Nathan Bell is a songwriter’s songwriter and at 57, the troubadour’s voice bleeds experience. He made his bones sharing bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. The son of a poet and professor, the Iowa-born/Chattanooga-based Bell has 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. So it’s no surprise that the 2016 presidential race was a powerful catalyst for Bell’s affecting new album Love>Fear (48 Hours in Traitorland).
“Right before we did the deed and elected an oligarch, PT Barnum-style scam artist, I started thinking it was time to collect some of the political songs I’d written over the years, and combine them with some of the new ones I’d been working on,” Bell says. “I’ve always been resistant to slogans and catchphrases, so Traitorland is more an album of pointed stories about people affected by the callousness of the wealthy and the power brokers. Nowadays, they’re so disconnected from the working class—they’re even more cruel than Carnegie was. Paul Ryan—I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I don’t know how a man like Steve Bannon is allowed to spend a day near whoever’s in power. My family’s half Jewish, and I look at Bannon and think, ‘Great, we’re either gonna have to run or fight again.’ So the album comes from that.”
“There are people all around us who believe differently than we do,” Bell says. “Good people. And in the basics of their daily life, the political sign in their yard is no reflection on who they are to their neighbors. Over the last few years, we’ve forgotten this, and a certain level of humanity has disappeared. To me, the whole point of liberal politics is, we let people in even if they’ve made a mistake. I was out walking my dogs a few weeks ago, and I ran into one of my neighbors down the street, and she says, ‘Hey, I voted for Trump, and I’m scared shitless. Did you vote for Trump?’ Now that’s a golden opportunity. I said, ‘No, I didn’t vote for him. He scares the hell out of me, and he’s got a Nazi working with him.’ So we stood there and talked for awhile, and I find out she’s a fiscal conservative, she’s a little bit socially conservative, but like a lot of people in the South, she’s got six gay cousins she likes just fine. So we had a conversation, which is what we’re supposed to do. Let the other side be exclusive, keep people out, and pretend everyone should be divided up into groups; at the end of the day, no matter how hard we fight, even if it means physical dissent, when the war is over, people are still people. It’s how you avoid the Hutus and the Tutsis warring back and forth, chopping each other up with machetes. If someone comes to you and says, ‘Look, I shouldn’t have voted for assholes the last 12 years. How do we put our country back together and make sure everybody’s protected?’ then you’ve got to accept that. It’s hard, but you’ve gotta look some assholes in the eye and accept that maybe they’ve changed. I can’t forgive a fucking Nazi, I think—until I meet some guy who was a skinhead for 25 years, and spends the rest of his life working in the AIDS ward trying to atone for it. There’s always some reason for you to doubt your certainty.”
Love > Fear captures the stark, unadorned directness of Bell’s solo acoustic performances. Many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the studio in front of a small audience. There’s no doubling and almost no overdubs—just a man with a harp around his neck and a guitar in his weathered hands, singing and playing his heart out. At times, the sound is earthy and optimistic, a silver glimmer breaking through the clouds above an Appalachian peak; other times, it’s sparse, haunting and distant, a warning flare erupting across the dusk. But no matter the track, it’s unvarnished and immediate, the songs given room to shine in all their expertly constructed glory, shot through with the grace & grit of the finest American prose.
“I felt like this record was my chance to use what I’ve been doing for a long time, what I feel most comfortable doing, and that’s telling stories,” Bell says, “giving people a chance to use their knowledge of others to feel hopeful. Sure, there’s some sad shit on there, but ultimately it’s a hopeful record. My big goal in life is to make it so much better to love people that, after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. You only need one commandment, right? If you love everybody, then all the other commandments are unnecessary. I’m not a religious man at all. As a matter of fact, I’m completely anti-religion. But if I could give everybody just one commandment, it would be, love each other.”
Nathan Bell’s Love > Fear (48 Hours in Traitorland) is out June 30 from Stone Barn Records.
Bell wrote new single “Traitorland (rules for living in)” more than 15 years ago, fresh in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, but he was recently inspired to revisit and rework the song following the election of Donald J. Trump, whom Bell refers to as an “oligarch” and “PT Barnum-style scam artist.” The song confronts the betrayal of the American people at the hands of their leaders and the corporate masters who keep them in power. But the song also offers hope that we can fight back by transcending the partisan divide with a politics of inclusiveness, and by doing so, steal back a piece of our humanity. Stream “Traitorland (rules for living in)” below.