Songwriters are pop stars to pop stars.

Which is why it strikes one as funny to see Patty Griffin walk down Congress Avenue on her way to Little City coffeehouse. Nobody stops her. Nobody bugs her. Just another Austinite. Whatever, man.

The Dixie Chicks covered several of Griffin's songs on albums that sold a combined 16 million copies.

Kelly Clarkson, who once called Griffin "my favorite person on the planet," turned Griffin's "Up to the Mountain" into an iTunes smash when she covered it during American Idol's 2007 "Idol Gives Back" charity event.

Susan Boyle also covered "Up to the Mountain" on her 2009 debut album "I Dreamed a Dream," which has sold 3.1 million copies (!) inside of three months (!!).

Not many people whose songs show up on albums that can move units like that have the respect of anti-establishment types such as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

The punch line, of course, is that Griffin's always thought of herself as a singer first. Not much first, but a little first, albeit one who was a little insecure about her voice.

"When I was in my 20s and starting out," Griffin says, "I thought it would better if I learned how to write songs, but I always felt first like a singer."

She certainly gets to stretch her pipes on her new album "Downtown Church" (ATO), a collection of vintage gospel songs (and two of her own tunes) that hits the street Jan. 26.

"I loved getting to do a record where I mainly get to be a singer; I've never gotten to do that," she says.

A collaboration with Americana ninja Buddy Miller, it's Griffin's first covers album and possibly her last.

"I thought the writing was the hard part until I had to do a cover record," Griffin laughs. "This covering (expletive) is for the birds! It was incredibly difficult to learn other people's songs."

Yet she does a lovely job.

She always does a lovely job.

Finding gospel sound

The (mustard) seed of "Downtown Church" began a few years ago, when Griffin sang with Mavis Staples and the Tri-City Singers on a version of "Waiting For My Child to Come Home" on the compilation album "Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration."

"I never would have thought of doing this record had I not been given the chance to do that song," Griffin says. "Part of me thought it not even fair for her to have to sing with me; I sounded 2 inches tall next to her, but it was really fun."

Griffin also was struck by Staples and the Tri-City Singers' faith. "Everyone held hands and prayed and really meant it," she says. "Lapsed Catholic that I am, I was really moved by that. I am a spiritual mutt and being around people who aren't is very moving."

Griffin went home happy as a clam. A few months later, Peter York, the EMI executive who worked on "Oh Happy Day," suggested to Griffin's manager that she should make a gospel album.

Griffin said if she did it, she wanted to work with Miller, whom she has known since 1996. "His knowledge of that music is extensive," Griffin says, "The guy is a walking encyclopedia of American roots music and is one of the best human being I've ever met."

So Miller sent her dozens and dozens of old gospel songs throughout 2008, assembling a crack band, including bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, who played with Miller in the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant touring band. Longtime Griffin guitarist Doug Lancio, fiddle plater Stuart Duncan, pianist John Deaderick and steel guitarist Russ Pahl rounded out the crew.

They met at the Downtown Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue in Nashville the first week of January 2009.

"Patty wanted to sing in a room where she could feel her voice coming back," Miller says from his Nashville home.

He was blown away by the sound of the church. "It was used as a hospital during the Civil War and built in the Egyptian revival style, unbelievable-looking building. The pastor was great about it. He said, 'We're very efficient, we only need it once a week.' "

Griffin sang from the pulpit, the band set up in a semi circle around her. The background singers stood next to her — singers that included Emmylou Harris, Raul Malo, Shawn Colvin and Regina and Ann McCrary, whose father co-founded the gospel group the Fairfield Four.

"It looked beautiful, it sounded so right," Miller says. "We just set up mikes to capture it."

American original

This is a strange time for gospel music. Its profile is not high in the pop world (except as an eternally crucial part of R&B singing), but it's been undergoing a fascinating revival in the underground for almost a decade.

The three-CD collection "Fire in the Bones" (Tompkins Square) is a good example. Assembled by longtime zinester and scenester Mike McGonigal, "Fire" collects a dazzling array of obscure gospel from decades past, from gritty guitar workouts to roughly recorded harmonies. Labels such as the vinyl-only Mississippi Records (with whom McGonigal assembled the wonderful compilation "Life is a Problem") and Dust-to-Digital have reintroduced collector-bait gospel to a new generation. (Of course, the Austin-based, now-defunct label Revenant Records kicked all this off back in 1997 with the ground-breaking collection "American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (1926-36).")

"There is an interesting land grab happening right now," McGonigal says. "Gospel and polka are just about the last American musics left. Being a music head is a continual process of digging in the past, and if you weren't brought up with it, it's music that you come to later in life. You realize a lot of this is a lot better that whatever I'm listening to now."

So what is the audience for Griffin's record? Her fans? The folks who buy "Fire in the Bones"? Fans of contemporary gospel? We'll see how it goes.

Rooted in religion

Griffin's mother is French Canadian; her late father was Boston Irish Catholic and spent some time in a Trappist monastery in Virginia.

"My father was Boston Irish punk," Griffin, a native of Maine, says with a big smile. "I think he was kinda saved by a mother who shipped him off to a private school." After the Army, Griffin's father became a social worker in New York and then tried to be Trappist.

It didn't take. "It's a silent order and about three years in, I think the head of the order took him aside and said, 'Larry, you're not monk material,' " Griffin says. A year later he started a family with Griffin's mother and ended up having seven kids, a family that stayed very Catholic.

"The patriarchal dogma of Catholicism is something I have a big problem with," Griffin says. "For Christians, the mystery we're all trying to describe is called God and I just had a really hard time with it being described as a male."

But she softened over time. "It's very important to appreciate that there is something bigger than this table, this room, this city, this Earth," she says. "You need to take in the mystery, and religion is an effort to make that a regular things in people's lives. There is a lot of wisdom there. Whatever get you through this life is how I feel now."

That said, Griffin says she did try to change some of the lyrics to "All Creatures of Our God and King," the tradition hymn credited to St. Francis of Assisi.

"Buddy wouldn't let me, and I'm really glad he didn't," Griffin says.

The sessions were rigorous, but fast-moving. The band knocked the album out in about a week with Miller running the sessions: "I could do Branson now because I've sung six hours a day," Griffin says.

The only song she was straight up intimidated by was the Swan Silvertones classic "Move Up."

"Buddy kept on pushing that song and the (Silvertones') version is so complex, I just kept putting it off," she says.

At the end of the week, Miller asked Griffin if she had learned it. She had not and tried to get out of it.

"'That's OK,' he said, 'We'll all learn it together,' " Griffin says, shaking her head at the memory. "My voice was fried, but I'm so glad he cracked the whip on that. And the original really is one of the most amazing performances ever recorded and if people get into them through this record, the whole thing is totally worth it."

"I never thought she couldn't handle these songs," Miller says. "There's a thing that happens when that voice sings her songs that comes from a place in her soul. Her voice is the kind of thing that hurts when you hear it. I don't know why we want that because it really does hurt, but we do."

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926