Patty Griffin tells the story almost as if it never happened. It has, after all, been 13 years since her third studio album was set for release but then shelved, rather unceremoniously, in the aftermath of a merger that swallowed up her record label at the time. It’s a clichéd story: A conglomerate takes over and has little use for the fledgling artists who aren’t already cash cows.
In 2000, Griffin was ready to put out “Silver Bell,” an album she recorded during months of sessions at Daniel Lanois’s studio in New Orleans. It was a bookend of sorts to 1998’s “Flaming Red,” which was a departure from her debut that established her as a formidable songwriter who bared her soul in unvarnished acoustic backdrops.
The brittle songs on “Flaming Red” suggested Griffin, who was raised in Maine and cut her teeth in Boston and Cambridge’s folk scenes, could have found stardom as a rock artist. “Silver Bell” was further proof. Until it simply disappeared.
On Tuesday, “Silver Bell” will finally be released, much to Griffin’s surprise and perhaps a little to her indifference.
“I didn’t really think about it or care about it. I was much more worried about ‘Flaming Red’ being remixed, which was more of a heartbreak for me,” she says. “I think that record got and still is trapped in this mix that was from the flavor of the day. The previous mix was so much more beautiful.”
To make sure the same fate didn’t befall “Silver Bell,” she enlisted the fabled producer and engineer Glyn Johns, who is famous for his work with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. She and Johns had met right after “Flaming Red” came out, and he expressed interest in remixing that album. Griffin trusted him to reshape the sound of “Silver Bell,” whose original version had a “harsh mix” that was trendy at the time, she says.
“I think Glyn was able to peel back some of that stuff from the songs and release them back into being songs,” she says. “I think he gave it more of a classic sort of feeling than it had before.”
The back story of “Silver Bell” is rooted in a particularly tough time in Griffin’s career. Her exit from A&M Records, after it had been incorporated into Universal, was not exactly on good terms.
She reached the breaking point at a meeting with Jimmy Iovine, the executive who had taken over, and all of the new label heads who were now under the Universal Music umbrella.
“[Jimmy] was sitting at the head of the meeting, and people were checking their watches and looking at me uncomfortably,” Griffin remembers. “I was 37 years old, sitting there with my new manager from Nashville that nobody heard of. Jimmy just said, ‘Frankly, Patty, you haven’t made a good record yet. That’s the problem.’
“I don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think he cared if I stayed or went,” Griffin adds. “It would have been better if I had just stomped my feet and quit. But I didn’t because they didn’t know that I had waited on tables in Harvard Square for five years, and I was all about trying to [make it as a musician]. So I thought, I’ll just try to figure out what he wants and go back and write this stuff.”
That didn’t happen, of course, and she went back home to Austin, Texas, where she still lives. One day her manager offered to get her off Universal, and she was eventually released from the label and promptly moved over to ATO Records. She approached her next album, 2002’s “1000 Kisses,” with caution and a bare-bones budget.
“I’ve never been so organized for anything in my life,” she says. “It was actually cleansing to do that record, and those songs are done very well and simply. We had a plan because we didn’t have a lot of other options.”
In the intervening years, “Silver Bell” took on a life of its own through social media, available as a coveted bootleg but also through other artists’ interpretations of some of the songs. Dixie Chicks had included two of the tracks, “Top of the World” and “Truth #2,” on their multiplatinum 2002 album, “Home.” More recently, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines included a cover of “Silver Bell” on “Mother,” her solo album released earlier this year.
Griffin credits the mystique surrounding “Silver Bell,” her “lost album,” if you will, with generating interest in its proper release all these years later.
Billy Beard, the local drummer who plays with Session Americana and books the Cambridge clubs Lizard Lounge and Toad, played on “Silver Bell.”
“It was very experimental. She had just come off of ‘Flaming Red,’” Beard says. “I think for a lot of bands, it’s always hard to move left if you’ve come out to the right. I think ‘Flaming Red’ was more of a mainstream, gigantic pop rock record. But ‘Silver Bell’ covers a lot of ground. Artistically, it was certainly a creative high point.”
Griffin, for one, doesn’t dwell on what “Silver Bell” could have meant for her career back then.
“It is what it is. I never really set out to be a pop star. I’m OK with how things have turned out,” Griffin says. “I’ve learned a lot every step of the way, and I’m still learning. I think the circumstances around having a successful career in popular music are something I wouldn’t have been good at, anyway. That wouldn’t have been a good world for me to be in.”