Nathan Bell was inspired to write this series of songs that make up Red, White and American Blues (it couldn’t happen here)” during the first time that Donald Trump was impeached. Appropriately, more so than any set of lyrics, though, the most serious message is in the album subtitle, a direct reference to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel imagining the possibility that the people of the United States could be mindlessly led to fascism, a notion that as recently as five or six years ago may have seemed absurd but now has become stark reality, despite the many who would deny such. So, that is one of the key threads that run through these 13 songs, and another is his nods to a few great poets, his poet father Marvin Bell among them.
Bell has long been a champion of working people, but he goes much deeper here, with topics that address mass shootings, the underserved Black and indigenous peoples, the corrupt criminal justice system, and the widening racial divide in this country. But perhaps Bell’s most endearing quality is empathy which lies at the heart of the title track, a nod to Gil Scott Heron wherein his talking blues over a jazzy backdrop pays tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives for a variety of reasons – in protest of the Vietnam war, a Black man innocently walking down the street, for being female in a patriarchy, for being a child under the control of a corrupt religion, for being a Soldier, a working person, and a Native American. Yes, it will induce the same kind of chills that Gil Scott-Heron did in “Winter in America.” Here are the last three lines of the last three verses – “There are people chained to machines everywhere with/The American Blues” – “None of us have the heart to tell them the original story of/The American Blues” – “Soon we will be burning together in red, white/And American Blues/Burn, baby, burn”
Bell is front and center with his excellent guitar and harmonica playing, flanked by a core group of musicians including Alvino Bennett (drums), Frank Swart (bass, guitar, mandocaster) and John Deaderick (keyboards). He taps three acclaimed female singers – Regina McCrary, Aubrie Sellers, and Patty Griffin. Reverend Crow also adds harmonica to some tracks.
The album was delayed for two years due to the pandemic, but Bell’s words remain frighteningly relevant beginning with the stomping blues of the haunting “Angola Prison,” and moving to searing anti-gun violence in the acoustic folk of “American Gun,” the first of three where Griffin’s signature harmony adds poignancy. He decries the media fascination in a simple set of devastating words – “The credits roll/When the reckoning comes/I’m cinematic/The American Gun.” In “Retread Cadillac” he paints a sterling character sketch of the legendary bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins as he trades verses with Regina McCrary, an answer of sorts to the theme of “Angola” as he begins with “Sam Hopkins come to Houston/In a retread Cadillac/Said I did my time on the prison farm/I’m never going back.’’
“A Lucky Man” is a whole different angle as Griffin helps Bell pay a loving tribute to his father. “Wrong Man for the Job” seems to be directed to the man who was President in 2019, when the song was written. The harmonica imbued “When You’re Dead” (Ghost reflects on his dire circumstances) is inspired by the poet Gaylord Brewer. There’s a huge thread of “The Dead Man” running through some of these songs and certainly in author Mark Kemp’s liner notes but we’ll stay clear of that for purposes of brevity. That’s a deep hole to crawl into and out of.
McCrary returns for the blistering “Mossberg Blues,” another anti-gun treatise. Mossberg is a shotgun manufacturer. “Running on the Razor,” with Aubrie Sellers, paints a harrowing picture of the desperate militant, drug-crazed faction poised to launch their next attack. Over swelling gospel organ, Bell evokes Tom Waits and Randy Newman in “Zensuit’s Samadhi Blues.” “Monday, Monday,” another of his prototypical working songs, delivers a whiplash effect using wah wahs that match his hardscrabble lyrics. “To Each of Us” with Patty Griffin has only the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, appropriately spare and bleak for doomsday lyrics that consistently remind us of what we are losing. “Folding Money” deplores corrupt religions and those that hide behind evangelical shields.
These wrenching songs may wear you out, but Bell’s poetry is stunning, and his thought patterns are highly provocative. Take heed.