As a teenager, Nathan Bell got his first performance experience at a rally against the Vietnam War. The singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chattanooga, Tennessee admits that this is not the most profitable way to navigate the music industry. Further, he did not initially set out to be a songwriter. “I wanted to be a journalist, a Steinbeck or Hemingway,” said Nathan Bell about his inspirations. “But I can’t write prose the way I can write songs.”
I wondered what made Nathan interested in journalism. He said,”… if you are doing something as a journalist, you cannot present things the way you want them to be, and you cannot point fingers. Dylan even said that. And so, I try to keep the fingers out of it. There is some objection that goes into my songs, but these are not rallying cries in the tradition of protest music. These are stories of people.”
The songs which Nathan talks about are on his forthcoming album LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland). When I first learned about Nathan, he was described to me as a veteran singer-songwriter. For almost 15 years, he did not get involved in music. “I stopped playing altogether in the core of my adult life while my children were young… it was actually when my first born was 15 that I got back… in 2007. I came back then, but I had been out since 1994.”
Since his return to music, which was a decade ago, Nathan had been consistently writing and composing. His previous records include I Don’t Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America) Black Crow Blue, and Blood Like a River (Bell, 2017). Nathan has a keen eye for detail and an unapologetic penchant for the populist humanism of his literary heroes, John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. Perhaps it is no surprise that in his songs on LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland) Nathan portrays the characters with such great detail and depth, that you could not help but find sympathy for them if you were to meet them in real life (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). A beautifully played acoustic guitar, harmonica and a voice that seems to come from a narrator who does not sing to gain notice for his virtuosity, but rather his attentiveness for people and their struggles, builds each song. He tells the story about real people, the way of traditional American folk music. To learn more about Nathan’s new album, I invited him to be the subject of my full-length feature interview on Music Historian for the month of June.
When I asked Nathan about his interest in writing stories about other individuals, he said, “I have been lucky enough to never write in an artist’s place where I was looking out. I have always had people around me. I am careful never to use an actual person, and there is a reason for that; when you narrow it down to one single person, and this does not reflect negatively on Dylan doing a song about Medgar Evers, sometimes you lose the story. The story of miners,” Nathan gives an example of a song he had written about miners from an earlier record, “is not the story of one guy. It is a story of American miners, of outright criminality on the parts of the [entities] that used them. It is interesting that miners get a job they respect doing, and there is a level of collegiality there that is almost like the Marines. That comes from a real story, but I fictionalize just enough so that no one can look at that and say that was done on purpose. But I have known every character in that song in one way or another.”
Raised in Iowa City, Iowa, by his father and poet, Marvin Bell; Nathan grew up around writers. “My story is of the people I know. I think in most of them… you would not have any trouble finding me. And there are, in previous albums, [songs] that are biographical and autobiographical. But when it comes to the human conditions and talking about the world we live in, my opinion is just my opinion. The more I could talk about the actual lives of people, the more I could effectively communicate what is out there, what is happening. I look at, and there has been an evident distaste for this book in the past few years which I feel is illegitimate, Steinbeck’s, The Travels of Charlie. I realized when you look at the story, and what he does, which is put himself smack dab in the middle of human beings, and reacts to them and they respond to him. That’s how I think you get the stories out there that are legitimate.”
“I know many people on both sides of the [political] aisle. I feel very fortunate to have worked enough jobs that I met my share of very proud people, and my share of great people whose politics I still don’t know anything about, and this makes it easy. I have probably taken more credit for them [the stories] than I probably should. I think the stories tell themselves.”
Nathan’s songs that appear on the forthcoming album, he had for a long time. While his tracks present a viewpoint that is journalistic, the artist also admits “songwriting is a vast field that includes everything from Bird is the Word to Townes Van Zandt. That makes it a little more complicated to speak openly as a songwriter. We tend to be a group who downplay whether our work is important or not. Again, there are so many songs we respect. They [the songs] are there to make people happy… but this is a serious record. It goes back to a time when I wanted to be a reporter, or walk in the footsteps of Steinbeck.”
One of the songs which stood out to me is about a struggle many young women go through, titled “So Damn Pretty.” Written in a major key, the lyrics in one of the verses in this track include:
She was Summa Cum Laude
as she walked across the stage
into 40 years of fighting for a fair and honest wage
Then the chorus follows:
You’re eyes are pretty
your hair is pretty
everything about you is just so pretty
you should be so happy to be so damn pretty.
A modulation to a minor key follows – to the sixth chord I believe:
They talk about her
like she was not even there
they talk about her like she wasn’t anywhere
then she says, I won some, lost some, like everybody does
I didn’t care about what people thought I should be
I was happy with who I was
I’ve tried, to be honest, and kind and hoped to be brave and strong, to be everything…
they could never see
there was more to me
than just so damn pretty.
I asked Nathan about this song, and he explains, “I was raised by a man who… in all the ways, that you would say, he was truly a feminist-allied man. But that did not stop me from being a chauvinist as a kid because that was the society I lived in. I think I was talking to my daughter when she was 14 or 15 years old. That’s when I realized that it was so deeply ingrained in me that no matter what I say about rights, civil rights, economic rights, I still have work to do. I had thought about these things actively and out loud to try and help change things, but I was still part of the problem. It took me years to realize that one of my initial responses to my daughter who was a dancer most of her life, until she went to college and decided to pursue social justice, [was that]… Everything is pretty; everything is visual. My daughter is beautiful, and I would focus on that and see that. This song is my apology.”
