Remembering Luke Bell, 1990-2022
Luke Bell is dead, age 32.
Fans of the kind of country music that isn’t played on commercial radio are an obsessive lot. We trade new discoveries online, make lists, and argue about the meaning and scope of the terms used to describe the particular varieties of sound that span what is, for us, this country’s defining musical genre. Americana. Alt-country. Country pop. Pop country. (These two are not the same.) Country and Western. Western swing. Hillbilly punk. Red Dirt. Outlaw music.
We have our heroes, the ones we evangelize about, wondering why so few others listen to the music that galvanizes and sustains us.
Luke Bell was high on my list of such heroes. He released one record, in 2016; album that may have been the finest country debut of the entire second decade of this young century. He followed up a few years later with a single release, a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” turning what always struck many of us as creepy into something that soared with heartbreak and guilt. Luke played a few gigs here and there, but that was it.
What was rumored, but I did not hear confirmed, was that Luke was battling mental illness. He was in and out of hospitals and jails, unable to keep the urges and voices at bay long enough to write and record the follow-up his fans desperately craved.
On August 20, a friend and fellow musician took Luke for lunch at a diner just outside of Tucson. Without warning, just as they were headed into the restaurant, Luke turned and ran. A search was launched; folks in the music community made posters and hunted for hours across a wide expanse of the Sonoran desert — Luke had a reputation for being able to cover formidable distance when he wanted to be alone.
On Sunday, after just over a week of searching, they found Luke. He had been dead for days. No details are released, except that he had died by his own hand.
By all accounts, Luke had struggled since his teens. College didn’t work, and neither did cowboying in his native Wyoming. He went to Texas in his early 20s, and tried to play metal music, but that didn’t jibe. Then someone suggested he play an acoustic set in Austin, and something… clicked. For a year or two, something settled, something opened — and in that year he wrote and recorded this one album, a record that would top many country critics’ 10 Best Lists for 2016.
I listened to Luke obsessively after a devastating breakup in December of that year. His music was a comfort to my broken heart. I sang along with his defiant drunk in the Bullfighter, which sounds as if it was written in the late ‘50s:
I get loud when I get mad
And I get tough when I get sad
I'll tangle with the horns like a Spaniard in the pit
I'm here to play for blood, boys, and I'll be here til the end
For I am the greatest bullfighter that ever dared the pen
Yes, I am the greatest bullfighter that ever dared the pen.
Songs of inebriated braggadocio are a subgenre all to themselves. This track had no equal.
Two more to commend to you. Luke’s Glory and the Grace is pure Woody Guthrie, a channeled celebration of raw devotion to America and its people. This live version lets you hear his voice and his ideas.
And the song that got him what little airplay he did receive, a track that on repeated listening, becomes all about mental illness — and fighting so hard to to stay present and alive — particularly when you pour alcohol onto an already burning brain.
Where ya been?
Hey mister in the mirror, where's my friend?
I went out on on the town
And I ain't seen him since
Hey-ey, where ya been?
One thing about many of us who struggle with mental illness is that we come to think of our lives in terms of windows and hallways. When the despair kicks in, or the brain seems to overheat, it can feel like being stuck in a dark hallway. Every door you press won’t open. You hear voices on the other side, pleading with you to open the door. They insist the door is locked from the inside, and you have the power to turn the deadbolt or release the chain, but every sense tells you they’re wrong. You can’t find the handle.
And then a window opens. It can be gradual, it can be sudden, but there is daylight and breeze and possibility. You can breathe, and not only breathe, you can create. The words come, and they come effortlessly — you have so much to say, so much to share, and you know the window will close, so you rush as fast as you can. It is a brief season, like an Arctic summer before the hell of global warming, and you have no doubts that you will be cast back into the freezing hallway, fumbling with latches, but in that dazzling short summer, so much can be done.
There is much we don’t know about the life and death of Luke Bell. I never met him, and I only know of his diagnoses third-hand. I do know, however, what it is to flounder for years, uncertain of what one is to do — and then, in an instant, to step from shadow into light. I know that at my very best teaching and writing, it ceases to be craft and becomes something else. It is effort, but it is inevitable too — there is no way not to say what you are called to say, to write what you must write, to sing what you must sing.
For a few very brief years, Luke Bell was writing some of the most important and compelling contemporary country music that any of us had heard. The window closed much too soon, and we learned this week, it never reopened for the boy from Cody, Wyoming.
We got the one record, and it will be remembered, and it will be discovered in the years to come. Luke was already a legend, and will only become more so. For those of us touched by fire, for those of us who battle to stay, his loss is deeply and devastatingly personal.