If you’ve been to Meacham before, chances are you’ve seen Nathan Bell around. This musician son-of-a-poet is a pretty big part of the scene there every semester, or at least when he can make the time between writing and recording songs. This semester, he taught a songwriting workshop. Nashville Scene has portrayed Bell’s work as having “a crisp literary quality, a tough blue-collar sensibility and a terse, muscular musicality.” He has also been featured in the Rolling Stone and Option Magazine, and he’s about to be featured here. Sequoya Review Mandy Rogers sat down with Nathan Bell at Meacham this semester, and here is what he had to say:
MR: What is your musical background?
NB: I started as a trumpet player and decided to play guitar when I was fourteen or fifteen. So my musical background came from blues. I played around the Iowa City area and then gradually decided to write more songs. I had a duo with my ex-wife whose name is Susan Shore–Bell and Shore. We did pretty well. We played most of the major [music] festivals in Canada. Back in the day when it was hard to get one, we got a Rolling Stone review but unfortunately the record company at the time didn’t have our record so you couldn’t get it. So we had this really nice review and nobody could find our record. We sold nine hundred copies of that record maybe. So I did that for a long time and then in my early thirties I stopped playing and didn’t play again until I was forty seven. I come from a family of poets but my musical background came mostly from blues and country–Johnny Cash and things like that.
MR: I know you said you grew up in Iowa right? You moved to Nashville for a little while and now you’re in Chattanooga. Where is home for you and does your location impact your songwriting at all?
NB: Home is here for me in the Chattanooga area and it does impact what I write about to some extent but not as much as some writers because I tend to write outside the area. I always wrote the way I wrote. If you go back and look at my earlier writing the subject matter is the same but I was living in Iowa at the time. Obviously I’m paying attention to a certain kind of person rather than a place.
MR: You were in the music industry for a while and then you left for several reasons like having a child and wanting to focus on family. So you went from Nashville, being a musician to Chattanooga being a corporate kind of guy.
NB: Yeah I was a corporate, business guy
MR: Has that switch had any effect on your passion for music? Helping or squelching it?
NB: Well for thirteen years I didn’t pick up the guitar. I didn’t just kind of quit. I quit all the way. And actually I left the music business because there were two separate things going on. I came to the end of a contract in the music business. I spent a little while working with people who were very very helpful but I realized what I was doing didn’t have a financial future in that business anymore and I didn’t enjoy working with the format they were using at the time. I came to Nashville when there were still a lot of independent artists and then Garth Brooks got huge and everybody wanted another Garth Brooks because he made them so much money and I’m the farthest thing you could be from Garth Brooks. So I quit the business primarily because I didn’t enjoy the writing and the playing anymore and then as I found that I had to make a living and we decided to have a family it became obvious that I wouldn’t go back to it. So I didn’t play anymore and it did affect how I felt about playing. I didn’t want to touch the guitar. People are funny about that because it seems unimaginable but I’ve always been like that. I’m stubborn I guess.
MR: Your dad is a poet. Melvin Bell. Obviously that seems to have influenced you.
NB: (chuckles) Yeah.
MR: How so?
NB: My father’s an interesting kind of guy because there are poets who are, for lack of a better word, poets. You know, they are very artistic. My father was always a combination of a guy who was a poet and yet he still wanted me to have a normal life. He didn’t want me to go off and be the ‘fantasy writer’. He was prouder of me for getting a job and doing jobs my whole life and working and taking care of my family. I think that’s the thing he was most proud of. But he’s a really good poet and he’s a funny guy, very funny. So what really influenced me was my father being such a funny guy. Dinner at our house would be my father, my brother and I trying to make my mother laugh until she couldn’t breathe. So thats how I grew up and it really influenced my songwriting in that I never took things too seriously that I couldn’t poke fun at them. And that was my way of getting to the point without scaring anybody off.
MR: Your songs are different in that they rally around people and characters rather than the ‘typical’ country songs about ‘my dog’ and ‘my truck’. They are about real people.
NB: (laughs) I don’t know about my dog and my truck, actually, I like my dog and my truck.
MR: So would you say that you write mainly from experience then? Or do you just have a vivid imagination?
NB: Everybody has something that they do real well. Like some people get along with everyone–thats not me. Some people just make you feel better like my mother. She’s one of those people you can just sit down with her and she makes you feel better about yourself. I can always kind of tell what people really want. If I spent time with a person I can see what they are really about and so I try to write about what someone is really going through. I spent a lot of time in North Georgia which has about a 20% unemployment rate right now. My experience has been working with people in North Georgia who are all afraid of losing their jobs because the economy is terrible right now. I drive by sidewalks filled with people trying to find a place to work or companies where people are coming in right after me asking ‘are you hiring’ and after a while that just sticks in your head. So the albums I’m working on now that are about to come out are about those people. To me its a lot more interesting to write about individual people than to talk about the idea. The idea is huge and you can’t get your hands around it but if you know somebody and the songwriter tells you a story about somebody that you can relate to then the whole idea makes more sense.
