Patty Griffin’s seventh album — and her first collection of new songs in six years — opens with “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” a delicate rural blues number that bristles with slide guitar and promises of travel and escape. That song establishes American Kid as a meditation on wanderlust of all kinds — emotional, physical and musical — and it may be Griffin’s most adventurous and diverse effort yet. Rather than record again in Austin or Nashville, Griffin decamped to Memphis, where she absorbed the Bluff City’s deep, rich history and recruited Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars as her backing band. Fortunately, this is no kneejerk approximation of local blues or soul. No musical tourist, Griffin is not interested in re-creating that Sun or Stax sound; instead, she hits the crossroads and goes in all directions at once.
The songs on American Kid represent points on a map. Griffin pleads for her life on “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” whose urgency is sharpened by Luther Dickinson’s gritty guitar work, while “Ohio” (inspired by the Underground Railroad) establishes a rustic folk drone that’s simultaneously lovely and unsettling. Even on the more direct tracks, like the lusty beerhall sing-along “Get Ready Marie” or her tender cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” her exquisite twang gives life to a range of characters: prodigal sons, itinerant laborers, deserting soldiers, horny bridegrooms. Griffin loses herself not only in American musical traditions but also in American history, as though to escape some horrors of the present. As a result, American Kid sounds like her own version of the Great American Novel, expansive in narrative scope and generous in its earthy humanity.