Did you know Bob Dylan was never born? Somewhere up in the North Country he just walked in one day out of the cold. They say down in Montgomery, on nights like these when the moon is full and bright, and the heavy, breathless air contains that unmistakable aftertaste of corn mash you might see the lank, lean specter of a cowboy and his Cadillac. You call out ‘Hank,’ and he’ll give you that crooked smile of his before fading away right before your eyes. You ever hear the story of Leadbelly? How he murders a man for talking to his woman and gets sent up to the big house? He sings so sweet the governor pardons him, twice.
In our modern times it’s a difficult thing to create myths out of our musicians. The almost immediate connection we share via Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms means we’ve traded the mythical musical Gods of old for the petulance of personalities. One look at the modern condition and you have to accept the fact we suffer for heroes. But the days of the lone figure emerging from the wilderness of American society with nothing save six strings stretched across a hallowed box and the honest relation of love, struggle, liberty and longing pure enough to reveal a small slice of truth in this increasingly opaque existence need not necessarily be over.
Gather round people and I’ll weave you a tale about a young troubadour emerging from the wilds of American popular culture and his first proper record, Luke Bell. (Bill Hill Music) Old timers tell he hails from out west, some place it in the Dakotas, Montana, or Wyoming. The specifics are plenty obscure, but the fact remains, Luke Bell is the bravest damned bullfighter that ever dared to pen, and the ten songs sprawled across his self-titled will reignite that old American tradition of the grace, strength and beauty to be found in that rarest of phenomena: the individual.
With all the stories surrounding the mysterious Mr. Bell, it’s best to use the primary source while gathering information. But in conversation, Luke Bell seems a bit weary. Whether this hesitancy is in regards to an exchange with the necessary evil that is the press, (and I assure you, we are all evil) or else the result of fatigue from a lifetime of manual labor, hard drinking, and the general cavorting implicit in pinballing across towny stages from Austin to New Orleans, ultimately falling into the Nashville fold, there is to be found in Bell’s voice a touch of exhaustion.
“I’ve just been travelling around, singing, dancing, drinking beer.” He relates slowly in a Western accent when asked about his history. One doesn’t get the sense the musician’s being coy so much as he feels uncomfortable talking about himself. Luckily, eponymous records have a way of speaking for the artist. Part introduction and part manifesto Luke Bell’s release begins with a bang. ‘Sometimes,’ the album’s lead-in track with its wailing dobro, whorehouse piano lines and lyrics that swing from the heights of joy to the bone crushing depths of pathos like any bipolar aunty at a family reunion would be a mainstay country radio hit had Nashville not been hijacked by the pretty faced, big voiced lot with career agendas twenty years ago. It is infinitely catchy, with a chorus that practically begs you to sing along, “Sometimes I feel alright, but other times I feel like hell.”
Some tracks later, ‘Where You Been?” takes a more somber tact. It’s a song every working musician sings in their own right at some point as their career blossoms out and away from the purity of its origins. To properly throw your hat in the ring– may we never forget the music industry is just that, an industry– one must sing songs that aren’t exactly their own, do a little dance they might otherwise never had considered; one needs both luck and a look. But don any mask long enough you run the risk of forgetting what lies beneath, and as the chorus goes, you might find yourself peering into a mirror, asking the reflection, “Where you been?”
‘Loretta,’ is the type of self-realized lament that could surface on classic country radio on a late-night long-haul, between say Don Gibson’s, ‘Oh, Lonesome Me,’ and Marty Robbins’, “Singing the Blues.” Clutching that wheel and trying to stay between the lines while sobbing uncontrollably you’d never guess it was recorded just this year by a veritable pup. Stripped down to basic accompaniment, the lovelorn and world weary chorus flits between lonesome steel guitar and fiddle lines mimicking the rock bottom imagery of a recent romantic tragedy.
But don’t assume this recording is all sad bastard blues. Far from it. Tracks like “Workin’ Man’s Dream,” and “Ragtime Troubles,” revel in the American tradition of rising up from the bottom to overcome. It is these tracks, along with his live performances that encourage the apocryphal tales whispered between concerned parties in the finer blue collar taverns and small town dancehalls across the nation. Did Luke Bell really fight a bare knuckle gypsy boxing champion to a draw over the course of nine rounds in an unregulated, unsanctioned no-holds-barred match in the dingy basement of an afterhours strip club somewhere off Bourbon St. in New Orleans’ French Quarter? Is there any truth to the rumors of a victory in a single-shot pistol duel at dawn with an Arab prince in protection of a young lady’s virtue somewhere along the blood-spattered cobble in the darkened heart of Fort Worth’s Stockyards? Was Bell the real life money, guns, and hash smuggler inspiration referenced in the breakout Carll/Lund track, “Bible on the Dash?” Was the musician really born in a pool of gasoline in an Idaho junkyard in the middle of a blizzard? For that matter, is Bell really the bravest bullfighter to ever dare the pen?
“Sound your trumpets folks, and grab your lances friends.” Bell sings in late album inclusion “Bullfighter,” affirming with bravado the stories found in the rallying cry of numerous barroom braggadocios and other lesser fans over the past few years, “When the spit meets the dirt, I’ll meet you with a grin.” He concludes with a wink, spurning on such myths.
Despite the lyrical courage and intense live showmanship, there’s a modesty in Bell’s continual emphasis on the influences he’s grown up with as well as those found in Nashville. It’s a bit like talking to your burly, larger than life grandfather. In the face of all the stories you’ve heard, he’s not going to take any credit for himself. “I’ve been influenced lately by a lot of creative musicians. My buddy Riley Downing is in a band called the Deslondes. I get to hang out with him every now and again, he’s always digging up and showing me good records, and he’s a good friend. As a group the Deslondes have taught me a lot. All them guys are real polished musicians. Of course, Pat Reedy, [of the Longtime Goners] is probably one of the first guys I ever met from the scene. When I was traveling through [Nashville] with a half wolfdog and a homeless painter in an ’85 Datsun diesel pickup.
For the [self-titled] record specifically I was influenced mostly by stuff I listened to while growing up. A whole lot of John Prine and other songwriters my dad listened to. A lot of Miles Davis and the Almond Brothers. My dad also had this record, Muddy and the Wolf, (1974, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.) I absolutely loved.
All of the inclusion on the album are old, though.” He tells me with a sigh. “At least one or two years old. This project took a lot of time for me to process. It just takes time. Time to figure out how to release a record with someone, and then how you wanna release it. Even then, by the time it comes out, you’ve made changes. I think I’ve done good work. It’s a solid country album. It’s definitely not independent because I’m working with a lot of partners at this point. It just can’t be done without help.”
Luke Bell’s uncertain past is met in equal proportion by an uncertain future. For the moment, he seems content with Nashville. “Nashville’s been great and I’ve made a lot of friends. I feel like people are supportive here and help each other out. We have good traffic, friends coming up through New Orleans, friends coming up through Austin.” When pressed further about that future, Luke answers “I’m just working away in new directions. I’ve gotten into some newer stuff [he laughs,] well old blues records. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley.” He hums and haws about a future as dim to the imagination as the factual history of the myths we’ve created behind our personal musical heroes. “Honestly right now, I’ve just put the record out, and I’m not too worried about it.”