Nathan Bell didn't mean to secede, he just didn't see the point. Having anchored the aggressively progressive bluegrass duo Bell & Shore and cast as the celebrated “iconoclast on the block” as a staff writer for a publishing company run by Alan Jackson's then managers, his rough-hewn lyricism, true blue collar sense and raw-boned masculinity certainly made him stand out on Music Row.
He even made a record with Richard Bennett, a chief architect behind Steve Earle's sound and the seminal Guitar Town as well as being the man Mark Knopfler calls when the Dire Straits icon wants to tour the world. But somewhere between the promise and acclaim of Little Movies and L-Ranko Motel and the flagellation of the country music industry, Nathan Bell lost his taste for it.
Hard Weather, the Bennett album, never came out. Not long after, Bell moved tto Signal Mountain, Tennessee, got a straight job, learned to play golf and raised a family. He didn't look back. He didn't want to.
“Fifteen years…,” Bell muses in the voice that's mostly stacked wood you'd hardly notice, waiting for a fire or termites, depending. “The guitar did not come out… AT ALL. Other than one time at a company function, where I volunteered - and they had no idea. I completely hated it.”
Bell is the son of acclaimed poet Marvin Bell, so his intellectual acuity isn't like most people's - and his lyricism has the same hard edge you'd expect from Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman, perhaps a bit Jim Harrison. Unblinking, strong, true. Not tough in a brutal way, but more with the stoicism of realizing this is how it is - yet somehow also refusing to relinquish the notion that love remains.
Nathan Bell went about his life. Doing the work. Being a husband, a father.
Then one day, for no real reason, he decided to write some songs. Then he wrote some more. Then he did a few house concerts. He kept working his job at the phone company, kept close to home. Occasionally, he'd venture to Nashville and the fringe of that writerly world, but mostly the songs lived - sent out one-by-one - to people he respected and wanted to converse with, people he deemed “The Cult of 8.”
Somewhere between there and here, his one-man home-recordings morphed into something more. Now there is Black Crow Blue, a highly literal, wildly virile song cycle about how busted the American way of life is, how it lays waste to honorable men - leaving them desolate, lost, not clear what the next move is. It's a walk into the wilderness, for sure, and one that doesn't come with a map to get back home.
Bell, who punches a clock rather than the writers appointments regularly kept by Nashville tunesmiths, believes in the potency of the life he lives rather than life conjured in test tubes and Petri dishes, the illusion of authenticity brokered as some kind of Hallmark Card Americana. Not that he's preaching, he's just figured out his own line to walk.
“I was living in a world of enormous significance when I picked up the guitar again in 2007,” Bell confesses, “and I don't think people even realize. The lower middle class isn't high enough to be safe, nor low enough to be romantic - but they are the majority of the people in this country.
“What they value is this: family, their community. No one sees how hard they work or how much of their lives they remember and hold on to, how important that is. It's neither romantic failure, not glorified common effort - it's just their life, and it's precious.
“And I didn't see that until I stopped writing.”
But Nathan Bell doesn't wanna grand diva his way into “knowing the pain” through living it. He pauses, “They call folk music folk music for all the wrong reasons… It's not some Smithsonian thing, it's - to me - about chronicling a man in the world at a time when the world needs chronicling. And I'm not necessarily that man.
“My truth, honestly, is reflected in the stories I tell about other people… way more than the stories I tell about myself.”
In the brink, songs tumbled out. “She Only Loves Blue” embraces a woman who finds that the records she loves are not only more faithful than the men who've passed through her life, but have emotional resonance in a way few people can. “Me and Larry” offers the refuge of looking back on a friendship with a pre-fame writer and what grace came from it. “Red & White” considers the gaps and overlaps between those trapped on reservations and the varying escapes and those destined to pen them in for “their own good” or just convenience.
And then there's the Crow. Bell deems him “a trickster, ambivalent about not having a home.” Equal parts High Plains Drifter, the best of Paul Newman, perhaps a little Kerouac tempered with kindness more than studied Buddhist nothingness. The Crow ultimately is a man in full.
The notion makes Bell - in a most Crow-like fashion - shrug. “You're not a man by what you admit to watching, by what you think about or pledge allegiance to… that's just ideology masquerading for personal truth. It's more about who they think they should be instead they're not being who they really are. If there's anything virile going on, maybe it's because (this record)'s without the pretense of being something it's not.”
Crow is the kind of man who gets rolled on the highway… left with a warm can of beer and one of the guy's worn out shoes… and still thinks he's doing okay. He doesn't even grapple with death on the side of the road, just knows he lived a long life and wishes it could be longer, that as many years as it was, 85 wasn't nearly enough.
“That's the thing about really living,” Bell says. “It doesn't so much matter where or what… it's that you're engaged. Crow was left with some guy's old shoes and a warm beer, and he figured he was doin' better than a lot of people.”
Half empty. Half full. All heart. Absolutely bankrupt. How we fall on the continuum of appreciation and the willingness to flourish where planted. It is a gift for some, futile for others - and vertiginous for people lost in the white noise, avaricious, new& improved supersized me mine more wasteland.
