It was June of 2014, and an unsolicited submission came into my inbox from an artist named Luke Bell, accompanied by a BandCamp link to an album called Don’t Mind If I Do.
“I’ve just released a new honky-tonk album in Nashville,” Luke Bell wrote. “I’m from Wyoming, please listen if you’ve got the time, and review if ya can! Hope you like it.”
After responding back, acknowledging the submission along with the regular accompanying message that due to the large volume of submissions I receive not everything can be reviewed but it will at least be heard, Luke Bell responded in a way that was succinct, but quietly confident.
“I think you’ll like it. Thank you Kyle.”
Nearly six years later, the most common query that lands into that same inbox that Luke Bell first submitted his music to is “Where is Luke Bell?”
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Some artists contain that indefinable magic that all diehard country music fans are searching for, but only a select few artists seem to truly contain. It’s often hard to put your finger on just what makes a performer resonate so deeply with listeners compared to others, but it’s some sort of nebulous quality often attributed to authenticity, and it’s underpinned by true and original talent that’s universally recognizable. Regardless of what it is, all the great artists of the past and present have it, and so did Luke Bell.
As a diamond in the rough, he was a fun discovery for listeners, and that mentions nothing about the music contained on his debut album Don’t Mind If I Do. As I said in my review back in 2014, “Luke Bell is all peeling paint, and plaid jackets that smell like old men. He won’t wow you with his originality, but his authentic interpretation of classic country sounds and modes is uncanny. This is one of those albums that right after you push play, you find yourself saying, ‘Yes, this is what I’m talking about.’ “
Luke Bell has never been one of staying in one place for very long. That’s part of his magic. Born in Lexington, Kentucky and raised in Cody, Wyoming, he tried to go to college for a bit in Laramie and started playing in a band in a local bar. But it was a chance meeting with singer/songwriter Pat Reedy that opened up his mind to and entirely different world he’d hadn’t been exposed to previously. “[Pat] 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 told Saving Country Music in 2016.
Luke Bell was in Austin, TX, bumming around the infamous Hole in the Wall bar near the University of Texas campus around 2011, when Mike and the Moonpies, Leo Rondeau, and Ramsey Midwood were the artists-in-residence, and a man named Dennis O’Donnell was the bartender of note. Luke would couch surf around the area, and perform at the Hole in the Wall when they would let him, which was not often since he was still honing his chops, and was hounded for playing too loud in a rock and roll band he formed called Fast Luke and the Lead Heavy. They played from 3 to 5 p.m., and were eventually fired.
When Dennis O’Donnell opened the now famed White Horse on the east side of Austin, Luke took his bumming ways across town, working as a bar back at the new joint, building the fence around the bar’s patio, and eventually landing a regular performance slot on the stage with a decidedly more honky tonk style.
But the road eventually led Luke Bell to Nashville, where he recorded Don’t Mind If I Do. Similar to how Bell had fallen right into the honky tonk scene in Austin at the right time, a similar fate found him in Nashville where he began performing regularly at the infamous Santa’s Pub. A video for his song “Sometimes” from 2016 shot at Santa’s illustrates just how immersed Bell became in that scene, with appearances from fellow performers like Logan Ledger, Kristina Murray, Erin Rae, and other notables in the east Nashville world.
Luke Bell soon became sort of a standard bearer when it came to measuring ruggedness and authenticity in independent country—one of those artists people referred to when taking the weight of other performers. He also became very well-beloved by his listeners.
And it wasn’t just the independent country community that was paying attention, and dutifully impressed. One of the top booking agents at the prestigious WME agency caught wind of Luke, and saw a star in the making. Soon, without any real national touring experience or record label backing, Luke Bell was put on tour opening for names like Willie Nelson, Hank Jr., and Dwight Yoakam.
As the saying goes, a star was born. All of a sudden a semi-homeless and generally adrift Luke Bell was presented a serious opportunity to make it in music, and it was due solely to the strength of his voice and music. In the spring of 2016 he would be signed to Thirty Tigers, and was set the release a self-titled album that took most of the best songs of Don’t Mind If I Do and combined them with a few new tracks. Soon Luke Bell was a national name, drawing comparisons with the type of team and momentum Sturgill Simpson had behind him, with the same flight path toward big success.
But few were factoring in that the same authenticity the made Luke Bell so appealing to fans as the rugged Wyoming cowboy turned musical troubadour is also what made the business side of making music naturally unappealing to Luke Bell personally. Many had big plans for Luke, but Luke’s plans remained decidedly less aspirational.
In May of 2016, I met Luke in a restaurant in east Nashville’s Five Points for lunch, right after it had been announced he’d signed to Thirty Tigers, and shortly before his debut album was to be released. He seemed more apprehensive about his future than excited, saying that he’d almost rather be out digging post holes than performing on big stages and having to deal with the dog and pony show that went along with it. When speaking about opening on all those big stages, which required rigorous travel, Luke said, “You bet your ass I wanted to quit last year. There were times I wasn’t having any fun.”
