Gone & Back:
Nathan Bell’s Black Crow Blue
“Men today have two basic paths:
one embracing love, truth and kindness or
being an asshole who justifies selfishness, pettiness and greed…
and knowing that in your soul, your life is returned,
I don’t understand why there’s even a decision.”
-- Nathan Bell
Somewhere beyond the blurry horizon line, beyond the stark light of Springsteen’s Nebraska and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Nathan Bell started walking. Not literally. Not metaphorically. No, in songs. Fourteen of them: harsh light, black & white with a few cold shades of grey portraits about what it means to be unseen, to be a stat, a bar code, an unintelligible part of the fuzzy blur.
Bell knows of what he writes.
He walked away from the music business in the early 90s – and he didn’t look back. Got a straight job at a big corporation – selling to the unrecognized horde. He was an anonymous cog in a huge machine dealing with people just like him.
“And what’s amazing,” he says, “is the way these people who are collected data in most cases – that’s all they are in the big picture… What’s amazing is how much they care: about their family, the life they make, each other.
“Nobody sees that.”
Nathan Bell is a soldier for rough hewn dignity. His are not privileged, pretty people – and he believes these truths are the most powerful he can tell.
So after Little Movies and L-Ranko Motel, two critically-acclaimed progressive/alternative bluegrass records on Flying Fish as half of Bell & Shore with his then-wife Susan, back in the late 80s, Nathan Bell now returns with Black Crow Blue. A defiantly masculine record, the song cycle is long on quiet strength, stoic acceptance and at times brutal realities.
Guitars that buzz and hiss like a bad heater, lonesome harmonicas that bleat, dobros that spill blood and pain and tears everywhere bring the emotions, the forsaken places to life without words. But the words… Nathan Bell is the son of acclaimed poet Marvin Bell.
It’s a haunting album, but even more it’s a haunted record. These characters – all men save for the lone female who comes to realize her records are more faithful than the men she’s given her heart to in “She Only Loves Blue” – are living lives caught in the cracks, lost in the margins, trapped in the gaps between have and have not.
Bell laughs at the suggestion that his anti-heroes aren’t even anti-heroes. He sees the beyond oxymoronic reality of it. He doesn’t care; he knows he’s right.
“There are a lot of guys pretending to be cowboys, troubadours, vagrants, outsiders,” he concedes. “But there’s not a lot of middle aged working guys pretending to be outlaws. We’re too busy working. All we can do is tell the truth…”
And the truth to Bell is non-negotiable.
“If I could’ve been a photographer or a novelist, a poet, I’d’ve never been a songwriter,” he says, sincere in a way that stops you. “Pictures, literature, sports are situational and inspirational in the moment, in the place, the circumstance.
“So, you know, I believe there’s a way to tell the truth the way Dorothea Lange took pictures. You set up the camera; you open the lens; you capture the image – and you move on. If you took a picture of the truth, it’s non-negotiable. And you never have to be embarrassed or back off what’s there.”
That truth protrudes through the straining at the seams debt’n’life load of “Stones Throw.” It bloodies the knuckles of the rapidly aging man holding on and knowing it’s all slipping from his tightly clenched grasp in “Rust.” It even touches the ghost of acclaimed Southern writer Larry Brown in “Me & Larry,” a Bell compatriot before Brown’s literary ascendance.
“He’d been a fireman and I was a volunteer fireman, so we talked a lot about fires,” Bell explains. “And sometimes about writing… but mostly, we were just friends, you know? We never needed each other for anything, never bartered or sold each other anything.
“He wasn’t ‘Larry Brown’ yet. He was a man with a great mind and a big soul. You know, that’s the thing: there are people and then there are people of the name. Larry Brown wasn’t ‘Larry Brown’ to me…
“Anyway, I looked up, and it had been 8 or 9 years since we’d talked. He’d turned into the icon; there were all these people chasing after him… Then he was gone, and I was left with a few stories.”
What you’re left with for Bell is as important as what you lose. Where you’re going, not where you’ve been, is what matters. If life as it is is more than enough, Nathan Bell knows inherently whatever it is is also never enough.
It’s the tug of the two that defines a restless spirit – the thing that keeps people moving on even when the prospects are meager and the promises see-through. Whatever else is out there, it draws one on.
