An honest and well-written take on America is elevated by some outstanding featured artists.
In 1935 American author Sinclair Lewis published a novel entitled ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ in which he described the rise of an American dictator who was elected as president after running on promises of restoring “traditional” values. The book served as inspiration to Nathan Bell when he was recording ‘Red, White and American Blues (it couldn’t happen here)’ in 2019, but unfortunately the figure running the US and trying to make it “great again” whom he would write about was depressingly real: Donald Trump.
The album opener is ‘Angola Prison’, a song about the inhumane practice of leaving prisoners in a box in the beating sun to suffer; it’s bluesy and heavy on the harmonic in accordance with the downbeat subject matter. ‘American Gun’ addresses America’s complicated and violent relationship with guns head on: “I’m a red white and blue / American Gun / Johnny come marching / And your native son / Wherever you go / They’ll know where you’re from / I’ll stamp your passport / The American Gun”. In the first of her three song guest appearances, the always luminous Patty Griffin joins Bell for harmonies on the chorus, her fragile voice bringing extra pathos when contrasted against Bell’s.
While ‘American Blues (For GSC)’ is a tribute to a much-loved vinyl copy of ‘The Bottle’ (Gil Scott-Heron’s attempt to understand the lives of alcoholics) that Bell first listened to at 14-years-old, Bell still uses its narrative to raise current issues, such as the danger Black men face simply walking down the streets in modern day America (“A man shoots another man for walking down the street / As a black man in broad daylight / You can shoot a black man for just walking down the street when you have / The American Blues”). ‘When You’re Dead (Ghost reflects on his dire circumstances)’ is the second tribute to an existing work on the album, this time towards Gaylord Brewer’s visible/invisible Ghost character: “When you’re dead / Your fame will be eternal / When you’re dead / You’ll find that fact infernal / And you’ll never get the thought / Out of your head,” Bell muses.
‘Retread Cadillac (lightin’)’, a take on blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, sees Regina McCrary of the McCrary sisters join Bell on vocals – her presence giving Bell the chance to narrate more than sing while she hits the emotive high notes perfectly. ‘Wrong Man for the Job’ takes aim at anyone who thinks only of their own gain, be it the rich (“If I had a million dollars / I’d keep it to myself / Never share a dime with anybody else / Because I’m the wrong man […] for the job”) or the powerful (“If I was President / I’d start another war / Wouldn’t care who we were fighting or what we were fighting for / I’d take all your money, slip out of the back door / Because I’m the wrong man […] for the job”), while ’Folding Money (you better move on)’ takes a similarly critical look at organised religion.
While a fresher sounding singer may have struggled to convey some of the hard emotions throughout, there is a worn down coarseness to Bell’s voice that melds perfectly to the music and the tough subject matter in hand – something demonstrated best on ‘A Lucky Man (for my father, the original Dead Man)’. The tribute to Bell’s late father is meditative in tone in a way that would fit comfortably into guest vocalist’s Griffin’s back catalogue, and her voice once again adds a lovely texture to the piece. ‘Zensuit’s Samadhi Blues’ also sees Bell wrestle with grief over his father’s death, even as he knows the death of a parent is inevitable, and ‘Mossberg Blues’ – another take on America and guns, this time the deadly simplicity of the Mossberg shotgun – sees McCrary make another welcome appearance.
‘Running on the Razor (family)’ sees Bell tackle the film makers who glorified the Whites of West Virginia as rebel outlaws, when in a reality they lived as they did because they had little choice (“They were useless motherfuckers / Exactly as they seemed / Thought they had the ticket / But it couldn’t be redeemed”). ‘To Each of Us (a shadow)’ is Griffin’s last appearance but her talent is anything but wasted in this beautifully soulful take on struggling with depression even when you seem to have all you need: “I’m standing at the lighthouse / With no keys for the locks / As you sail through the fog / Headed straight into the rocks”.
Trump may have left power (and let us all pray he doesn’t return), but these songs still resonate, reminding us not just of those dark four years, but also all of the tragedy and oppression still going on in the world at large. While music can never solve those problems, here Bell has at least shone and light and shown he is listening – and you would be wise to listen to him, too.