There’s a certain expectation placed upon folk singers in our tumultuous year of 2017. Today we face a lot of changes; a new legacy is being formed in the midst of rampant polarization. In previous times like these, such as the ‘60s and ‘70s, music has offered a voice of reason amongst all the noise. Iowa born and Chattanooga based folk singer, Nathan Bell has been named the “Woody Guthrie we need in the age of globalization,” by The Bitter Southerner. With songs like “Raise Your Fist,” “Coal Black Water,” and “What Did You Do Today,” Nathan Bell sets himself as a contemporary to the greats with a world worn voice and introspective lyricism that offers clarity in our uncertain socio-political times.
“In one nation under man/no wall can ever stand/against all this love,” Bell declares on Love > Fear highlight “Traitorland (Rules for Living In).” The new record is equal parts an empathetic cry for union amongst all peoples as well as scathing critique on the dog eat dog world of American politics. Equipped with only guitar, harmonica and voice, Bell bears his soul with unfiltered honesty that reaches the heart of the common man. He creates a collage of stories in songs like “The Big Old American Dream,” which connects a skinhead attorney turned rodeo clown, an overweight animal vet, a criminal, a prisoner, and what we do in the pursuit of happiness. The scope of his songwriting and tact of his style shows on the album, and to have a great songwriter in our midst in Chattanooga is to be noted as well. However, his story didn’t start here.
He began in Iowa, born to a respected poet and raised on the blues. He began writing his own songs at an early age and became a fixture in the prolific ‘80’s Boston scene, which produced a variety of folk roots acts. Then he formed Bell & Shore, described as “progressive bluegrass with a jolt of punk,” a duo with his wife at the time. Their breakout album, “L-Ranko Motel,” was critically acclaimed, including a rave review from Rolling Stone. When they separated, he moved down to Nashville where he would go on to share stages with greats like Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal and Norman Blake.
Unfortunately, the city and the folk singer weren’t the best match, and in 1993 he abandoned the guitar and pen to join the working-class crowd. He worked basic labor jobs until he landed a gig as a manger of an AT&T branch in Chattanooga. Then, in 2007 after a phone call from a friend and encouragement from his wife, he picked up the guitar and began writing songs again. He’s released six albums since then—a musical cornucopia of wit, empathy, experience, and folk singer sincerity.
Nathan Bell may be Chattanooga’s hidden gem. Despite our fervent political times, the folk singer knows how to deliver a message about current events with home-grown honesty and impeccable clarity.
Nathan Bell will perform with Magic Birds at Barking Legs Theatre on July 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.