Certainly that is the soul state of the Crow, the recurring character herein. Opening with “American Crow,” the album revisits the rootless drifter – a man who views getting rolled and being left with one of the perp’s worn out shoes and a can of warm beer as a change in luck for the better – on the sparse “Crow in Oklahoma,” the laconic “Black Crow Blues” and the unremarkable wreck on the highway death that ends 85 years as the Crow wishes could be more “Wherein Crow Lives a Long Life and Then Drives Off The Road.”
“I lived a long time, son, but I still die too soon…
The last thing Crow thought was…this is a helluva way to die
Drive myself into the grave, became my own punchline
He could feel the wind on his face, but his face didn’t feel like his
The only regret he had was for each day that he’d miss…”
“Wherein Crow Lives…”
“He’s hopeful,” Bell says of a man few people take note of, yet who’s most certainly a citizen in full. “There’s nothing special… this is a man who has no home and nowhere really to go, yet looks at it as if he has everything to live for.”
Indeed. Scraps and not much of nothing, Crow didn’t look a day over 81 – even though he was 85. Or there’s the mercenary man for hire, who brings insurrection and tumult to any government in need of covert implosion who inhabits “The Striker,” who’s already gone before the smoke of his battles reach the sky.
“I always was an old soul, but now that I’m 50, it doesn’t make people so uncomfortable,” Bell laughs about his perspective. “Or else I got more comfortable with it, found a place that made more sense. Because the house concert world, the small venues… You can play Mississippi John Hurt and a Buck Owens song back-to-back -- and no one blinks. They get it; they even want it.
“Funny thing, too. You get a lot of 22 year olds, smart kids who think they know everything – and they’re looking for wisdom, for authenticity, a life they know you’ve lived ‘cause the ones who’re paying attention, they know an awful lot of the stuff that’s out there is a 75% copy of something that’s already been drained of all meaning and musicality.
“They’re hungry, and they’re ready. After all these years, that’s an awesome thing.”
Bell isn’t complaining about his years without his guitar and the quest for song. He views it as a time to realize how much life matters, to live in the moment – and to take the focus off what to write about. In that, all the meaning started floating to the top.
Bell also isn’t afraid to admit he finds inspiration in unlikely – as least for a roots’n’turpentine kinda bard – places. “William Carlos Williams wrote poems to the pictures of Bruegel… and many of these songs come after a literary line of of work by Sebastian Matthews, as well as poems by Trenna Sharpe, William Pitt Root, Gaylord Brewer and my father – plus a film by Sami Khan and the works of Glen Hirschberg.”
There is no pretension here, just a man citing the matches set to his creative spirit. Given Marvin Bell’s standing as a National Book Award finalist, it stands to reason Nathan Bell’s reach would be broader than many of the populists he’s capturing – and it is those populists, even the ones trapped in urban environs who people these songs.
“The majority of the people in this country are one pay check away from obliteration – that’s reality,” Bell says. “But it doesn’t stop them from caring, from investing, from having pride in their lives, their families… It’s about how hard they work, how much of their life they remember and hold on to, how important that is to them.
“If that’s not heroic, what is?”
It’s a question that’s not quite a challenge, but is more daunting than a mere inquiry. Bell knows that, just like he knew the real state of American men was something worth turning his extended gaze towards. Not that he’s looking to carve out some Hemingway saga of machismo, musk and mud fence, but rather to temper the swagger of blowhards and greed jockeys with something more decent.
“I never understood why men turn some strange corner in their 30s that leads to this resentment of their role, whatever it might be… leads them to thinking saying ‘I’d hit that’ about a woman is anything but what the straight language is… and then come back to kindness in their 70s when they’ve wasted so many of their best years to finally want to be the person they thought they could be, but hadn’t bothered (trying to be)…
“Men who have any amount of introspection can’t help but understand their own mortality and how little they can really do to save anybody… But eventually when hubris fades, they want to see themselves as being able to love, which is – of course – the only thing we can do that is a positive force.
“I say let’s get there now. Engage. Look at life. Live it with dignity, honor, kindness. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re weak, it means you’re aware and you’re not afraid… or if you are, you have the balls to stare it down and be decent.
“The choice is ours’. This album isn’t preaching, but I’d like to think it’s a case for making the right decision.”