne Tyler of songwriters – perfect sad snapshots of women’s lives. Their quiet strength delivered with such fragile beauty. Two favorites are “Kite Song” and “Burgundy Shoes.”

    Maine Character — November 22, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  • I’ll second all of the above, both previous comments and original entry, and add that

    a) there’s actually TWO Patty Griffin covers on The Dixie Chicks’ Home: the one you mention, and Truth No. 2, which originally appeared on Patty’s deep-sixed rarity Silver Bell,


    b) there’s a Kasey Chambers cover of Top of the World up at Cover Lay Down right now which easily rivals the Dixie Chicks cover.

    boyhowdy — November 22, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  • The 1,000 Kisses album should be required listening.

    Side A Track 1 — November 22, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  • I have made all my friends listen to Patty’s version of “Top Of The World”. The song give me chills and makes me wistful every . single. time. Thanks so much for mentioning it. And you are right, it wrecks me too.

    spookycat — November 22, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  • I have always LOVED Patty Griffin, ever since I heard “Moses” from her first album. She is both a gifted storyteller and a phenomenally talented singer. Some of her lyrics remind me of John Prine, in that Patty and John both eloquently and simply sum up everyday life: the grind of working in a thankless job and slogging your way through marriage the best you know how. John Prine’s “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery” could easily have been written by Patty. Likewise, some of my favorite Patty Griffin songs, “Tony”, “Rain”, and “Useless Desires” could have been penned by John Prine.

    TIRS — November 22, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  • The fact that this string started with Patty Griffin and has mentions of Dave Rawlings, Kasey Chambers, and John Prine makes this my new favorite, single URL.

    Payton — November 23, 2009 @ 3:49 am

  • They used Patty Griffin (“When It Don’t Come Easy” – from Impossible Dream) at the end of a Nurse Jackie episode, and it was probably one of the more moving television moments I’ve ever seen.

    I’ll second the sentiment that 1000 Kisses should be required listening. All of her albums are incredibly moving.

    Andy — November 23, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  • If you get a chance to see Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller play together on their occasional “Three Girls and Their Buddy” tour…do it! One of the best shows I’ve seen. They were all great, but Patty stole the show, of course.

    Jeremy — November 23, 2009 @ 10:50 am

  • There have been many great versions of “Mary,” but my favorite has to be the one that Patty Griffin did with Natalie Maines

    Jeff — November 23, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

  • OMG – She’s one of the true gifted greats of our time. Take a drive or go for a long contemplative walk and listen to these moving songs, although almost all of hers are excellent: Florida (Impossible Dream), Forgiveness (Living with Ghosts), Goodbye (Flaming Red), I Don’t Ever Give Up (Children Running Through), Making Pies (1000 Kisses), Nobody’s Crying (A Kiss In Time), One More Girl (Silver Bell), Peter Pan (Flaming Red), Rowing Song (Impossible Dream), Tony, Top of the World, Up to the Mountain (MLK Song), What You Are (Silver Bell).

    zjc — November 24, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

  • In the original version on Patty’s Silverbell record that was never released is probably the most heartbreaking I’ve heard. The ending of the song has her Grandma singing on it. Patty’s said the song is about her and I’ve always taken some comfort from the fact that if this was her life, she was still able to sing. Incidentally, Patty’s also introduced the song Mary as a song also about her grandmother.

    Mateo — November 25, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  • Your citation of “Top of the World” reminded me of one of my all time favorite songs: “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” by Carly Simon. Just as Maine Character said above, it’s a perfect sad snapshot of a woman’s life. Destroys me every time.

    Jimmie Myers — November 25, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  • First off, I visit this site every day and I never expected to find my humble blog mentioned here. So, thank you!

    Second, I’m so thrilled to see this post–Patty is absolutely my favorite musician and practically any song you pull from her catalog will leave you fat with emotion.

    If you’re interested in digging deeper, I suggest immediately checking out “Living With Ghosts”–you’ll find “Fly” on there. The first time I heard this album I was absolutely blown away by the power this woman sustains over 10 songs with just her voice and a guitar.

    Matt — November 26, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  • I find it impossible to pinpoint a favorite Patty Griffin piece of work. With every album I think she’s grown and improved phenomenally….then I go back to “Living With Ghosts” and realize she’s always been phenomenal.

    I recently had the inevitable John Prine epiphany while listening to “Angel of Montgomery” and got stuck on the line “how the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have nothing to say.” I was suddenly stuck by how similar the feeling of that verse is to Patty’s “Long Ride Home” – the emptiness of lives lived together but separate. “40 years go by with someone laying in your bed, 40 years of things you say you wish you’d never said, how hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead?”

    Jen — November 27, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  • i find it amazing how other people also hear the connection with “angel from montgomery,” that it’s not just me — a few weeks ago i was listening to patty griffin on the beginning of this jag that led to this post, and all of a sudden i switched over to my several versions of angel from montgomery, because there is a similar thread there hanging it all together. susan tedeschi’s version still amazes me, and it is absolutely THAT one line about coming home in the evening and having nothing to say — that’s the line that always gets me too.

    browneheather — November 27, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  • Nobody captures “the ache” like Patty…

    Some of my favorites

    “You could cry or die or just make pies all day” Making Pies ~ 1000 Kisses

    “Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed, forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said, how hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead” Long Ride Home ~ 1000 Kisses

    There are many more…

    pattyfan — November 28, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  • she always breaks my heart
    such a wonderful talent

    Steve — November 28, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

  • Patty not only writes some of the saddest music in the world…she also writes some of the most powerful ever put to paper. The fact that she has the chops to accompany them only makes her greater and in a very elite league. Seeing her perform them live is a must for any fan, both devout or casual.
    “Silver Bell” despite it’s aforementioned tracks is not Patty’s finest hour (though do hunt the download online as unfortunately it never saw the light of day thanks to Patty‘s crap label at the time). I would give my favorite vote to ‘Flaming Red’ which not only rocks out harder than any of her other discs, it features some of Patty’s greatest songwriting: “Mary”, “Peter Pan”, “One Big Love” Tony”, “Christina” and my all-time favorite, “Goodbye”.

    On two other notes related to Patty:
    Sadly, Patty lost her father this past year. Reading the newspaper obituary, It seems like he was a very unique man who lived quite a life and Patty must have been very lucky to have him as a father.
    Secondly, this coming January we will be treated with Patty’s very first Gospel record produced by Buddy Miller and featuring a plethora of famous guests.

    James — November 30, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  • Totally agree with top of the world being the perfect combination of amazing vocals and heartbreaking lyrics. and seeing her live even better.
    her cover of springsteen’s stolen car is another that’ll bring tears.

    david — December 4, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  • I heard this song on show that I love…and I have been trying to find it for over a year…Thank you so much!

    Faith Belair — March 6, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
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