Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on just what makes an artist resonate with listeners compared to others who may sound very similar. Some artists just contain that unquantifiable magic of the old country music greats that all diehard fans are searching for, but only a select few artists seem to contain. This is what early fans of artists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton felt when they first stumbled onto them, along with other artists who haven’t been as fortunate in recognition by the masses or the industry.
With Stapleton now rising to the very top of country music, and Sturgill exploring others influences outside of country, the search is on again for who might be the “next one.” If there was another name you might want to be out in front of—someone who could be one of those guys (or girls) who could really score at the heart of real country music fans—it might be Wyoming native Luke Bell.
Bell was first put on the radar of Saving Country Music when he released an LP on Bandcamp called Don’t Mind If I Do. His brand of traditional country had a throwback sound few others have captured beyond country music’s classic era. It’s the honky tonk New Orleans-style piano. It’s the authenticity of his story as a Wyoming cowboy turned musical drifter traversing the country in a 1995 Buick LeSabre. Often times the best musicians are not the ones trying the hardest to make it in music, or the ones who are the most well-connected, but the ones who seem to luck into the profession and sing from the heart, like they were plucked right out of everyday life, so they can sing with more authenticity and real-world perspective.
By almost blind luck, Luke Bell was discovered by a prominent booking agent for the top-shelf talent agency WME, and put on tour with Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Dwight Yoakam last summer. This opportunity allowed Luke to find a manager and put a team behind him. Then he went back into the studio, recorded a handful of new songs, mixed them with the best of the songs from the BandCamp LP Don’t Mind If I Do, and won the attention of Thirty Tigers who will be releasing the new self-titled album on June 17th.
From opening for Dwight and Willie, to signing to Thirty Tigers, to now getting the opportunity to play big stages at Stagecoach in April, and Bonnaroo in June, the story of Luke Bell is shaping up to be very similar to that of Sturgill Simpson’s when his career was in its infant stages. But there’s still a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of questions if country music stardom is even what Luke Bell is in pursuit of. Ironically, it’s his indecision and aw shucks attitude that makes him even that more appealing to country fans looking for the real deal.
Sitting down with Luke Bell at a bar in East Nashville’s famous Five Points neighborhood, I got the distinct impression that he has no master plan or lofty ambitions for himself and his music. I was hoping to sit down with him at Santa’s Pub in in the south part of Nashville, where he once played on a nightly basis, and shot a recent video at (see below). But like a lot of east Nashville country artists trying to claw their way up, Luke Bell has to spend his musical downtime working construction jobs or other labor. He had just enough time on a lunch break to speak to me. The first thing I was interested in finding out is if he still had his 1995 Buick LeSabre.
“Sadly, no,” says Bell, like he’s lost a family friend. “I got T-boned earlier this year and lost the LeSabre. It was a big bummer. It was a one-owner car that I had bought when I was out working on a ranch. It was in beautiful condition, and I drove the dog piss out of it. I did all of my traveling in that car. The paint had peeled off the thing but I took really good care of the engine and it was in great shape. It got great gas mileage, close to 30. She was a road hog, and it would cruise at 80 MPH down the highway like a dream. And it was a granny car, so I never got pulled over in that thing.”
Luke Bell was raised in Cody, Wyoming, but has Southern roots as well. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky and moved to Wyoming with his family when he was 2-years-old. He spent the rest of his youth in Wyoming, and tried to attend college in Laramie.
“I went for a couple of years, and just sort of skirted my way through some classes, and a lot of parties,” Luke says. “I had just started playing music. There’s a bar called the Buckhorn in Laramie, and there was a really great community of people there, and I built a little band. That was the first kind of band thing I had, and I did that for a while. I was having fun but I don’t know, I just sort of dropped out and left. I went to Austin. I saw my buddy Pat Reedy perform at the Buckhorn Bar, and that was an inspiring show. He pulled through in an ’85 Datsun diesel pickup truck with a homeless painter and a half wolf dog. It was just a picture of a different part of earth.”
Luke Bell moved to Austin in 2011.
