Passing Through released 26th January 2015 on Blix Street Records
“Grace’s album is so good it almost brought me to tears.” Emmylou Harris
After years in the making, Passing Through, the new album by acclaimed American vocalist Grace Griffith, will be released in 2015. Due to the degenerative effects of Grace’s seventeen year battle with Parkinson’s Disease, the album took more than two years to painstakingly record. The result is a hauntingly poignant collection of beautiful folk and Celtic songs.
When Grace received a degree in physical therapy from the University of Maryland in 1978, she put her musical dreams on the back burner and set out to take care of others. She served as director of rehabilitation at Physicians’ Memorial Hospital, but never stopped singing. From the late ‘80s into the early ‘90s, she was lead singer for the all-female Celtic band, the Hags (Mary Chapin Carpenter took her place when she left), half of the Hazlewood duo with songwriter Susan Graham White, and lead singer of the Celtic group Connemara.
Twenty years later, when Grace was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s Disease (only 5-10% of the 50,000 Americans diagnosed each year are under age 50) her training in physical therapy gave her an edge in dealing with the resulting physical and mental challenges. By then, she’d received numerous Washington Area Music Association (WAMMIE) awards as Best Female Vocalist in the Celtic and folk fields. After her debut solo album Every Hue and Shade, she signed with Blix Street Records in 1995, for which she has released five solo albums plus two with Connemara. Shortly after the release of her first Blix Street album, she brought vocalist Eva Cassidy, a Washington musician and friend, to the attention of Blix Street President Bill Straw. Cassidy died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33, and Blix Street would posthumously release her remarkable catalogue of recordings.
Linda Ronstadt has focused attention on how the progressive nature of Parkinson’s affects singers and musicians. Grace’s own condition has been deteriorating since her diagnosis. She is unable to play guitar, has difficulty walking and has experienced a loss of vocal control. Several years ago, she underwent a radical surgery called deep brain stimulation in the hope of regaining some of her lost abilities and controlling some of Parkinson’s disabling symptoms. The procedure is helpful, but the disease continues to progress.
In February of 2014, Grace moved into an assisted living community outside Washington, DC. She has a steady stream of visitors, many of them musicians.
With typical determination, Grace has been active in Parkinson’s-related groups including American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA, apdaparkinson.org) and Parkinson’s Action Network (PAN, parkinsonsaction.org). She has appeared at Parkinson’s related conferences, including the 2006 and 2010 World Parkinson Congress gatherings. Her moving medley of the traditional Scottish tune “The Seasons” and “Sailing” from the 2010 event held in Glasgow can be viewed here:
“Music has always been a focal point in my life. I get pleasure and peace from music. Since Parkinson’s Disease has come to live with me, music has become more important than ever.”
Grace’s previous album, Sailing, a retrospective of her Blix Street recordings, was released in 2010 to coincide with her appearance at the World Parkinson’s Congress, held that year in Glasgow. At the time, even Grace herself did not know if she would ever again record new material. Passing Through is a testament to her love of music and the love and support of her husband, friends and the local musical community. As on Grace’s other albums, her heart and spirit shine through; Passing Through is a testament to her unflinching tenacity.
“No one talked Grace back into the studio,” says Grace’s musical partner Marcy Marxer. “If anything, we knew how hard it was going to be for her. The album’s producers Chris Biondo and Lenny Williams, along with myself, made it possible for her to do it. Chris saw it through and edited it together, and what he did is difficult, heroic and brilliant.”
Grace’s friend Cathy Fink adds, “Chris opened his studio whenever Grace wanted; they had a standing appointment on Saturday mornings. Chris donated his time and expertise and has been an integral part of ‘Team Grace.’ Over the course of two years, he got out of Grace whatever she could give at that point: from a word or a sentence to a full song. Then he spent hours working to piece it together for the album.”
Indeed, Biondo assembled the best elements of multiple, sometimes laborious studio performances to ensure the result measured up to Grace’s best. Many musicians, including pianists Lenny Williams and Paul Nahay, guitarists Al Petteway and Richard Miller and bassist Biondo, contributed to post-vocal track arrangements that are suitably subtle with Grace’s vocals always center stage.
The songs that comprise Passing Through span many centuries, continents and styles. Their overarching theme mirrors life’s complex richness and revelations as observed by someone who has had to deal with more than her share of trials, but never lost touch with the love and truth of the universe. While Grace does not write her own material, she chose the songs in this collection with a deep awareness of their meaning and power.
“Life is a celebration, and we’re lucky to be here,” says Grace. “Music has always been a focal point in my life. I get pleasure and peace from music. Since Parkinson’s Disease has come to live with me, music has become more important than ever.”
The album opens with Susan Graham White’s ‘Brigid’s Shield,’ a harmonic blending that marks a reunion for Grace and Graham White who had performed together as the duo Hazlewood in the late 1980’s. The song references St. Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland and the protectress of horses, poets and dreamers.
Long-time Grace favorite ‘The Wood Thrush’s Song’ is a return to her a capella roots. The track features a chorus of “angels”: Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall. On the traditional ‘Bridget O’Malley,’ Grace is supported by guitarist Richard Miller, violinist Barbara Lamb and cellist Matthew Tifford. ‘Nature Boy’ includes only the guitar accompaniment of Richard Miller.
Also included is English poet Sydney Carter’s 1981 composition ‘Loud Are The Bells of Norwich’, based on a prayer by the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. A photo of the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, taken in 1932 before it was nearly destroyed in the Blitz, appears on the album package.
Emmylou Harris’ ‘Cup Of Kindness’ (inspired by the famous Robert Burns poem Auld Lang Syne), ‘Deep In the Darkest Night’ by Rick Kemp, ‘Way Of the World’ by Tom Prasada-Rao and the traditional ‘I Wish My Love Was A Red Rose’ are four previously recorded, but unreleased, tracks. Celtic harpist Sue Richards contributes to another traditional tune, ‘Down By the Sally Gardens’, which is based on a poem by William Butler Yeats as well as to Anne Lister’s ‘May Morning’.
Grace’s friend Jennifer Cutting wrote ‘Leaves of Autumn’ specifically for this project. Fittingly, it is sung a capella.
“What was will never be again/What will be is uncharted.”
‘Water, Fire and Smoke’ by Betsy Rose, the only previously released track, was taken from her self-released debut solo album Every Hue and Shade and later appeared as the opening track of Grace, the first album released by Blix Street in 1996. According to Blix Street President Bill Straw, “closing the Passing Through album with this particular track serves as the perfect reprise of what Grace and our label have shared during the past eighteen years.”
Artist’s website: gracegriffith.com
“Grace’s voice and song selection are stellar. The performances are so moving.” Linda Ronstadt
“Every now and then, an album comes along that I find I listen to almost compulsively. It’s rare because it needs the recording to contain the perfect songs, performed the right way and presented in a flowing order among other attributes. Grace Griffith’s Passing Through is one such album.” Irish Edition
“The result is an album that combines a stunning voice with a haunting collection of folk and Celtic material that once you begin to play you never wish it to end.” Russell Trunk’s Exclusive Magazine
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