“The fact that we are talking about salary equivalences… the longer I stay with it, I realize there is more work to do with myself before I have any right to hold anybody else accountable. That is something I would need to change before any real change could take place. That is kind of me throwing myself on my sword.”
The name of the new album LOVE>FEAR stems from Nathan’s big goal in life – to make it so much better to love people, that after a while, hating people seems like a lot of work. On the subject of the music, many of the tracks were recorded live-in-the-studio in front of a small audience, with no doubling and almost no overdubs. The second part of the name, traitorland comes from a concept which has been around a while, rewritten and reworked quite a bit. Nathan elaborates on this idea.
“It was written in 2009, and then several others, with different incarnations… traitorland came up because there are some lessons which I would like to take away about loving people, about fighting back [in the face of tragedy], and about understanding people… it is a real miracle to learn to love your enemy.
“Love is greater than fear because everything I am comes from hard work and because I have love. I feel when you have enough love, it is manageable and workable. If you don’t have love, you are going to be miserable. [Then] It is just a question of who gets to take advantage of who.”
Nathan’s down-to-earth philosophies and once-sought-after desire to follow in the footsteps of an author who gained popularity for creating fictional stories of common people – especially during the great depression – definitely makes a sound basis for a folk record. However, plenty has changed for the musical landscape, in particular for the folk genre.
“The folk genre suffers from one major problem – people don’t hire performers anymore. I grew up… I played acoustic sets regularly… and that’s how it worked. That’s how I got on stage.
“In those days, you were also expecting people to get albums, not one song. The internet is great to help you find what you never [thought you] could find. If you are a kid and go to a concert, and you don’t know the first thing about folk music, you could go on the internet and find 9,000 ways to hear it. That’s fantastic! I used to go to the university library, and on their record player, play their collection of folk records until I had heard them all. That was a lot of work. Now, it is ‘just download a playlist of everything you need to know about the history of the music and hear it within an hour.’ That’s cool.
“However, for the performance… I make more money per show than I do for putting out an album in the United States… I [also] don’t think there is a lot of community out there… I see the album form as having been abandoned. I want to be sure that does not happen with me.
“The positive is the accidents. Somebody in North Dakota can listen to someone in Florida and, also, you can make a record at home now with $10 of software. That’s pretty amazing.
“There is some good. But I think the business itself has suffered terribly.”
I agree with the artist about this point of view. However, based on my experiences interviewing past performers, there is a growing Americana community both inside the United States and outside. The thought of whether the folk community is merging with the Americana might open up discussions or debates.
As a member of the folk community, Nathan had the opportunity to share bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. Norman and Emmylou would work with Bob Dylan at one point in their career (Wikipedia, 2017). Taj worked with Muddy Waters, along with other musicians including Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins (Wikipedia, 2017). Most of this success happened in the ‘80’s for Nathan. During this time, he performed as part of an acoustic duo.
“Those were still the days a record contract was necessary to do more than [being] a local act. We signed with a serious acoustic label at the time. We got the opportunity to put out two records, one of them was reviewed quite positively, which was unusual at the time for an acoustic duo. We played many shows where we were the opening act, and also, played with Taj Mahal. There were times when I was sharing the stage with people… we are talking about mid-to-late eighties, where there was still a record business.”
Meanwhile, he and Emmylou and worked with the same producer. Nathan adds, “In Nashville, there is a lot of that kind of stuff. I did, work within performance settings where Emmylou was on the bill, and we were at a festival, with all of these singer-songwriters. It helps to understand that it was a less isolated musical world. You had everybody; it was a little more communal.”
After the late ‘80’s would come the ‘90’s and in 1994, Nathan would take a long break from music. In regards to his newest record, LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), Nathan says “I would like to see it get attention in the singer-songwriters’ type of circle.”
In terms of what Nathan hopes listeners would take away from his record, in addition to understanding his goal of making it easier to love rather than hate, he would like “for the topics in the song to become part of a conversation. If you hear these stories, and you say to yourself, I did not know that person, or I did not realize I did not know that person, then I would wish that person well, no matter what their position is in the world.”
Listen to Nathan’s record, and you will hear the story of a broken widower in the midst of a crisis of faith; a first-time mobile-home owner staring down a foreclosure; a beautiful woman struggling to be appreciated for her talent, intelligence and hard work; an obese veterinarian in love with a skinny, secretly transgender patent-attorney rodeo clown; the impoverished sick committing armed robbery to pay for healthcare; an active-duty soldier turned conscientious objector who opts for the stockade over the battlefield; and a middle-aged man caught in the for-profit prison system, his best years slipping through his fingers. There is no black and white, no oversimplification, and no ‘us versus them left/right’ posturing, just inclusive and somehow vibrant shades of gray (J. Riccitelli, personal communication, May, 27, 2017). Further, I believe the best way to learn how to love someone, is to find a way you could relate to them. In LOVE>FEAR (48 hours in traitorland), you might be able to find a character whom you could relate to, and hopefully, this realization could help become part of a conversation that matters.
LOVE>FEAR (48 Hours in Traitorland) will release on June 30th on Stone Barn Records.
Bell, N. (n.d.). Store. Retrieved from https://www.nathanbellmusic.com/store
Emmylou Harris. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmylou_Harris
Norman Blake. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Blake_(American_musician)
Taj Mahal. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2017 on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taj_Mahal_(musician)
*All photos were published with permission