A Year After His Death, Luke Bell is Not Forgotten

photo: Laura E. Partain

It was one year ago today that country artist Luke Bell died on the streets of Tucson, AZ after going missing a few days before. Considered at one point to be one of the most promising voices in country music, and one of the most authentic performers to ever ply the craft, Luke Bell’s death at age 32 remains one of the most tragic events in country music in recent memory.

At one point, Luke Bell was considered to be on the path to becoming the next Sturgill Simpson or Tyler Childers. He opened shows for Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., and Willie Nelson, and received rave reviews for his self-titled album released through Thirty Tigers in 2016. But his career ceased its forward trajectory as Bell began to slip away from society after the death of his father. A big tour planned after the release of the Thirty Tigers album never happened. Soon, Luke Bell would virtually disappear from the public entirely.

Luke Bell’s life ended on August 26th, 2022. But you had the sense even at that time that his legacy in life and music was just beginning. Before Oliver Anthony blew up unexpectedly in a viral moment, it was Luke Bell’s death that unexpectedly and inexplicably pierced the zeitgeist, and became one of the biggest stories in all of America. Though Luke Bell was very highly revered by those who knew his music, his footprint was relatively small. Poignantly though, in his death, Luke Bell finally received the national and international recognition his fans had always believed he deserved.

With all the attention that flowed to Luke Bell, the aftermath of his passing saw a spike in streams and sales of his music. But in this busy and culturally bifurcated moment in history, the fevered interest in Luke Bell eventually ebbed from its wild heights, though after earning him a whole new host of fans. Just as much as the music, it was the story of Luke Bell that compelled people. His struggles with mental health paralleled the experiences of so many American families.

What the reaction to Luke’s death certified was that he was a candidate to have a posthumous career in the same vein as Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, and other singer/songwriters whose music feels so elemental and eternally relevant. The story of Luke Bell’s life comes across as so poetic, and ultimately, so tragic, it left a resounding pulse that won’t fade anytime soon.

Along with the music itself, the Luke Bell story intertwines so deeply with the mental health crisis, homelessness issues, and addiction that has ravaged so much of society, it lends to so many more deeper narratives beyond mere musical entertainment. Yet his story as a kid who grew up in Cody, Wyoming and worked on his family’s ranch weaves perfectly into the debates about authenticity in country music, and parallels the swelling interest in Western styles of country.

In many respects, the story Luke Bell encapsulates this moment in time.

– – – – – – – –

This summer while traveling out West, I stopped into Cody, Wyoming to continue the search for Luke Bell I started while he was still living. That search never seemed to just be about finding the man, but about finding the message and the meaning that his music and life conveyed. I went to his family’s Diamond Tail ranch in nearby Shell, Wyoming, spoke to his mother, sister, grandparents, uncle, and nephew. I listened to their stories of Luke, and they showed me photos of his life.

This was all part of a much bigger effort currently underway to help commemorate and chronicle the life and music of Luke Bell, including an effort to bring Luke Bell’s music both new and old that has yet to be heard by the world to the public. All of this stuff is still in the preliminary, formative stages. But it will happen, with more to be revealed in the coming weeks and months.

In the meantime, today is a day to remember Luke Bell, and all the meaningful members of the music community and society at large that we have lost too soon due to mental health issues and its many tragic outcomes. Many feel that with the struggles that Luke Bell was going through, he’s now in a better place. But wouldn’t it be great if the world was a better place for dealing with with these issues before they turn tragic like they did for Luke Bell, and like they do for too many others every day.

Maybe Luke Bell and his story can help with that.

© 2023 Saving Country Music