Fans of Patty Griffin – and there are many – can tell you that the singer/songwriter’s story has had a missing chapter since the turn of the new Century. It was at that time her label, A&M, merged into the conglomerate known as Universal Music. In the midst of that merger, she delivered her third album, Silver Bell, to the record company. After many delays in its release, the album got shelved and Griffin was cut from the label’s roster. For thirteen years, Silver Bell has sat in a vault. Fortunately, someone at Universal has finally seen the light and released it to the world.
Griffin became a critical darling in the mid 90s with her debut album, 1995’s Living with Ghosts. This stunning release, essentially the demo recordings she submitted to A&M, featured just the guitar and voice of the promising new songwriter. Griffin’s sophomore effort, Flaming Red, came out in 1998. It was a departure from the acoustic fare of the first record. Loud, boisterous guitars and keyboard samples populate the record, indicating that Griffin was not content being known as another Lilith Fair folkie. What did carry over from the first album were her gift for storytelling and an ability to immerse listeners into the vivid worlds she creates in her songs.
Which brings us back to Silver Bell. After her first two albums, Griffin had gained a wide fan base among some pretty elite artists, including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks, as well as opening tours for the likes of Harris, Lucinda Williams and Shawn Colvin. In other words, she had a little clout. Griffin went down to Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio to record the songs for her third release. There was no reason to believe that this record wouldn’t be a breakthrough for her. Sadly, it was not. A&M let her go and she was left without a home for new music.
A few years later, Dave Matthews signed Griffin to his indie label, ATO. This relationship proved fruitful, with three acclaimed albums released between 2002 and 2007. Some of the tracks from Silver Bell were resurrected for these subsequent albums, with “Making Pies” finding a home on 2002’s 1,000 Kisses, and the songs “Top of the World,” “Standing,” and “Mother of God” making their way on to 2004’s Impossible Dream. Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks scored hits recording “Top of the World” and another track from Silver Bell, “Truth #2.”
The Silver Bell tracks eventually leaked into the hands of bootleggers and quickly spread across the Internet. Griffin fans rejoiced. The unreleased album revealed Griffin coming into her own as an artist, transitioning from the experimental, rocking/electronic music that drove Flaming Red into the soulful, country and gospel influenced performer she’s well known as today. Nothing about Silver Bell indicated that it was an album worthy of being discarded. Nothing.
2007’s Children Running Through, which features the hits “Heavenly Day” and “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song),” was followed by Griffin’s Buddy Miller-produced gospel record, Downtown Church, in 2010. That same year, Griffin joined Robert Plant’s Band of Joy for an album, tour and widespread exposure. Her most recent solo record is this spring’s remarkable American Kid, an intimate song cycle that drew from the stories of her father that has received universal acclaim and one that I consider to be one of the strongest records of the year. Those of us who love Patty have had a lot to be joyful about. Still, there was the empty feeling of that missing chapter in her career, Even though the Silver Bell songs were out there, it didn’t feel like they had her stamp of approval. That is until now.
This week Silver Bell was finally officially released. I’m not sure if it was someone at Universal finally realizing the jewel they had in their possession or because of the acclaim for American Kid, but some exec has done right by Griffin and her fans.
Better yet, the release isn’t a case of dumping the album in the same form that have been heard on the bootleg. Instead, the track order has been rearranged and famed producer, Glyn Johns, whose work with the Stones, Who, Eagles, Clapton, Hiatt and Ronstadt have earned him the status “legendary,” was brought in to remix the songs. In addition, two other unreleased songs, “Fragile” and “So Long,” take the place of “Making Pies” and “Standing.
For those who have never heard the Silver Bell songs, you’ll discover what I described above. You can clearly hear the remnants of Flaming Red’s rock edge on tracks like “Boston,” the haunting “Driving,” and the title track, while the alternative/experimental side of Flaming Red can be heard on “Little God” and “Perfect White Girls.” These songs are striking and really grab your attention. At the same time, the earthier sound that Griffin would soon adopt is clearly audible in “Truth #2” (featuring Emmylou Harris), “What You Are” (the album’s most poignant song), “Top of the World” and “So Long.” In Silver Bell, you’re actually hearing the growth of an artist. What’s so remarkable is that none of these songs feels dated. They could have been recorded this year, which makes you realize how ahead of her time Griffin was in 2000.
Ah, but what does this record offer those people who own the bootleg? I mean, besides the two unreleased tracks, is there any appeal to purchasing music you already have in your collection? Absolutely. Johns has polished the songs, making them sound less raw, more textured and simply lovely. The separation of the instruments really helps to hear the fine musicianship that went into the recording of Silver Bell. Most importantly, Johns has brought Griffin’s distinct singing to the foreground. Always her greatest instrument, Griffin’s voice is clear and concise, and cuts to the heart.
I can’t find any reason to grumble about the differences between the bootleg and the official release. In fact, I prefer the official release, seeing as Griffin had to have some input in the song order and the final sound production. My only qualm is that Universal chose to release Silver Bell so close to American Kid. You’d think the record company would have been respectful and let Griffin’s newest album have more time in the spotlight. Nevertheless, now the album is available for anyone to hear, not just country folk trolls on the Internet. Now Griffin’s concert repertoire can include these amazing songs and fans can recognize them. And finally, this chapter in Griffin’s career can officially be closed.