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Luke Bell’s backstory could’ve come out of the pages of a novel by Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane or Cormac McCarthy. A fifth-generation descendant of Wyoming homesteaders, the ranch hand turned troubadour has seen a lot of life in his 26 years on this mortal coil, and his selftitled album, released under the auspices of Bill Hill Records, distributed by Thirty Tigers, serves as a rollicking document of his experiences. The record is teeming with colorful characters, captured in hardscrabble yarns of living hard and drinking harder, making bad choices and laughing them off.
There’s a little bit of their author in each of these flawed but redeemable characters—and at a time when authenticity is in short supply, Luke Bell has come along to remind us what it feels like to be truly alive and open to the possibilities of existence in a captivating song cycle that puts the cowboy back into country & western.
A life-embracing, go-for-the-gusto spirit animates Bell’s vividly drawn characters, but an aching melancholy lurks just below the surface. Describing the deeply soulful, deeply American character of Bell’s music in an introductory piece posted on Daytrotter, Sean Moeller insightfully wrote, “There’s the lonesomeness that’s a birthright for all of the wandering souls. There’s the heartbreak that comes from that. And then there’s the laughing off of that heartbreak in that way that makes it evident that the heartbreak’s not being laughed off at all…even as the singer cocks his hat to the side, smiles and throws back another whiskey with a generous thank you.”
Bell came of age with dirt collecting under his fingernails and music working its way into his head. He remembers the summers he spent working on his grandparents’ ranch, starting at the age of 13, as “lots of hot days, Randy Travis tapes and old pick-up trucks with broken door handles”—the words sounding like a line from one of his songs.
“When I was out there workin’ for my grandparents the summer after I graduated from high school, it kinda took hold,” Bell recalls about his deepening interest in music. “I grew up with country radio, of course, Randy Travis, Toby Keith and all that stuff. But I didn’t become influenced by classic country until I found a record player and Merle Haggard’s Live From Muscogee in my grandparents’ basement, and took ’em to this little house I was livin’ in. I thought that record was really cool; I’d listen to it all the time after work. Then I found some other stuff, like Waylon. And my grandfather was always a huge fan of Hank Snow and Ian Tyson, cowboy music and poetry, so I grew up around a lot of that stuff by default.”
Eventually, songs of his own began to take shape—songs rooted in those old records, working the soil and knocking ’em back, taking life as it comes in Big Sky Country.
He spent a couple of years studying agroecology at the University of Wyoming by day and playing music in front of crowds of folkies at the Buckhorn Bar by night. When the music started crowding out the classwork, he headed to the bright lights of Austin.
“My life was kinda like a scene from Urban Cowboy at that point,” Bell recalls. “I was workin’ construction, sellin’ pizza coupons, shoein’ horses—whatever work I could find to pay the minimum bills of the apartment I was livin’ in. Other than that, I was just screwin’ around and playin’ shows; I had a rock ’n’ roll band for a while. Monday nights at the Hole in the Wall was a residency with Ramsey Midwood, Mike and the Moonpies and Leo Rondeau. I was enamored of that honky-tonk scene; they had dollar-fifty High Lifes—that didn’t hurt, either.”
While in Austin, Bell cut his first album, titling it Saving Country Music—a key formative experience, though few outside of his circle were aware of its existence. Then New Orleans beckoned, and off he went for a six months of further mind expansion—paying particular attention to the performing styles of the city’s adept street musicians—before his pilgrimage led him to Nashville, where he now resides. As Bell was accumulating life experience and serving his apprenticeship in these musical hotbeds, he kept returning to Wyoming to work on the ranch, keeping himself grounded in the most literal sense of the term. Nashville was the right place at the right time for Bell, who continued to write and perform, cutting his second album, Don’t Mind If I Do,” in 2014 at the Bomb Shelter, which has become his go-to studio. Rolling Stone noticed, stating that Bell “plays classic honky-tonk with a wink and a yodel that summons the sleeping ghosts of country better than any voodoo spell ever could. Bell’s shows are welcome excuses to click your boots and down an extra sniff of bourbon. And songs like ‘Sometimes’ are such uncanny time warps they almost make his sets appear in Technicolor.”
“Sometimes” is one of several tunes from that record that embodies the dynamic of the album and of Bell’s music in general, intertwining life’s highs and lows with poetic concision. “That song is about when I lived in Austin and I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to,” he explains. “I was sad to leave it, but I also wanted to go out and keep lookin’ around. It’s also about breaking up with someone before you’re sure if you’re ready to, and what happens to you when you’re young and you really care about somebody, but you’re not done exploring, and dealing with those feelings.
When you make a change in your life, and you’re thinking about everything you’re going to miss afterwards. There’s your town in the rearview mirror, and you’re kinda torn as you’re exploring a new life somewhere else between what you left behind and what’s in front of you. You’re thinkin’, ‘Well, I’m kinda havin’ a good time, but then I’m also going home lonely and wondering what the hell I’m doin’. You know, that sort of juxtaposition.”
“The Bullfighter,” another linchpin song, gets inside the head of a familiar character—“the drunken male,” Bell says with a laugh. “It’s a boasting song about pretending you’re the toughest person at the bar lookin’ for a fight, drunk, and playacting that character over and over again. You see it all the time—somebody that’s swaggering a big swagger, but they’re really just sad. I know, because I’ve been that guy.”
These examples just scratch the surface of this high-revving album, with its dead-honest narratives filled with photographically detailed figures and situations. This album emphatically puts Luke Bell in the vanguard of traditionally rooted contemporary writer/artists. We’ll be able to ride shotgun with him on his further adventures behind the wheel of his beloved ’95 Buick LeSabre, because no matter where he goes from here, there’s no doubt he’ll keep telling it like it is.
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