By John T. Davis
Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Patty Griffin is coming home and she’s bringing some friends. Griffin is returning to Austin to perform at Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday with fellow singers and tunesmiths Sara Watkins and Anaïs Mitchell. The three are in the midst of a 38-city swing christened the “Use Your Voice Tour 2016.” The goal of the event is to raise voter engagement and to that end, the musicians are working in conjunction with the League of Women Voters to engage with music fans to register to vote or update their existing voting registrations and in general to inform folks about voting resources.
Griffin took a few minutes on Saturday to speak with the Austin American-Statesman from the road. An edited version of the conversation follows:
American-Statesman: What was the genesis of this collaboration?
Patty Griffin: I heard a news story about voter turnout. It’s not a big secret that voter participation is pretty low. The thing I found interesting was that women are the largest (quota) of voters and that single women are the largest group within that group. They’re not turning out in the numbers that they should be turning out. And I wondered why they were not turning out, and what would happen if they did. And then I wondered, what can I do?
My manager and I started organizing this tour a year and a half ago. Then Anaïs and Sara said yes. We never thought we’d land in the middle of primary season! That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to raise awareness and consciousness.
It is about invigorating our democracy especially on the local level, getting people inspired about the possibilities.
You’ve been out awhile now. Do you think you’re achieving your goals?
We’re folksingers, so it’s a small ripple in the pool (laughs). The League of Women Voters is out here with us and they’ve have been signing people up to vote. In one community, before we got there, there was a town meeting that occurred because we were coming. A couple of hundred people showed up and they discussed why people weren’t voting in their community and what could be done. And some things were accomplished to try to address those problems. So, it is making a little bit of an impact.
Did you reach out to the League of Women Voters or did they approach you all?
We reached out to them. Their (machine) is already in place, and exactly what needs to be done is the thing that they do. They are a non-partisan community unifier. Their goal is to raise voter turnout. It’s pretty simple.
So you’re not stumping for a party or a candidate?
No. I think the most important thing to emphasize is that this is non-partisan. It’s meant to be part of an energetic to pull to get people from all walks of life back into their democracy. I think about why people are not voting and what can be done? I think it’s really important.
At the time you were planning this, could you have envisioned the Donald Trump phenomenon?
No, it’s been pretty wild. As Anaïs said last night it’s a pretty intense primary season. But we are maintaining our non-partisan stance in this. One of the things that really has to get accomplished in our nation is that we have to put down our arms and stop yelling. Start listening, and have conversations about our communities and what their needs are and what can be done on a realistic level. It’s been awhile since that’s happened with regularity.
You’ve done tours in the ‘songwriters in the round’ format before. What makes this one different and how did you meet your partners?
I’ve worked in different roles with both of them. I did a tour with Anais a couple of years ago and discovered her songwriting from that—she’s brilliant. As for Sara, I have known her from Nickel Creek (Watkins was a member of that group) and I love her playing. We’d bump into each other on different projects. I’m a fan of both of their work.
The thing that makes this show particularly powerful, is that, unlike other guitar pulls, we act like each other’s band. We’re not sitting down, we’re working like a band around each other for a large part of the show, and we’re harmonizing on things we wouldn’t ordinarily even have harmonies on. There’s been openness to the collaboration in an effort to show unity. It feels powerful, to be singing with them. They’re great singers and really strong women.
What has been your favorite aspect of the shows?
I think my favorite part is the harmonies. It’s a really incredible blend of voices that I never would have imagined putting together. When I first asked them to do this I was kind of panicked, because I had no idea how we were going to make it unique. But they brought a lot of ideas to the table and we came up with something that feels really, really good. It’s a great show. I’m not just talking out my butt! It’s really a great show.
Got anything special planned for the hometown crowd?
We do. We have a special treat for the Austin show. I can’t say anything more than that.