Twenty-five years ago, veteran songwriter Nathan Bell was deemed “the next Steve Earle,” however, due to changing tides in the industry and an uncompromising attitude, Bell left Nashville - and music - behind for a successful career at Bellsouth/AT& T and a loving, stable home life. Then in 2008, at 51, Bell was laid off by the company, leading to a creative revival that sparked the release of three albums: 2011’s Black Crow Blue, 2014’s Blood Like a River, and his latest, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love. From his home state of Tennessee, Bell graciously called to discuss his journey, the album and more.
Around two decades ago you went to Nashville to pursue a music career. Why after only two to three years did you trade it all in for a job with AT&T?
I came to Nashville from a career in acoustic music. We had recorded some albums that had done pretty well, but when I got to Nashville I realized early on that most things that were expected of a writer there weren’t things I was good at or comfortable with. Many writers will tell you that when they get to Nashville they’re excited to write, but then they also realize money changes things because the goal in Nashville is to get as many people on a record and make as much money as you can. And that’s not a problem, that’s the business. But when I got there I realized I was going to make a lot of enemies because what caught the ear of the person who brought you to Nashville had to change.
I was writing story songs in line with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark – in the Americana vein, which didn’t exist yet. There were no alternative labels like Thirty Tigers, Yep Roc or Last Chance, so there was nowhere to go. My choices were to try and fit in with co-writes, which I didn’t enjoy, or to get a real job...and to be honest with you, it was an easy choice. I’m not joking when I tell you that I was happy working for AT&T and if that job stayed the same I would have stayed there and would have never made these records. I enjoyed my family and I was happy to be home for dinner 90% of the time. If someone offered me a Nashville career or those 15 years, I would have chosen those years because they are the best years of my life until the day I die.
That’s wonderful that you can look back and say that.
So, you made the decision, but what about writing and playing guitar? Did you do any of that when you worked for AT&T or did you put it away for those years?
I didn’t touch it for 13-14 years. I played one time because someone needed to record a parody country song, but other than that I just didn’t want to. I didn’t think about Nashville at all when I got out. I was in a business that was growing quickly; I got promoted and enjoyed the job. People asked me if I put music on hold, but honestly, I never thought I’d play again – it was like I retired from a sport.
What spurred you to finally pick the guitar back up again?
A friend shamed me into it (laughing). He had me come to a show in Georgia where he forced me on stage - and I didn’t feel like I could say no. I knew two songs and I could barely get through them...and that bothered me enough to make me wonder if I could still play guitar. After that, I went on a business trip to Nashville and when I came back my wife, Leslie, had taken a closet, cleaned it out and put a rug, desk, chair, and my guitar with a pad of paper in it.
You began writing again while you were still with AT&T, starting with the first album, Black Crow Blue (An American Album), which led to this three-volume series. Did you set out to write what would become a trilogy of records?
I made two records before those three that were a step in the right direction, but when I was done I realized I had a story I ignored about what it was like to be an unremarkable working guy in America - someone with responsibility, a family, and a paycheck, but someone who was not what you would consider a hero. I started messing with that idea borrowing from the character Crow from poet Sebastian Mathews who is a guy who wasn’t expecting a lot, but was afraid he was going to lose what he has. At that point, I said okay, the first record would be about a man, the second about him, his family and other people and a third about working in America.
Once you decided that, did you write all the songs over a certain period or did you write each album in succession?
The first two were done concurrently. I wrote Black Crow Blue and then I got rehired and realized I wouldn’t have time to write another album, so Blood Like A River was written, recorded, and mastered in the month before I went to work.
The songs are true story songs. Do you draw from personal experience, others or a combination?
It takes me a long time to write about myself at all, so most are stories about people I live, know, and work with or stories that were told to me. I think of myself as a political writer and in society today it’s not hard to find stories of people who want to find meaningful work.
I grew up in a literary environment and owe a lot to what I read as a young man. My dad is a poet, so I read a lot of declarative writers like Jack London, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. I don’t use too many words; if you look at what I write, I pare away all I can by the time I get down to it. I try to tell a story about a human being where one line represents an enormous part of his life, making the specific, universal. That’s a fun part of writing for me and that comes from literature which isn’t generally a songwriter’s path.
All the songs are affecting, but Stan is a pretty emotional closer. Why did you choose to place it last?
All of my albums close with just me playing and singing, no band. My friend Craig, who sings on the last bit as it fades out, and I wrote that one together. Both of us put family before career and wrote this song about a guy who is representative of a lot of people who got tired of feeling like a nobody. In the music business, you can go from somebody to nobody very quickly and Stan represents that guy. Through no fault of their own people become unimportant, and it's the saddest thing. I thought it was important to end the album with that song because I think it makes a point that there are people out there wandering around trying to figure out what to do next.
The record is titled, I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, which is also the opening track on the album. What is the significance behind that?
This is an unusual song for me because it is a list. Sometimes you go in a direction you’ve never been before and because you’re not familiar with it, you’re not sure what you’ve done. I wasn’t sure about the song at first, but it grew on me. I realized that there are many, different kinds of love: romantic love, family love, or love of a hobby, but people don’t love their job the same way. It doesn’t matter how good the job is, after a while it’s just a job and these characters in the song – military pilot, musician, roofer – they’re examples of that. None of them got up when they were eleven years old and said I want to drag shrimp all day so I can be tired, but as they got into their life, found friends and people whom they love, well those are the things that make going to work every day possible. It takes an enormous amount of love to go to work every day for years and years.
Except for six months of unemployment, I’ve been working since I was thirteen. There’s a world in music that mythologizes the blue-collar guy, yet it’s not cool to be a middle manager in an insurance company…and those guys aren’t so different. Each person has a job and a life, what they want and what they can’t have, and the only difference is in the physical labor. So, when I think about the work world, it has been broken down into powerful people with money and the blue-collar guy…and everyone else in the middle doesn’t really have an identity because they’ve been told they don’t have one. I wanted to write about these people with nobility and character, like Steinbeck did. I worked with a lot of these people and they have interesting lives and families and 99% of them are doing the best they can, actually love other people, and are fairly optimistic or realistic. I’ve spent my whole life around those kinds of people and am happiest around them.
Now that the year is coming to a close, what are your plans for the remainder of 2016/early 2017?
I will play some shows in the UK and mainland Europe next year. I’m also busy writing a book about my time working at AT&T, writing for Acoustic Guitar magazine, and will probably get to work on an acoustic record.
For more information visit his official website
Find him on Facebook, Twitter and Spotify
Purchase Bell's albums here