Country artist Luke Bell was officially laid to rest in a private ceremony in Cody, Wyoming on September 9th. But on Saturday, November 12th, friends, family, fellow musicians and fans were given the opportunity to remember and celebrate Luke Bell publicly at a gathering at the Circle P Ranch in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, just east of Nashville.
Many musicians who were within the Luke Bell orbit appeared, and many played music and shared stories throughout the day. This including Pat Reedy, who Luke Bell always gave credit to as the “real deal” musician who showed up in Wyoming, and inspired him to pursue music deeper. It also included JP Harris, who helped shepherd Luke early in his career as a musician, and also employed Luke on construction jobs between gigs. Martha Spencer, who was one of Luke’s final collaborators, also appeared and addressed the crowd, telling stories of Luke.
Other musicians in attendance were Logan Ledger, who sang a couple of excellent classic country songs for the crowd, Leo Rondeau, who knew Luke Bell from his early days in Austin, throwback country singer Kelsey Rae, blues singer Eliza Thorn, fiddle player Frank Bronson, Rudy the accordion player, Kevin Martin from the Hogslop String Band, Misa Arriaga and others (sincere apologies for those omitted, lots to keep up with).
More than a dozen of Luke Bell’s family members also came down from Wyoming and from other locations to be there to celebrate Luke’s life with the music community, including his mother Carol, sister Jane, and Uncle Dan who Luke was close with, and worked for at times. Luke’s cousin Beth Uselton lives in Nashville, and told many beautiful stories about Luke, who would stay with their family upon occasion, and forged a special bond with their daughter Virginia, who told the story of a time when Luke Bell rescued a turtle from the train tracks, about brought it to her as a pet.
Perhaps the most touching, and most important moment of the evening is when Luke Bell’s mother addressed the crowd at the beginning. Speaking through tears about the son she had done everything she could to help escape the grips of mental illness and bipolar disorder, she said to all Luke Bell friends, fans and mourners,
It’s good to see you all here, and to be reminded of how well-loved he was. It’s such a comfort to me because he suffered so much in the last few years of his life. It’s such a comfort to me and our family to know how well-loved he was even when he was driving us all crazy. It’s just so nice to know that there are so many forgiving, loving, supportive people in the world.
I remember once when Luke came to see me. He was homeless in Denver for about three months. He’d been hopping trains for a while, which is a mom’s worst nightmare, and hopping trains while he was under the influence, so I was afraid he was going to kill himself. By this time, he’d lost all forms of ID, so he couldn’t get money out of the bank. I told him, ‘I just get so scared. How do you do it? How do you eat? How do you stay warm? ‘He just looked at me and said, ‘Mom, there’s a lot of nice people out there.’
I just think about that all the time. I think about all of you who’ve rescued him at one time or another. And I know that one of the things that Luke taught me is that there are a lot of nice people out there, and I want to make sure that I am one of them. And I hope you are all those good people too.
Along with celebrating Luke Bell, the event was also a good opportunity to recognize the people who had helped Luke Bell through his personal struggles. Brian Buchanan has been Luke’s business manager—handling all his affairs, and trying his best to look after him through his health issues and his homelessness. He spoke about mental health, and information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI was available at the event.
Traditional country musician Matt Kinman, aka “The Little Hobo” was Luke Bell’s daily caretaker for many years, rescuing and running down Luke when he would wander off, and being the one guy Luke would run back to and confide in when things were at their worst. Luke Bell fans owe a debt of gratitude to Matt Kinman for keeping Luke Bell around for as long as he was. Kinman too stressed the importance of checking in on the people we love and looking after each other, along with being the emcee, host, and an entertainer at the event.
Other notable attendees were three representatives from Luke Bell’s record label Thirty Tigers, Jason Galaz from Muddy Roots, Luke Bell’s lawyer Steve Nearenberg from Lawrence, Kansas, and Mike and Melissa from a company called Model A Mac’s who found doodles and lyrics to songs Luke Bell had left behind when he’d stayed with them, and presented them to the family.
The Luke Bell Memorial was most importantly a musical event, and a couple of notable things occurred. A 10-year-old boy named Myles Gee showed up to play, and shocked the crowd when he ripped into a Waylon Jennings song, and then encored with “That’s Alright” by Elvis. Myles Gee is most definitely a promising guitar prodigy, and one to look out for in the coming years.
Perhaps the most surprising, and the most touching performance of the event happened when Luke’s sister Jane got up to sing one of her brother’s signature songs, “The Bullfighter,” flanked by JP Harris and Pat Reedy, who both had been so instrumental to Luke Bell’s career.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the talent of Luke Bell would be shared by his sister, but as Jane also entertained the crowd with other songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” it was clear she is an immensely talented singer in her own right. It wasn’t exactly as prophetic as the Star Wars moment when Luke Skywalker is flying away in his X-wing, and Obi-Wan says, “That boy is our only hope,” and Yoda responds, “No, there is another.” But there is no doubt that Jane Bell was born to sing too.
Many great stories of Luke Bell were told. There are few better storytellers than JP Harris, who told the story of meeting Luke Bell and other escapades. It also came out from numerous sources that at some point, Luke Bell had made a previously-unreported acquaintance with Kacey Musgraves when she was an up-and-coming performer in Nashville just like Luke Bell, however brief.
Though the official time for the gathering was 12:00 to 6:00, it spilled well into the night, with folks huddled in the Circle P Ranch General Store, or outside beside a cowboy fire in 30-degree temps. A huge mess of jambalaya, white beans, biscuits and cornbread were cooked up for everyone to partake in as well.
The night closed out with the great traditional banjo player Leroy Troy along with Matt Kinman leading everyone in “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” dedicated to Luke.
As Luke’s cousin Beth Uselton said when telling stories of his life, “Luke was easy to love, but hard to hold. And I think that’s some of the heartbreak we feel right now. None of us could save him from the life he really wanted to live.”
It wasn’t just what Luke Bell sang, but who Luke Bell was that compelled the country music world like few others. He sang what he lived, and lived what he sang. And though that legacy was cut short due to mental illness, the magic he left behind will endure well beyond the tributes and gatherings.
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Some select photos: