Nathan 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. His concise narratives come wrapped in gorgeously downhome yet ethereal production. 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 –Paste Magazine
Can you tell us about yourself? Where you’re from and what you’ve been up to over the past few years?
I grew up in Iowa, in the Midwest, but I’ve lived most of my adult life in Tennessee. Since being let go (after 20 years) from a major telecom company in 2014, I’ve returned to full time writing and playing. In addition to writing music, I am a regular contributor to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. And I have a wonderful family that joins me in playing escape rooms, watching football (my daughter is a Chelsea supporter and a hooligan for the local club), and attending theatre.
How would you describe your music?
Original acoustic guitar and vocal music that steals from country and the blues. Most of the songs are about the social and political environment in the United States and the world that I worked and lived in for the last 25 years. I perform solo with an acoustic guitar 90% of the time. I am trying to keep the minstrel tradition of one man and a song alive.
Can you tell us a little bit about your influences?
I started out wanting to be Jimi Hendrix and/or the Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane (of the guitar), then was detoured (by my mother) into country music via Merle Haggard, through the blues by way of Lightnin’ Hopkins, until I ended up here where I use a little of all of that in my playing. For writing I grew up wanting to write like John Steinbeck or Jack London but got ambushed by song writing when I heard Neil Young’s “Harvest” album.
What are you currently promoting?
My latest album, “I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love (working and hanging on in America,” and the rest of the Family Man trilogy, which includes the aforementioned album and two earlier albums, “Black Crow Blue” and “Blood Like a River.”
Have you got a particular song you’ve done that you’re particularly proud of, one that might define you?
This is always the hardest kind of question. Right now, it would be a dead heat between the title track from “Black Crow Blue,” of which I’m particularly happy about how the lyrics, music and arrangement work together to describe the way I feel about my life, and “Names,” which I think is my most effective political song.
What are you currently listening to?
The late, great, jazz guitarist, Emily Remler, and my usual collection of bop era jazz and Sonny Terry/Brownie Mcghee and Lightnin’ albums. I’ve rediscovered Public Enemy and old school hip-hop. And I’ve stumbled back around to an old favourite, Simon and Garfunkel. Their early live performance of “For Emily Whenever I May Find Her” is a reminder of how a simple guitar and vocal performance can be so powerful.
And your favourite album of all time, the one you couldn’t do without?
This is a horrible and cruel question. Although if the house was burning I’d grab Terry Allen’s, “Lubbock On Everything.” But I’d be heartbroken to give up a single album. Come to think of it, I’d grab my iPod so I wouldn’t have to decide!
What are your hopes for your future career?
I’ve been fortunate that some people want to listen to my songs. I hope that continues and I’d like for my career to become more profitable so I can keep doing it. That’s the dirty secret nobody wants to talk about, but getting paid is important. I have quite a few more albums I’d like to record before I become a panel show host. That is one of my long, long term goals, to host at least one “Big Fat Quiz.” And play striker for Ajax. Unfortunately, at 56 that one might be a longshot!
If money were no object what would be your dream project?
I’d like to record an album with my favourite bass player, Missy Raines, the Nashville songwriter and singer Annie Mosher, and all the people I play with that I can never afford to pay well enough to use on a fully-funded record. And I would have liked to work with Kanye West before he set foot in Trump tower. Seriously. But now, how about Grandmaster Flash, Peter Gabriel, and Gordon Summers (Sting). People don’t give Sting enough credit. I’d love to make an album with the guy who had the balls to play a hurdy gurdy on the nationally televised Oscar’s broadcast!
What’s the best thing about being a musician?
It’s wonderful to be a part of something that impacts virtually every person on this earth. That’s might be a corny way to look at it, but for me, that’s the whole point, and the best part.
And the worst?
Changing guitar strings. Replacing batteries. Losing picks, bad wiring. The little things that, after 45 years of playing, become the slow drip that drives me insane. If I had extra money, the first thing I’d do is hire a guitar tech.
Finally, have you anything you’d like to say to the readers of Americana UK?
Thank you for being kind enough to acknowledge my work. It means a lot more to me than I can say to be selected as one of the best of 2016. I’m looking forward to seeing you all during my upcoming Celtic Connections appearances and UK tour.