Nathan Bell was in his 20s and early 30s when he and his then-partner Susan Shore wrote and performed bluegrass-based roots music and signed to Flying Fish Records. That was back in the late ’80s. Bell and Shore were behind the times and ahead of the times—too late for ’70s country-rock and too early for the ’90s alt-country and Americana scenes. They fell through the cracks and Bell eventually got frustrated and quit music.
From the mid-‘90s to the late 2000s, he worked a straight job. It’s kind of a shame. He could have produced so much in those lost years.
What’s not a shame is that Bell came back. And when he came back, he had grown exponentially—not just in terms of his dexterous fingerstyle guitar playing, but even more importantly, as a master storyteller.
Bell’s independent and self-released albums In Tune, On Time, Not Dead (2007), Traitorland (2008), Black Crow Blue (2011), and last year’s Blood Like the River are packed with stories about real Americans just trying to get by in the mean old world. But Bell is no jingle writer or self-styled patriot. He loves his country, but his stories of working-class hell are a bit more complex than “only in America, where we dream in red, white, and blue.” Bell’s songs are more Phil Ochs and Steve Earle than Brooks & Dunn or Toby Keith.
No comparison of Bell’s music quite works, because he’s a songwriter who is very much his own man. He counts Kanye West, John Coltrane, and Woody Guthrie equally as influences on the way he sees and writes about the world around him.
When Bell arrived at the Acoustic Guitar studios to do an AG Sessions recently, he played a pair of guitars and sang a pair of songs that will move you to your core. Watch and weep. Then go Google Nathan Bell. Chances are, you’ll become a fan. A big one.