“Crow is the most extreme and there's nothing extreme about him,” Bell says of his recurring presence. “He just takes a step out into the wasteland and instead of turning back, he doesn't turn back. “American Crow' is the first few steps - and the courage of someone who knows he has absolutely nowhere to go, and keeps walking.
“It's the beginning of everything that eventually ends. And it does. 'Wherein Crow…' is how it all ends for himl 'We All Get Gone' is an elegy for him, for all of us really. You know, if he can see life as pretty okay in all of that, well, that explains the way these characters get through their lives.”
“Stones Throw” is every family existing on the fault line a paycheck or two from being wiped out, tenuous from believing the things the mortgage brokers told then without truly understanding, disoriented from what their insurance doesn't actually cover, uncertain about the American Dream they're choking on, while “The Striker” is the highest level mercenary loved for his charm and cheered for the chaos he sows, even though that chaos is the seeds of these people's destruction - always drifting, always gone.
Even “Rust,” a clear-eyed consideration of a man's awareness that what he once could do will soon become impossible, offers dignity in the inevitable. That strength that comes from knowing there is no other way.
“Every day, he knows he gets closer and closer to not being able to take care of the people he loves… it's a problem that he can't solve, he can only live with, find a way to maintain his equilibrium. And he's not gonna cave - or accept it. Instead, he tries to look less afraid by making other's look more afraid, and maybe they are…”
Fear isn't something Bell has much of. Or the ballet dancing working man doesn't seem to flinch much. He'd tell you that you don't really get choices, but he'll also admit his father the National Book Award nominated poet raised the hard chaw shank of a son to man up and eschew the hysterionics.
“We were raised with a minimal amount of drama and the self-loathing that theoretically comes with the arts,” Bell explains. “It was very blue collar, very this is what you do next. And I can say I had wonderful role models as men. My father, the mentors, even the guy who taught me to play guitar who died far too young. They were steady, people you'd count on.
“I look around, and I don't see much of that now. I was raised on it, but it's fading.”
Which is what gives Bell's protagonists their bite. The what was once and now is growing smaller out there somewhere… Do we jettison decency in the name of getting our's? In spite of the headlines, the dire financial constraints of all but the wealthiest - and that includes a lot of flashy middleclassers leveraged for appearances who're sitting on a bubble of their own creation - Bell finds working people respond from a surprising place.
“In the end, it does no good to look back, to hold on to blame, to ignore that totality of who you are,” he starts breaking it down. “Personalities are absolutely different, but we as human beings are the core are basically the same. You know, in this life, how clever, angry or frustrated it may be at the heart of these songs, at the heart of all of them, there's kindness.”
Certainly there are echoes of an urban Harvestcentric Neil Young simmering in “Pittsburgh,” just like the almost whispered “My Favorite Year” has the tender toughness of Warren Zevon at his most vulnerable: a detail-driven sketch of moments, truths and friendship.
“If I could've taken pictures or written novels, I wouldn't write songs. But I can't, so this is what I do… and the truth is a pretty basic thing. For me, it's been a quest to tell the truth the way Dorothea Lange took pictures. You know? Set the camera up, open the lense, expose the film and trust the image. You've got it… and you can move on.
“Because I believe if you take a picture of the truth, you mever have to be embarrassed or back off it. You have to work hard to get the clarity, but if you do, it's always there - and it never changes.”
Every song has stories. Every song has the ghosts of the people who inspired them. Some are gone. Some are conjured. Some are still getting by. All, though, have some kind of valor that supercedes shabby clothes, personal fumblings, a lack of Madison Ave - or Music Row - ambition.
“You got a lot of guys pretending to be cowboys, troubadours, vagrants, outsiders, but there's not a lot of middle-aged working guys pretending to be outlaws… We're too busy working. All we can tell is the truth, but a lot of people are living that truth, too.”
He doesn't wanna preach - or tell anyone how to live. That's not the point of these songs, 15 years in the coming. “I don't know who to talk to about message politics. I mean, why do people make this stuff so important - which God is theone God… who you're having sex with… is this marriage gonna work…
“I've always been uncomfortable with the Marxist theory about art, that if it isn't doing something, it's not good. But because I was raised in the environment of academia and poetry, the artist, I do believe that songs need to carry the conversation further. To me, that's what's important…and not in an ideological way, but in a humanist way.”
Pausing to gather his thoughts and weigh whether to drop the seeming non sequitur in his Cormac McCarthy tableau, Bell exhales so you can hear him. Then he squares up and stands tall.
“I believe in love,” he says without irony, without flinching. “No matter how harsh I get or how frustrated, love is the only thing that matters. I've lived long enough now to know: hate will fade. It just doesn't last. But love? Love… well, it's the one thing that endures.”
There are no hearts, no curlicues, no cupids. Split rail, plain brown mud fence admission. It's all he's got, and it's all he needs. Bell is a tough guy who knows the only thing that redeems and keep the mean out is being able to hold onto love and kindness. It's shot through the manscapes of Black Crow Blue, and it opens the door to a post-Iron John reality where sensitivity and masculinity can be side-by-side without apology.