After the interview, I drove with him back to a house he was helping to remodel with east Nashville songwriter and general contractor J.P. Harris. As J.P. and I started chatting briefly, Luke Bell picked up a calking gun and got to work—a guy that was sitting on the brink of finally making big in music with the label, booking, and management all in place. It sort of underscored that Luke Bell felt more comfortable working with his hands, and perhaps, being anonymous, than he did opening for Hank Williams Jr.
A tour was planned for later that fall (2016) to help promote the record that came out on June 17th, but it never went off. Word came down that someone close to Luke had passed away, and the tour was cancelled without any formal explanation. I exchanged multiple emails with management and such who assured me everything was okay, and that it was just a temporary setback. But nothing was quite ever the same with Luke.
The next time I saw Luke Bell was at the Pickathon Festival outside of Portland, OR in August of 2017. Being booked at the festival had been a rite of passage for many artists, and a launching pad for their careers. Bell had been selected for the lineup for that very reason, since he was seen as an equivalent to Sturgill Simpson who owed a significant amount of his success to an early Pickathon appearance. Luke Bell he was booked alongside other emerging prospects that year such as Brent Cobb, Courtney Marie Andrews, and Kelsey Waldon.
Luke Bell’s Pickathon appearance was a little weird. He didn’t show up with a honky tonk band, but with a more acoustic-style 4-piece outfit that sat in chairs across the stage and included a lady playing snare drum, a lead guitar player, and the well-regarded primitive country Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Matt Kinman, who ended up singing just as many songs during Luke’s two sets as Luke did. There were also some murmurs about a few drunken antics backstage, which perhaps is not unusual for a festival (though it sort of is for the fairly sedated Pickathon).
I tried to talk briefly to Bell at one point, but he appeared a little aloof, said he had been going through some stuff. He didn’t seem to want to go into much detail, and I didn’t want to pry. He was no longer living in Nashville, and was calling somewhere in the Carolinas home. The impression he left on many of the Pickathon crowd and staff was not necessarily bad, but was at least a little strange.
The Pickathon appearance was sort of a one-off thing as opposed to part of a bigger tour, and Bell didn’t seem to be particularly into it. Afterwards, there were rumors of Luke Bell still touring and performing, but not promoting it at all, perhaps not to run afoul of contracts he may still have been obligated to from WME. Pickathon was one of his final official performance dates.
The final time I ran into Luke Bell was on February 13th, 2018 in Memphis, Tennessee for Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards. Luke was up for Best Honky Tonk Male, and ended up winning it. Before the awards, I was setting up my gear to get ready to conduct a live blog of the event. Conducting a live blog is always hectic, and unfortunately I didn’t have a lot of time to talk before the event, even though Luke seemed eager to. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Better.”
To this day I regret not having more time to chat with him at that time, or sitting down to interview him about what was going on, but conducting the live blog was what I was there to do. After the Ameripolitan ceremony I went looking for him, but I couldn’t find him. He had seemed to disappear at some point during the awards.
The last time Luke Bell was confirmed to have performed was on a Wine on the Rails event near Nashville with Matt Kinman, along with Pat Reedy and others on November 10th, 2019. But again, rumors of him playing unpromoted shows in small local bars and such are out there. Almost like a ghost, Luke Bell will appear at times, only to drift back into the shadows.
Since then (and with so many requests coming in), I’ve done everything within my power to run down information about the whereabouts and status of Luke Bell, finding mostly rumor, but also a little bit more hard information from people who’ve known Luke well over the years, and care about the guy. They assure me that he’s not dead or anything, but that trying to track him down or expecting him to release a new album or a slew of new tour dates when the Coronavirus lifts is unlikely, at least for now. And that prying any further would not be healthy for anyone, especially Luke.
So in short, there is no answer to the question, “Where is Luke Bell?” aside from saying that that Luke Bell is out there somewhere being Luke Bell. That authenticity of the drifting cowboy writing and performing songs when he can is what gave him his poetic appeal that resonated with fans so deeply. Luke’s never given up on that. He’s just given up on trying to make a product of it, at least for now. In some respects, we were lucky to get 1 1/2 records of great music and memories of Luke performing live when we had the opportunity.
And wherever Luke Bell is and whatever he’s doing, we’ll all be eagerly waiting for him when he decides to return, on his own time, and on his own terms. It’s our job as fans and admirers to not lump our expectations upon him, but to be patient, and understanding, especially when it comes to someone like Luke Bell. Because few if anybody embodies the authenticity of American country and roots music in the modern context better than him. That’s why we miss him so.
And besides, listening back through his music, it appears the answer to “Hey Luke, Where ya been?” might have been hiding right under our noses the whole time …