Nathan Bell is a songwriter’s songwriter—at 57, the troubadour’s weary voice bleeds experience. He made his bones sharing bills with legends like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake. The son of a poet and professor, the Iowa-born/Chattanooga-based Bell has a keen eye for detail and an unapologetic penchant for the political, populist humanism of his literary heroes John Steinbeck, Jack London and Studs Terkel. So it’s no surprise that the 2016 presidential race—culminating the election of Donald J. Trump—was a powerful catalyst for Bell’s affecting new album Love>Fear (48 Hours in Traitorland).
“Right before we did the deed and elected an oligarch, PT Barnum-style scam artist, I started thinking it was time to collect some of the political songs I’d written over the years, and combine them with some of the new ones I’d been working on,” Bell says. “I’ve always been resistant to slogans and catchphrases, so Traitorland is more an album of pointed stories about people affected by the callousness of the wealthy and the power brokers. Nowadays, they’re so disconnected from the working class—they’re even more cruel than Carnegie was. Paul Ryan—I don’t know how he sleeps at night. I don’t know how a man like Steve Bannon is allowed to spend a day near whoever’s in power. My family’s half Jewish, and I look at Bannon and think, ‘Great, we’re either gonna have to run or fight again.’ So the album comes from that.”
Bell is no Johnny-come-lately at speaking truth to power. Back in the ’70s, his first gig as a teenager was a rally against the Vietnam War. “I’ve been doing this—and, trust me, it’s not the most profitable way to navigate the music industry—for a long, long time,” Bell says. “I’d take more credit for it, morally, except I don’t think I could’ve done it any other way. I never set out to be a songwriter—I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to be Steinbeck or Hemingway. But I can’t write prose the way I can write songs. Now, Hemingway—as famous, wealthy and full of shit as he sometimes was—when he saw there was something to say about the Spanish Civil War, he said it. And he didn’t do it by getting on a soapbox and writing some heavy-handed political poem—he did it by telling stories about people.”
Glide is very proud to premiere “Hard Weather” off of Love>Fear (48 Hours in Traitorland), a composition that reveals Bell’s gritty directness to be as genuine and biting as they come. In the song we meet a broken widower in the midst of a crisis of faith—addled with struggle and grief—symptomatic of the current sociopolitical climate in middle-class America.
It’s easy to tag any singer-songwriter as a “troubadour,” but Bell lives up the billing as a lifelong devotee of his craft, speaking out against the status quo with true valiancy. In these most unsettling times, the people’s wordsmith has never been more needed and Nathan Bell is that standout/speak your mind writer of songs.