Nathan Bell has lived life. At 56, his wizened songwriter’s voice bleeds experience. He’s seen both sides of the coin – travelled the nomadic, bohemian path of the hard-luck troubadour and found comfort and meaning in the stability of a family, a home and coping with the daily grind. And now, with a guitar back in his hands where it should be, he’s ready to tell the tale. But it’s not just his own story he’s after. It’s a story of America, of the working classes – both blue and white collar.
Bell is a songwriter’s songwriter, a man who has shared bills with the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. The son of a poet and professor, his concise narratives come wrapped in gorgeously down-home yet ethereal production, adorned with gentle harmonies, daydreaming mandolin and the occasional blanket of pedal steel. He’s got 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. With his latest album, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love (the third instalment in a potent trilogy that began with 2011’s Black Crow Blue and continued with 2014’s Blood Like a River), he has created a song cycle that is both moving and timely. Watch him performing the title track below:
This latest album has won him more media attention in the space of a few weeks than he has experienced for a long time, picking up four and 5-star ratings from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Writing from personal experience (his musical career book-ends a 15-year spell from the ‘90s during which he worked as both a manual labourer and a phone company manager), he understands that both blue-collar and white-collar life are uniquely draining.
This new album examines the subject matter in fine, revealing detail.
“It’s fairly easy to come up with a concept built around working men in the traditional sense – miners and factory workers,” he says. “But there’s also these white-collar guys who thought there was a rainbow at the end of this thing – that if you worked hard and took care of your family, it paid off. So you gave up things, you made certain sacrifices. But when you really look at it, where’s the payoff? A lot of it is gone.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, and rarely in rarefied air. And if I’ve learned anything it is that the individual human being is a brave and kind son of a bitch, and the choices forced upon us to live with other people are often the deepest and bravest expressions of love.
“I think it’s important to give people credit for loving completely even when what they’re doing isn’t something they love.”
His musical journey began in Boston after high school, where he set about writing his own songs and became a fixture of the city’s vibrant early ’80s music scene. By 1983, he’d formed proto-alt-country duo Bell & Shore with then-wife Susan Shore. The two scored a record deal, began touring heavily, and would eventually release a pair of records, the second, L-Ranko Motel, scoring a rave review from Rolling Stone. Their marriage and musical partnership ended in 1989, with Bell headed for Nashville, and what seemed like a promising solo career. But things didn’t work out as planned.
“I had some recording contracts on the table,” he recalls, “and then all hell broke loose. I tried for a while, but Nashville was a bad match for me. I’ve always been the same guy no matter what, and I just didn’t get along with the politics. I wasn’t going to church for gigs, as they say.”
By 1993, Bell was out of the music business entirely. He didn’t pick up a guitar or write a song again for almost 15 years.
I Don’t Do This for..is out now