This Saturday, June 25 Nathan Bell, a Tennessee-based recording artist with a roots Americana style, performs in Phoenicia for Flying Cat Music at the Empire State Railway Museum at 70 Lower High Street. The doors open at 7:00 p.m. and music begins at 7:30. Tickets are $12 or $10 with reservations. For information or reservations email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 845-688-9453.
Like many iconic American singer-songwriter’s, Tennessee’s Nathan Bell is more widely known in Europe than he is in most of the States. London’s Daily Telegraph included Bell’s most recent CD, I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, in their feature “Best Country Music Albums of 2016.” That same CD also came in at #2 for 2015 on the EuroAmericana Chart (ahead of more familiar stars like Steve Earle at #16 and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard with a joint release landing at #18). And last October the Dublin International Short Film and Music Festival awarded Nathan the prize for best score for musical composition on The Day After Stonewall Died, a film that also won the Best Short prize at the Cannes Short Film Festival in 2014.
In reviewing his work, the British website/radio program American Roots UK compares Nathan Bell to some of the greats, noting “He inhabits similar territory to Townes van Zandt and John Prine, but is even nearer to Guy Clark.” Bell has gotten the attention of reviewers on this side of the Atlantic as well. No Depression Magazine calls Nathan Bell “a gifted and thought-provoking songwriter” noting “there’s an incredible amount of eloquence in his ‘plain’ poetry.” Acousticguitar.com says, “Bell’s rustic voice, which couples the grain of the Band’s Levon Helm with the gruff troubadour’s lilt of Kris Kristofferson, lays bare lives on the hardscrabble margin.”
Nathan is a featured performer at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville and considered by many to be the best lyricist currently working in Folk/Americana, with a live show second to none. “The best kept secret in the American indy scene” is how Ninety Mile Wind Songwriter’s Blog describes Nathan Bell. In a year when we’ve lost both Guy Clark and Merle Haggard, it’s comforting to know that the spirit of Outlaw Country lives on with Nathan fully in his prime.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Outlaw Country as “an attempt to escape the formulaic constraints of the Nashville Sound (simple songs, the use of studio musicians, and lush production), country’s dominant style in the 1960s… it mixed folk’s introspective lyrics, rock’s rhythms, and country’s instrumentation.” That dovetails well with this description of Nathan’s music published at Acousticmusic.com: “exquisitely stripped-down true rootsy folk music void of any distractions from heart and soul.”
Those who may think of Nathan Bell as an emerging artist can be forgiven for not having noticed him earlier. Prior to 2007 Bell took a 13 year hiatus from music, but previous to that Bell’s presence was quite duly noted. As his bio describes it, by 1983, Nathan had formed proto-alt-country duo Bell & Shore with then-wife Susan Shore. The two scored a record deal, began touring heavily, and would eventually release a pair of records, the second, L-Ranko Motel, scoring a rave review from Rolling Stone. Their marriage and musical partnership ended in 1989, with Bell headed for Nashville, and what seemed like a promising solo career.
Instead, as Acousticmusic.com puts it: “Bell walked away from the music business because he didn’t much like the “business” part. As Nathan himself would say, “Nashville was a bad match for me. I’ve always been the same guy no matter what, and I just didn’t get along with the politics. I wasn’t going to church for gigs, as they say.”
Bell remarried and started a family, worked assorted basic labor jobs and then landed a management position with a major corporation before an assist by his wife helped bring him home to music. “My wife had emptied our walk-in closet and put in a desk, a chair, a lamp, a guitar and a pad of paper, and said ‘You really ought to be doing this.’ It blew my mind because I didn’t even know she’d noticed. So I started writing again. It was the beginning of the end of moving up the corporate ladder.” That time, however, wasn’t wasted, as Bell succinctly observed: “Everything I am as a writer now, for better or worse, is because I stopped for 13 years.”
“It’s fairly easy,” Bell once reflected during an interview, “to come up with a concept built around working men in the traditional sense—miners and factory workers. But there’s also these white collar guys who thought there was a rainbow at the end of this thing—that if you worked hard and took care of your family, it paid off.” The title song off of I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love explores that theme, of working to provide for those you love, not for the satisfaction of the job. And the sparse poetry of this lyric in his song “Georgia 41 (someday we’ll look back)” from the same CD drives home how precarious that can be:
“You take care of your tools, you drive your kids to school, save for a rainy day. Then it rains all the time, and one day you find it’s all been washed away.”
Perhaps it’s because he’s the son of famed poet-laureate of Iowa, Marvin Bell, that Nathan once wrote, “I know my limitations. I can’t write poetry…” even though that is patently false. He once mused, “I come by this naturally, by blood. My father writes poems about everything and takes the Marxist approach to art, that if you aren’t saying something about something then you are saying nothing about everything. He might disagree, but I know this is true.”
Bell sums up his vocation with this: “It’s men and women—white, black, Latino, and immigrants of all cultures who are keeping America going. So I sing about them. And, really, these are my people, people who work,” he adds. “My job is that of a witness; who knows if it makes any difference at all? It’s the only thing I really know how to do.”