Woody Guthrie famously had a sticker on his guitar which stated, “This guitar kills fascists.” Of course, he never actually hit a Nazi over the head with the thing or garrotted one with an E-string but I guess we all know where he was coming from. Nathan Bell might have a baseball bat at home which he calls his Nazi thumper but again, it’s doubtful that he’ll crack anyone’s skull with it. However, he’s certainly in the same ball park as Woody when it comes to his songs.
Bell’s late blossoming as a songwriter and performer of note began with his “Family Man” trilogy which saw him singing about the hard pressed everyday folk of America. His empathy, observations and acute insight raised the bar for so-called “blue collar” folk music and he was an immediate hit in the UK when he started to perform over here back in 2017. This coincided with the election of a tangerine toned oaf to the high office of President of The United States, a travesty which outraged Bell and which led to his spectacular album, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland). This was the tip of an iceberg of populism which saw several countries around the world elect (or being duped into consolidating) demagogues into office. The warning signs were apparent and the subtitle of Bell’s latest album makes it clear that, despite the demise of Trump, we’re still in a dangerous place.
It Can’t Happen Here is a 1935 novel by the Nobel prize winning American author, Sinclair Lewis. It describes the election of a popular demagogue to the White House who soon begins to institute fascist laws (strangely enough it started to sell again in early 2017). Bell changes Can’t to Couldn’t, indicating that it’s too early to say that this will never happen. The album title is a warning shot, a reminder that all need to be vigilant although the disc itself is a more rounded affair, much more nuanced than had it consisted of “finger pointing songs.” There’s a great deal of anger enveloped within its grooves but there’s also a great deal of love and respect.
The majority of Bell’s albums have been acoustic affairs so it’s a bit of a jolt to hear the Pete Townshend like guitar crashing in at the beginning of Angola Prison. It’s the muscle of the piece, jolted by the sinewy and melodic acoustic guitar which underpins the song as Bell tears into the cruel punishments meted out to mainly black prisoners in this infamous jail. It’s a powerful opener and Bell opts for full band workouts on several other songs such as on the slippery bar room blues of Wrong Man For The Job (“If I was the President I’d start another war. Wouldn’t care who we were fighting or what we’re fighting for. I’d take all your money and slip out the back door…”) and the Stones’ like back alley scrabbling which is Mossberg Blues. Meanwhile, Running On The Razor, a song Bell wrote in response to a documentary on a Southern family which he describes as poverty porn, is a deliciously dark slice of voodoo blues which has Aubrey Sellers adding her soulful voice to Bell’s gruff delivery. It’s quite magnificent but it’s not going to played on the radio anytime soon so you’ll need to buy this motherf***er in order to hear it.
There’s an electrifying electric version of Retread Cadillac, a song about Lightnin’ Hopkins which first appeared on Bell’s 2019 release The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk And Blues. Here, it’s Regina McCrary who generates the power as she sashays, moans and testifies, transforming the song. It’s McCrary again who adds the vocal oomph to Mossberg Blues and clearly Bell is having a ball with these stellar vocal sparring partners as he also has Patty Griffin sing on three of the songs here. These are more reflective, and in two cases, more personal songs, allowing Griffin to entwine her voice with Bell’s in the grand manner of Parsons and Harris. American Gun is contemplative as Bell simplifies America’s approach to the world which weirdly enough boils down to Mao’s infamous dictum that “all political power comes from a barrel of a gun.”A Lucky Man finds Bell writing about his travels overseas and reflecting on his mortality, with the song dedicated to his late father while To Each Of Us is an achingly beautiful love song.
There are many facets to this fascinating album which was recorded in 2019 but held over due to the pandemic. Some of the songs foreshadow, not the pandemic, but the political mess we remain in with Bell calling out those who pull the levers, not to benefit others but themselves. He can pull at your heartstrings but he can also raise your pulse as he rails against injustice. Maybe this album can kill fascists.