Nathan Bell returns with yet another new, critically acclaimed album. Bell's wizened, weary voice bleeds experience. He’s traveled the nomadic, bohemian path of the hard-luck troubadour, and found comfort and meaning in the stability of a family. With a guitar back in his hands he’s ready to tell the story of America, of the working classes - both blue and white collar. “An aural equivalent to Grapes Of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, or Michael Moore’s Roger & Me.” – Americana – UK magazine
$15 suggested donation, all money to the artist.
Nathan Bell has lived life. At 56, the wizened songwriter’s weary voice bleeds experience. He’s seen both sides of the coin—traveled the nomadic, bohemian path of the hard-luck troubadour, and found comfort and meaning in the stability of a family, a home and a near two-decade corporate gig. And now, with a guitar back in his hands where it should be, he’s ready to tell the tale. But it’s not just his own story he’s after. It’s a story of America, of the working classes—both blue and white collar.
Bell is a songwriter’s songwriter, a man who has shared bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. The son of a poet and professor, his concise narratives come wrapped in gorgeously downhome yet ethereal production, adorned with gentle harmonies, daydreaming mandolin and the occasional blanket of pedal steel. He’s got a keen eye for detail, and an unapologetic penchant for the political, populist humanism of his literary heroes John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. With his latest LP, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love (the third installment in a potent trilogy that began with 2011’s Black Crow Blue and continued with 2014’s Blood Like a River), Bell has created a song cycle that is both moving and timely.
“It’s fairly easy,” Bells says, “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. So you gave up things, you made certain sacrifices. But when you really look at it, where’s the payoff? A lot of it is gone. And Donald Trump isn’t bringing it back. He’s not the guy, it’s not the place, it’s not the time. The middle class is getting screwed, just not by the people they think because journalism has gotten so bad. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, when they had no real journalism, it was up to the artists to fill that role, and that’s a big part of what I was trying to do on this record.”
Backing Bell on the sessions for the new album are his friends Missy Raines & the New Hip. A renowned musician, singer and songwriter, Raines has won seven International Bluegrass Music Awards for Bass Player of the Year. Additional harmony vocals on the record were provided by singer/songwriter Annie Mosher and Nathan’s wife, Leslie Bell. I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love was recorded live in the studio in two days at the Rec Room in Nashville, with additional tracks completed at Bell’s own Little Studio in Signal Mountain, Tenn. “Missy and her band are top-notch players, so we were able to get some great takes in a short amount of time,” Bell says. “I never use Autotune, never fly a chorus from the front to the back—even when I’m layering stuff, I never punch in. If I don’t get something right, I’ll just start over until I get the whole take. The end result is very organic, like an old Neil Young record.”
Though he now resides in Tennessee just outside of Chattanooga, Nathan Bell was born in Iowa City. Obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, he picked up the guitar at age 15 and started playing in local rock & roll bands. Equally enamored with folk-blues artists Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, he soon drifted toward acoustic music, and lit out across the country for Boston after high school, where he began writing his own songs and became a fixture of the city’s vibrant early '80s music scene. By 1983, he’d formed proto-alt-country duo Bell & Shore with then-wife Susan Shore. The two scored a record deal, returned to Iowa City, 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. But things didn’t work out as planned.
“I had some recording contracts on the table,” Bell says, “and then all hell broke loose. I tried for a while, but 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.”
By 1993, Bell was out of the music business entirely—he didn’t pick up a guitar or write a song again for almost 15 years. At first, he worked some basic labor jobs, before becoming swing-shift manager at a shop that sold fine cigars and imported beer. After a few years, through one of his regulars, he landed a gig at AT&T, where he stayed for nearly two decades, working his way up to a cozy management position in Chattanooga while he and Leslie raised their two children. Eventually, though, a call from an old friend and a kind gesture from his wife thrust Bell back into the arms of his first love, music.
“Really, it was a bit of an accident,” he says of his 2008 comeback. Don Henry, an old songwriter friend of Bell’s was on tour, scheduled to play what looked like a terrible gig in nearby Lafayette, Ga. He called Bell and begged him for some company. Having not seen him in years, Bell obliged. When he showed up to the gig, Henry somehow hornswoggled him on stage. “I could only remember two songs, and I couldn’t sing or play for shit,” Bell says. “It really pissed me off. I started playing again because I had to figure out if I could still do it.”
But what ultimately pushed Bell over the edge was what he found waiting for him at home after a subsequent business trip. “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.”
Bell says the time he took to live life, work a straight job, get married and have children was the most important thing he could’ve done to become a better songwriter. “I was always trying to write songs older than I was, experiential songs,” he says. “To spend 15 years managing people, doing a job every day, working 60 hours a week, and being happy doing it—that’s a really different thing than a struggling artist being pissed off all the time. So I came back with a deep appreciation for things I didn’t understand before. If I didn’t take that time off, I’d be half the writer I am now.”
His post-hiatus albums—especially I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love—wouldn’t have been possible without all the years of perspective under his belt. “The idea behind the title of the new record is that, for somebody who goes to work every day and has a family, he’s not doing what he does because he loves the job, he’s doing it for the love of being, of existing, of being part of the world.”
It’s something Bell now knows firsthand, something that’s allowed him to thrive in the latest chapter of his life. “I feel really fortunate,” he says. “It’s a hell of an uphill battle at 56. Being younger would help, but I’m doing quite well. Ever since AT&T shitcanned me, I get to play all the time. As a writer and a guitar player, I couldn’t be in a better place.”
I’ve been playing music since I was 12 (1972). The first album I bought myself was Neil Young’s Harvest. I still think it is the greatest single album ever produced.
My only guitar teacher and mentor was a man named John Bowie. John died in 1977 at the age of 27. I borrowed John’s copy of The Rolling Stone’s Let it Bleed for over a year. I still miss him.
I learned to play blues by listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.
I learned to write lyrics by reading Jack London, William Carlos Williams and Frank Herbert.
By the time I was 25 I had worked as many jobs as a gypsy laborer. I never paid attention in school. I went to college for a year and made a real mess of it.
September 24, 2017
Location: 368 Orchard St., Pump House Concerts, MI
Phone: (517) 927-2100
Time: 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Price: $15 suggested donation, all money to the artist