MR: As a singer myself I have to ask the big question. Do you know the secret to writing the magical song that is going to keep listeners coming back for more?
NB: Steal if from Tom Petty. (laughs) You know what though, I don’t know the secret. I think it’s an accident. I think the greatest song to listen to in the car is AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long. It keeps you awake, its really cool sounding and the lyrics don’t matter and if I’d written it I’d be really proud. I’ve never met a single person who didn’t start nodding their head when that song came on. It’s just one of those songs and its just surprising. I think Taylor Swift also did that. Whatever she writes makes so much sense to the audience that she has. You listen to her songs and they are just perfect for what she’s trying to do. It’s a confluence of things. You wrote a song and that song spoke to people in a way that you probably never intended. Ill tell you what, if you try to write one of those songs you get garbage. You’ve just got to write about what you feel and what you know about and then maybe other people feel that way too.
MR: Who are your musical and literary influences?
NB: Ah thats a good one! Musically, god, that changes but I would say, Lightning Hopkins, a blues guy out of Texas was my first. I really really really love what Neil Young does. If you look at his lyrics on a page they don’t look quite the way they sound. If I was going to make a record I would want it to sound like Neil Young’s Harvest. I’ve been trying to make that record every record I ever made. He’s one of my heroes. I really admire Tom Petty because he consistently produced good songs. He almost never writes anything bad. I listened to a lot of jazz when I was younger, particularly John Coltrain and a guy nobody knows about named Chico Freeman. For words, most of the stuff was novelists. There’s a guy named Robert Olmstead. That guy’s a genius and never got what he deserved. The late Larry Brown, my friend Larry Brown. There’s other stuff too but I get most of my stuff from the field outside of music. Most of it comes from prose. A friend of mine named Glen Hershberger writes what they call freak fiction, which I’d never heard of before I met him. Its a combination of novels and short stories with an element of horror in them. Glen’s stuff is really influential on me for some reason as well.
MR: I found it extremely interesting earlier in the songwriting workshop when you shared with us a song that you wrote last night after hearing a poem at Meacham. Obviously literature has a huge impact on your songwriting.
NB: Oh yeah. Gaylord has a series of poems on this character, Ghost. It was funny, it was a feeling. I got in the car and I thought man, I know what that’s supposed to feel like. Now I might not have been right. Gaylord may be out there somewhere going ‘he didn’t get it’ but for me I got what I felt about it.
MR: How do you feel the music industry has changed throughout the years. Or has it?
NB: Oh it’s changed so much. Intellectual property isn’t very valuable to the people in the music business like it used to be. There’s not very much money. They don’t know what is going to happen when CD sales change. CD’s won’t be here forever. Downloads are a problem. Stuff gets sold on the internet that shouldn’t be sold on the internet. And stuff is taken for free that should’ve been paid for. When I was a kid it was really hard to make a record. You had to have money, a studio, you didn’t have much time. My first record had pops and hisses all over it and I had to send it back several times and it would take days. Nowadays I can edit a song while I’m waiting for my daughter to get out of ballet. It’s a different animal. Everyone has a better chance. In the old days though, you had to earn your stripes. I think music was technically better. If you had to spend a few years on the road and catch people’s ear I think you were a better musician. I think songwriting is in a dark period right now.
MR: It does seem like nowadays it doesn’t take very much, you don’t even have to be able to carry a tune. They will just auto-tune over you and make a hit record. No real talent.
NB: Auto-tune should be against the law.
MR: It seems like there are fewer and fewer true artists these days that write and play their own music.
NB: It’s true.
MR: I’m curious what your thoughts are on shows like American Idol and the YouTube craze that’s swept the nation.
NB: I think American Idol is a disgrace. I think it’s the most embarrassing thing on television period. There are some reality shows based on performance like that has-beens stars dance show that I watch all the time?
MR: Dancing with the Stars?
NB: Whether you like it or hate it those people have to go dance and thats hard. It’s real. If you weigh one hundred pounds more than you should and they throw you into ballroom dancing, you have got to shape up and play. American Idol is all gimmicks. Kelly Clarkson could really sing, but its been all downhill from there. When I was a kid, there was James Taylor, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Petty, Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young. You show me 10 people right now with that kind of talent. It’s hard. There are so many weasley-voiced male singers who sing about life on their futon in their flat that show up as background music on shows like ‘The Hills’. Who gives a damn?
Nathan Bell’s website is nathanbellmusic.com.