Nathan Bell on Recording in a Walk-In Closet and Building an Audience 1 Listener at a Time

August 2, 2016

Tell us about your tour vehicle. Any notable breakdown stories?

When I can drive, I drive a 2007 Honda Accord with a V-6. It has 160,000 miles on it, but I bought it used with 110,000 so it still feels like my new car. I’ve had to fix some of the usual stuff and it had a pile of rocks tear through the AC system to the tune of $1600.

When I fly, I rent the usual collection of bland midsize sedans. Recently, I found myself stuck at Love Field in Dallas because the folks at Advantage Rentals decided to close early. I thought that might be worth mentioning so that other touring musicians stay the hell away from Advantage.

Breakdown stories?  Other than blowing out clutches every time we went to Kansas—1987 Ford Econoline Van—in the late ’80s, I tend to breakdown with the usual collection of flat tires and the like.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

I tend to buy food at grocery stores and stay where I have access to a refrigerator. I love spicy, ethnic—is that even a word for food these days, with all of the fusion food out there?—food, but I keep a very bland diet on the road. I won’t give up coffee, ever, but I drink primarily water and low glycemic juice blends. On tour, I cut my calories in half, at least, and I tend to eat very little in the hours before and after shows. I come home skinnier.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I break very few strings. Twenty-five years ago I played a lot harder and broke a string every other show. But I’m older and between shoulder surgery and arthritis in my wrist and fingers, my playing has lightened up considerably. Having to adjust my playing style—including using small-bodied guitars—to stay healthy has caused me to be a much better player.  I change them regularly and probably spend $20-$40 each month I’m actively touring.

Where do you rehearse?

There is a small apartment connected to my garage. I tend to rehearse there. I do all my recording and some recorded rehearsals in my tiny upstairs studio. It used to be a walk-in closet. It has incredible sound and no parallel surfaces so it’s great for vocals and for hearing a true rendition of what my audience will hear.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

The title is “Alligator Joe.” Unfortunately, I don’t recall a single lyric. I think it was a thinly disguised Tony Joe White/Jerry Reed rip off.

Describe your first gig.

My three-piece and I played Hendrix-influenced trio rock at the Iowa City Rec Center. People threw stuff at us and I created a ground loop with the microphone and my Strat that caused an electrical shock and gave me a scar on my lip that stuck around for 20 years.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

I was shit canned from AT&T after almost 20 years—most of those with the far superior pre-merger Bellsouth Mobility—in 2014. At the time, I was doing a job I despised, but it was paying the bills.

My favorite?  I worked for 13 years as a market manager for Bellsouth Mobility before the AT&T merger. I loved the job and the people who worked for and with me. I’d still be doing it if that was possible.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

I was out of the business completely—didn’t even pick up a guitar more than a couple of times—for 13 years. When I left, the business had some money available in return for hard work, there was no crowdfunding or YouTube and social-media stars, and a songwriter could expect to make a decent living from having other people record their songs. But I was an outsider and didn’t have much success before I left the business, so the only thing that has changed for me is that when I write a song now it doesn’t matter to me if anybody else might record it, because so much has changed in the songwriter’s royalty world. That’s actually a great place to be because I can write without worrying too much about what other people think. One should never say never, but I hope to keep doing this the traditional way, one listener at a time.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

The music business has always been the purview of a very few hyper ambitious people whom the public gets to know. Musicians have always created great works regardless of how they’re received by music business. So I think the music business will still be the music business, and income for outsiders like myself will depend more on finding the people who love what I do and less on how the business embraces me. Nobody can do it alone, and I do have people I trust working with me, so I’m optimistic. And I am willing to make my money outside of the music business so I can keep writing as I wish to write. Still, I hope to keep making a living, however meager, with music.

Nathan Bell has lived life. At 56, the wizened songwriter’s weary voice bleeds experience. He’s seen both sides of the coin—traveled the nomadic, bohemian path of the hard-luck troubadour, and found comfort and meaning in the stability of a family, a home and a near two-decade corporate gig. 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 legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. The son of a poet and professor, his concise narratives come wrapped in gorgeously downhome 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 LP, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love (the third installment in a potent trilogy that began with 2011’s Black Crow Blue and continued with 2014’s Blood Like a River), Bell has created a song cycle that is both moving and timely.

Though he now resides in Tennessee just outside of Chattanooga, Nathan Bell was born in Iowa City. Obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, he picked up the guitar at age 15 and started playing in local rock & roll bands. Equally enamored with folk-blues artists Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, he soon drifted toward acoustic music, and lit out across the country for Boston after high school, where he began 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, returned to Iowa City, 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.

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. At first, he worked some basic labor jobs, before becoming swing-shift manager at a shop that sold fine cigars and imported beer. After a few years, through one of his regulars, he landed a gig at AT&T, where he stayed for nearly two decades, working his way up to a cozy management position in Chattanooga while he and Leslie raised their two children. Eventually, though, a call from an old friend and a kind gesture from his wife thrust Bell back into the arms of his first love, music.

Bell’s latest album, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love, was released in November 2015.  Connect with him online and on the road.