There is no justice in the music business. Consider a sports league where there worst teams always win, and do so because of seedy deals and backroom politics. That is music in a nutshell. But every once in a while there’s an outlier—a case where justice is served, and someone who deserves to be lifted up to the podium actually gets that opportunity. Luke Bell doesn’t come across as some aspirational go getter looking to “make it.” That’s why his particular brand of traditional country feels so authentic. And why he probably deserves to “make it” more than those participating in the hustle down on Music Row.
Luke Bell still has a long way to go, but it’s not nearly as far as he did a while back when he was just yet another songwriter with a collection of studio tracks looking for attention. Surprisingly he actually found attention from a few noteworthy people, from big-time booking agency WME, and others in the business that have lifted Luke out of the crowd, and given him the opportunity to prove his muster in front of a bigger audience.
In the spirit of full disclosure, reviewing this record is a difficult enterprise because of how this release came about. Half of this record was released over two years ago via Bandcamp in a fully independent effort called Don’t Mind If I Do. The opening track, and most of the second half of this record is not just familiar, it has been heavily vetted by this particular set of ears, especially since it was so well-received and remained on heavy rotation at Saving Country Music headquarters for an extended period, and revisited often.
Heavy listening can usurp the magic from music no matter how magical or appealing it might be initially, just as time can expose material as not as magical as initially thought. But in regards to Luke Bell’s old songs presented anew in this release, neither of the two aforementioned worries are of concern. Songs like “Sometimes,” “Working Man’s Dream,” and “Glory and the Grace” are just as striking as they were when Donald Trump as a Presidential candidate was still more rumor than reality. It’s that honky tonk musk Luke Bell contracted while hanging out in Austin, Texas for a year or two, that bluesy piano he picked up while bumming around New Orleans, and how it’s all mixed with the Wyoming ruggedness imparted by his upbringing that makes these compositions timeless.
Truth be told, if I had my druthers, and it didn’t make a difference to anyone else, I wouldn’t have balked at re-releasing Don’t Mind If I Do verbatim with the umph of Thirty Tigers and a team of pros behind behind Bell now, and called it good. There will be plenty of other opportunities to release new music in the future. Don’t go messing with something that is perfectly fine already. The formula to putting together music that goes on to be considered generational is too fickle to test fate with. And according to Luke himself, he wouldn’t have minded the “don’t fix what ain’t broken” approach to this record too.
There is something to be said about the lapse in time that had transpired though, and the need for new music. So a compromise was struck, and the best parts of Don’t Mind If I Do were packaged up and transferred over, and five new songs were cut in the same studio as the previous sessions. And it was the best parts and the best songs that made the move to the new record. Otherwise this self-titled project may be even more susceptible to second guessing.
If there is any problem with the new record, it might be that the old material outclasses the new. Or is this one of the tricks the mind plays on itself when it grows so fond of songs, anything appearing afterwards finds second favor? See, this is why reviewing an album like this can be perilous. Isn’t it usually the first album we hear from and artist that goes on to be our favorite?
There is nothing wrong with the songwriting or approach to the new songs like “Where Ya Been?” but they just don’t seem to hold the same energy and passion of those original tracks. “Sometimes” opens the album and was one of the standouts on the original record. Then as you go through a few of the new songs, you’re not opposed to them in any way, it’s just that when you get to “Working Man’s Dream” and “Glory and the Grace,” you’re reminded why Luke Bell is not just a classic throwback artist that relies on style, but a singular talent with a voice and approach to traditional country we haven’t heard before.
Truth be told, that original Luke Bell record also had some lesser-appealing material. That’s why despite all the high praise, Saving Country Music stopped short of giving it a full “two gun” rating. I wouldn’t call these new songs filler as much as some of Luke Bell’s songs are such flaming arrows landing right in the bulls-eye of country music gold, anything will feel outclassed beside them. The new song “Ragtime Troubles” that appears next to last in the track list has that quality, and can be bookended in by the older songs “The Bullfighter” and “The Great Pretender” and stand tall beside them.
Luke Bell has a bright future in music … if he wants to. And that might be the biggest question remaining. This self-titled debut will be all brand new to most, and by the grace of some really amazing songs, his audience will continue to swell. Keeping his authenticity and voice as he transitions from a drifting Wyoming cowboy to a professional musician will be a challenge, but it’s one worth fighting, because country music needs more artists like Luke Bell who find the business and the yearning for the spotlight second nature, and less of the folks who crave the spotlight as their sole purpose.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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