Nashville Rage 05.31.01

Will 'Silver Bell' Ever Ring?

Published: 31 MAY 01 - The Rage

Fiery singer-songwriter Patty Griffin headlines Dancin' in the District with Cricket

    There will be better times and places for fans of music to complain about the corporatization of the music business. Volumes can and should be written about how these huge multinational companies, for whom music is, at best, a sideline business, have bit by bit lowered the lowest common denominator to the point where they've entered into bidding wars over the opportunity to put pre-teen kids into studios, latch their voices to pre-produced "music" and create the next "superstar" (read: bottom-line enhancement vehicle).

    There's another time for that discussion. We're here to discuss a different tragedy. We're not going to get to hear a new Patty Griffin record any time soon.

    Despite having a critically lauded second album, despite coming off a heralded slot opening for one of the hottest acts in the industry, and despite repeated rescheduling of the release of the follow-up project, Griffin's now-former record label came to the conclusion all artists dread - that they "didn't hear a single" - and decided to shelve the project, titled Silver Bell.

    And the really sad thing? She's been through pretty much the same situation already.

    Griffin's debut recording, Living With Ghosts, was originally intended to sound very different than it turned out. A demo set of acoustic recordings of the songs on Ghosts got Griffin her deal with A&M Records back in 1996. She went into the studio with a producer and a band and kicked out an electrified version, at which point the Powers That Be at A&M kicked it back and refused to release it.

    "I was really devastated by that and couldn't imagine making another [record] at that point because I was really very into this one," Griffin told me in a 1998 interview for "I was just a little too bummed out to try to make another one, so I said 'If you like the demos so much, let's put them out,' and they were cool with that. That's how I ended up being acoustic in everybody's eyes.

    "I think what the label was concerned about was that it was dark, that the performances were not bright, while the acoustic performances were very straightforward and cut right through," Griffin said. "I listened to that record [recently] for the first time in a long time, and you know what? It's not nearly as bad as I thought from the way they were talking about it."

    Griffin got to make the record she wanted two years later with Flaming Red, an out-and-out rock project on which she teamed with Nashville producer/guitarist Jay Joyce. The songs were in-your-face both musically and topically, with tracks like Tony, Change and Mary making you think as much as Wiggley Fingers, Blue Sky and the title track make you rock out.

    Flaming Red caught the attention of folks outside the Triple A and rock worlds, as well. Among those who took notice were members of the Dixie Chicks, who covered Let Him Fly, from Ghosts, on their multiplatinum disc Fly, and tapped Griffin as the opening act for most of their 2000 tour.

    "It's very rare that I come across a CD that I just wear out, and I've worn her records out. All three of us have," said Dixie Chick Martie Seidel in a June 2000 interview with "If I have a fan come up to me and ask, 'What do you listen to?,' I would say 'Go out and buy Flaming Red.'"

    The timing for Griffin's next career move seemed to have been perfect. Big tour in front of a music-loving audience followed by a new project helmed by Joyce with Griffin's road-tested band equals the next big step forward, right?

    Not according to the new Powers That Be at Griffin's label, Interscope (where she had been shuffled after the demise of A&M in 1998 in the creation of Universal Music Group). First, they pushed back Silver Bell's release from October 2000 (on the tail end of the Chicks' tour) to January 2001. Then they pushed it to March 2001. Finally they canned it altogether. The widespread rumor at the time was that Griffin was told the album lacked commercially viable singles, and that she should start over with a new producer and new band.

    Angry and frustrated with Interscope's actions, Griffin asked for and received a release from the label, but without the masters to Silver Bell.

    Griffin turned away requests for an interview, with representatives from her management company saying it was even difficult for them to talk with the singer-songwriter about the latest turns in her career.

    But having been put in this position before and coming out on the other side indicates that Patty Griffin will be able to bounce back from what certain facets of the music industry have put her through.

   - Lucas Hendrickson