“At that time I was really into Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, a lot of that Texas stuff. When I first moved down there it was $1.50 High Life’s on Monday night at Hole in the Wall, and Mike and the Moonpies, Leo Rondeau, and Ramsey Midwood had a residency, and I was staying on a couch by campus and could walk down there everyday. I wandered down there every day for about six days and pestered the bartender Dennis O’Donnell until he was like, ‘Okay kid, come in and play 3 songs at 3 o’clock when I’m setting up chairs.’ I started playing there, and eventually built a rock and roll band called Fast Luke and the Lead Heavy, and played a residency there from 3 to 5 every day. We got fired for being too loud.”
When bartender Dennis O’Donnell opened up The White Horse on Austin’s east side, the underground honky tonk scene moved with him, and so did Luke Bell.
“I was bar backing there, mopping floors and stuff. I built the fence on the patio. I had a residency there as well for a while. And then when I get settled in somewhere, I feel like I want to go see somewhere else. I love Austin and the people, but I just wanted to get out and see stuff. So I went to Oregon for a bit, then I hopped in a ’93 diesel Dodge with Pat Reedy in Wyoming and we toured down to New Orleans. It was our first time in New Orleans, and we just had a big old time. I partied my ass off down there, and ended up roofing houses on the West Bank. It was hot and hard work. I sort of ran out of money and headed for home … Wyoming.”
But the music bug was now embedded in Luke Bell, and he wouldn’t be in Wyoming long. Soon Luke and his 1995 Buick LeSabre were headed to Nashville where he would record Don’t Mind If I Do, which would open doors for him and his music career.
“That was a really magical studio experience,” Bell says of recording at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville. “I wasn’t even going in there to make a honky tonk record. I had no idea what I was trying to make. The song ‘Sometimes,’ I only had half of it written. Pat [Reedy] had recorded at The Bomb Shelter through some mutual friends of ours, The Deslondes. I was just up there working on a fence, absorbing the stuff that I had learned in New Orleans.”
Don’t Mind If I Do landed in front of the right people, and resulted in a booking deal with WME. Soon everything else began to fall into place for Luke.
“At that point in my life, I had given up on being discovered, or being that interested in it,” says Bell. “I was pretty content. I was landscaping, and playing at Santa’s Pub every night, and really having a great time. I’ve been very fortunate.”
But with the bigger interest and industry recognition, Luke Bell’s had to go through the growing pains and struggles of an artist who is thought to have a lot of promise, but still must find his way and pay some dues. “It was a compromise,” Bell says of taking Don’t Mind If I Do off of Bandcamp, and adding new songs. “I really didn’t want to change any of my record. But at the same time, you’ve got to put something out.”
And though the exposure of opening for Willie, Dwight, and Hank Jr. was invaluable, it also put Luke and his band on nearly impossible road schedules, tasking them to drive long haul across the country just to play one or two shows—a similar situation to what Sturgill Simpson had to deal with early in his career, and had Sturgill talking of quitting at times. “You bet your ass I wanted to quit last year,” Luke Bell confirms. “There were times I wasn’t having any fun.” This might be part of the reason Bell has decided to take it somewhat easy this summer, despite the new record being released, and a few bigger opportunities like Bonnaroo and CMA Fest that he is partaking in. Instead of launching a big tour now, he’s decided to get his fingernails dirty in Nashville for a while and let the batteries recharge, and perhaps take off on tour again in the fall.
As for what folks can expect from the new, self-titled record out June 17th …
“It’s still very much in the grounds of the traditional country songwriting format, which is what I have studied for the last couple of years. You have the new acts that are coming out that have actually done their homework, and have groundwork in the understanding of what traditional American music is, which I feel is really important if you want to innovate. You have to look back at what your forefathers and everyone else has done for years, and study it. People call what I do retro, but it’s not retro. It’s just if you went to built a house, would you figure out how to frame it by yourself without going to study another house? And when you’re making American music, you’ve got to study how other people have done it in the past in order to do those cool things today.”