It’s been really hard to focus on anything else since first hearing about country artist Luke Bell’s disappearance, and the subsequent discovery of him in Tucson, AZ on Monday (8-29), dead at the age of 32. Bell was found near North Craycroft and East Grant roads, close to the Tucson Medical Center.
No, we don’t know Luke Bell’s cause of death at this point. It remains under investigation according to Tucson Police Public Information Officer Frank Magos. Foul play hasn’t been 100% ruled out. But we all have a premonition that just like too many other country heroes who left us too young, Luke Bell died of the Lovesick Blues.
Luke Bell was an A1 artist here at Saving Country Music, meaning one of the artists who was featured here before anywhere else in the United States. This is not to brag, but to underscore just how close his story and career was covered and cared for around here. The great thing about starting with an artist on the ground floor is you get to watch them rise from being obscure to beloved. You get to see the fans they accrue over time, and the value the music brings to people’s lives.
When Luke Bell was signed with the big booking agency WME and was put on the road opening for the likes of Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and Dwight Yoakam, we got the sense he could very well be the “next one.” This was reinforced when Luke signed with the music distribution company Thirty Tigers. Having recently witnessed Sturgill Simpson emerge from the shadows to upstage the mainstream, it felt like Luke Bell was next in line, and on a similar trajectory. He had that same granular appeal, perhaps even more pronounced than Sturgill.
But grand success for Luke Bell was never achieved. He wasn’t suited for stardom, or anything resembling it, even if his music and appeal seemed to scream out for it. In certain respects, Luke Bell stood in the way of his own success, shirking opportunities for the spotlight and big stages to dig post holes, work carpentry jobs, and play un-promoted shows in dive bars with friends. He was too real for the spotlight. This left his legacy quite obscure. Unless you had your nose deep into Saving Country Music or some other supporting outlet, knowledge of Luke Bell and his music remained elusive.
Independent country music fans take the obscurity of their favorite artists personally. It’s the cutting reality of the inequities of the music industry that drives the loyalty, and the enthusiasm every independent country fan feels for their favorite artists. That’s what makes grassroots fans so formidable compared to the average passive mainstream fan. They tell all of their friends and family about their favorite music. They drive two counties over to see their favorite performers play. They buy a vinyl record and a hoodie at the merch table afterwards, even though they don’t even own a turntable, and it’s still hot outside.
With Luke Bell, we all felt some injustice was being perpetrated. We knew the power of his music. He should be on the radio and TV. He should be winning big awards instead of those posers of pop country. That was partly Luke’s fault. But it was also the fault of a system that doesn’t allow the best of country music to rise to the top, no matter the personality faults—or in Luke’s case, the underlying mental illness—of the performer.
But something rather inexplicable is happening amid the news of Luke Bell’s passing. For going on 15 years, Saving Country Music has been reporting on the deaths of country artists, including ones who pass way too young, and under tragic circumstances just like Luke. But never has the story of a deceased artist been so compelling to the point where it is covered so overwhelmingly across the entirety of American media, and beyond.
At this point, most every major media outlet in America has covered the death of Luke Bell, from country music outlets such as Taste of Country, The Boot, and Whiskey Riff, to overall music outlets like Billboard and American Songwriter, to major news outlets like CNN, CBS News, ABC News, NBC News, Fox News, USA Today, and The New York Post. Political sites like Breitbart, HuffPost, and Vulture have even covered it, to major entertainment outlets like People, E News, TMZ, to even local news affiliates, including all the news stations in Tucson where Luke Bell was found, to Nashville, to the LA Times. The news has hit multiple wire services, and has been served to hundreds of local outlets all across the United States.
The most-watched evening news program was even talking about Luke Bell. David Muir of World News Tonight addressed Luke Bell’s death Wednesday night (8-31).
Very short, but something we thought we’d never see. They’re paying attention now, aren’t they Luke?— Saving Country Music (@KyleCoroneos) August 31, 2022
Big update coming… pic.twitter.com/k9MLhtchPh
Saving Country Music stopped counting and compiling a master list of who had covered the passing of Luke Bell at 200. The only conspicuous omission would be Rolling Stone. Not even its Rolling Stone Country affiliate could give Luke Bell a mention. Instead, the publication was focused on publishing two more articles about Jason Aldean’s wife’s Instagram account, and releasing its “100 Greatest Country Albums” list on Tuesday (8-30). Normally a list like that would dominate the narrative and news cycle in country music. Instead, it was Luke Bell everyone was talking about, and sharing memories of and information on.
It even reached into the celebrity class, with actress Jessica Chastain tweeting out her sympathy, and telling people to listen to Luke Bell’s music. How does Chastain know about Luke Bell? She is playing Tammy Wynette in an upcoming limited series, so maybe she’s paying more attention to country music than we thought. Or maybe like so many of the people who see the headlines, and the photos, and read Luke Bell’s story, it’s resonating with them on a very personal level. Though Luke Bell was one-of-a-kind, he is reminding many of the brother, son, father, cousin, friend, or co-worker suffering from mental illness.
This is so very sad. I wish we spoke more about mental illness. It needs the same support of any other disease. Please have a listen to #LukeBell today and honor this country soul who lost his battle. I hope he’s finally found the peace he sought.https://t.co/BnvFmhhKGv— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) August 31, 2022
And yes, the results of all this attention is translating into people listening to Luke Bell’s music. And as we’ve seen so often, when the public is exposed to actual country music, it immediately resonates with them. It reminds them of the country music of the past that their parents or grandparents listened to during times that were much more simple than today’s. They’re listening to Luke Bell, and learning what so many of his established fans have known for years: he deserves to be heard.
Though the iTunes charts are an imperfect metric of the popularity of music in the long term, they’re also the only real-time metric we have. Currently Luke Bell’s self-titled album from 2016 is #1 in country music, beating out Morgan Wallen’s massive Dangerous: The Double Album. Luke Bell also has the #4 album in all of music on iTunes. Bell also has multiple songs currently charting in country. So yes, people are listening, and are liking what they hear.
Sure, some of this is probably being driven by the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra of today’s media. But never before have we seen something at this level for any independent country artist, or even some mainstream artists upon their passing. It’s not just Luke Bell’s death, but his story, his music, the way he looks, what it all stands for that seems to be gripping people.
It is beyond a shame that it took Luke Bell’s passing for him to finally find the attention his career deserved. But unmistakably, the Luke Bell story has achieved escape velocity. There’s just something inherently intriguing and poetic about it all. A few have mentioned Blaze Foley as a comparative—the obscure Austin-based songwriter who hung around with Townes Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams wrote “Drunken Angel” about. He was murdered at the age of 39, never really seeing his music take hold. But now the music of Blaze Foley is considered legendary.
Perhaps we have a way to go before Luke Bell is considered in that same category. That is for time to decide, since it is the ultimate arbiter of the importance of music. But for those who followed Luke Bell from the very beginning, believed that his music could have a positive impact on the world if it was just given a chance, that fate—however uncanny and inexplicable—appears to finally fulfilling, at least in the near term. And though we’d trade all of this to have Luke Bell back with us once again and it’s most certainly bitter sweet, it’s better late than never, and all of us early Luke bell adopters can say, “We told you so.”
You see Luke, you were a rising star. I heard it on the nightly news.
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Luke Bell’s final song and performance, aptly titled, “The Prodigal Son”: