I had listened through Nathan Bell‘s latest album at least twice before I realized he was entirely by himself on the record. The eleven hardscrabble tales were so captivating that I didn’t notice. Bell’s got a gravelly southern drawl. He fingerpicks the guitar quietly, and occasionally blows harp to accent the stories he tells about American people. Blue collar people, like Shelly, the obese large animal vet in married to Dale, a skinny patent attorney who quit to become a rodeo clown. When Dale gets injured doctors realize he’s a she, and wouldn’t you know, “Shelly didn’t seem to mind”.
“The Big Old American Dream” is the most shocking album opener I’ve heard in 2017. Through the song Bell covers the life stories in brief, acute, detail of several mid-life Americans living unconventionally: there’s imprisoned soldier –a conscientious objector, the timid armed robber –sick, in need of medication, the mobile home owner –robbed a by feckless mortgage company.
Bell follows that closely with a wicked acoustic riff on a bleak protest song “Raise Your Fist”. On “Hard Weather” he draws inspiration from the words “my wife is gone, and my heart still hurts” scrawled in the dust on the back of a truck, and a sign on the door of a business whose owners were forced to give up, then a barfly drinking because the water in town is poisonous.
I had listened to this album at least five times before I thought about it’s title. What I read originally as Love and Fear was actually Love Is Greater Than Fear. How much was I paying attention? Bell understands the troublesome lives of the people he sings about as if he’s payed direct attention to them for years. He recants their tales with the acuity of a well-traveled author. While he’s in his mid 50s himself he’s actually been toiling away at a 9-5 plus overtime job since sometime in the late 80s. A divorce and some harsh realizations about the music industry caused him to set down the guitar and the pen for two decades. He raised a family, became a citizen. Then, for reasons as simple and straightforward as his music, he started again.
In 2016 Bell released I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love. Backed by a bluegrass band, Bell had the same mission —American stories from blue to white collar. On his most recent: Love > Fear (48 Hours In Traitorland) his focus seems to be folks in the flyover states. People on Central Time trying to survive in the dawn of a new dark age. His plaintive characters should be happy, but they’re driven to extremes suffering from ironic, simple problems: the mortgage, the insurance, the neighbors political views, skilled labor but no jobs, coal country, generational misogyny, aging retirees. Bell recorded the album solo, sometimes in front of a small audience. You can hear the way his words suck the air out of a room. His guitar playing is folk-perfect, there’s nary a solo to be found, rarely a strum, phrases of notes fill the spaces in between his brilliant observations.
Forgotten rural people are, to him “MIA”, or “missing in America” –victims of circumstance brought about by the corporate-ization of government, religiosity, classism, and of course veterans of war, who, perhaps, suffer greatest from our great lack of mental health care. His care extends to women, too, who for decades have suffered from gender norms, expected roles, classic –maybe unintended sexism of defining them as simply “So Damn Pretty” rather than understanding their accomplishments. Bell tells the stories from both sides, tackling casual misogyny in plainspoken, certain terms.
Exemplary in it’s sermon-on-the mount way, Love > Fear finds friends in all walks: alcoholics, debtors, third-strike-prisoners. “Goodbye Brushy Mountain” ends his journey through modern American life by telling the story of Brushy Mountain Prison, which –for all it’s constraints, is everything one man has been able to call home. He sings “made parole in ’65 / felt like a rabbit runnin’ / so I got myself back inside / where I could hear that eagle comin”. Whether intentional or not, it’s a perfect note to end Love > Fear on because the world’s largest incarcerated population could be our legacy as a country in the beginning of the 21st century.
I had listened to his stories for a full month before I thought about the unifying theme of the gothic, but never garish, Love > Fear (48 Hours In Traitorland). “What Did You Do Today” exemplifies Bell’s particular outlook, which is: everyone counts. Bell asks about our complaints (which his stories validate) what, exactly we’re doing about them aside from talking.
Nathan Bell has collected the songs in this cycle to distance you from your own perspective, to help you let it go. You can’t argue with a well written song, much less with a character in dire straits. You can play politics, root for your team in the comfort of your home, but as soon as you experience the life of another person, it will change yours. Bell’s empathy isn’t for a lack of clarity about current events (in fact he’s hyper-aware), it’s a protest against the divide and conquer of a American communities for capital gain. He doesn’t need to name the oppressor, or the solution; his somber, sober tales name your neighbors, your acquaintances, your family, your generation, who have always been the only ones you can turn to.
Nathan Bell’s Love > Fear (48 Hours In Traitorland) is out today.