Nathan Bell writes hits for a braver world 

The chorus of Nathan Bell's "Really, Truly" mirrors an emotional truism heard all day long on country radio: "A wedding ring is just a little bit of gold / That you can melt down next to nothing," Bell sings over a hard-stroked acoustic arrangement that would fit a Keith Urban album. "When it's on a hand you want to hold / It can be everything, and ain't that something."

The song, from his upcoming album Blood Like a River, also illustrates this sentiment just as a hit Music Row song would—by using individuals with familiar names and details that hint at their concerns. But Bell knew the names he chose would make this a song Trace Adkins would never dare record. "Jenny said I love you / Jill gave her a wedding ring," Bell sings with a terse reserve. "They got married in their mamas' wedding gowns."

The lyrical twist encapsulates Bell's M.O.: He writes of love, of families, of war, of difficult internal struggles and of simple joys. He even writes about muscle cars, factory towns and legendary country music stars. But he comes at it from fresh, bold angles that blow the dust from songwriting conventions.

That uncompromising approach has earned Bell the out-loud support of songwriting risk-takers like Don Henry and Craig Bickhardt, as well as the industry muscle of a successful publishing company, Ten Ten Music Group, known for working with hitmakers Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift and Keith Urban as well as hit songwriters Harley Allen, Robert Ellis Orrall and Tia Sillers.

They realize, too, that when Bell portrays a couple of blue-collar guys named Jack and Jerry secretly running off to California to exchange vows, only to return home to keep their love hidden, that it's not going to make the hit parade. Bell may describe the men as "big-ass NASCAR fans" with "No. 3 stickers all over their trucks," but his song also points out that "they keep it as quiet as they can, because they don't want to press their luck."

Bell has made a full-court run at Nashville before, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, encouraged by the semi-success of Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and The O'Kanes. He recorded an album with respected producer Richard Bennett, who had produced works by Earle and Emmylou Harris, among others. Bell had recorded two well-considered albums as part of a folk-rock duo, Bell & Shore, but he hit town just as the singer-songwriter successes of the '80s were ground down by the boots of Garth Brooks and other hat acts in the '90s.

Bell retired for a decade, moving to Chattanooga, starting a family and working a day job. When he got laid off two years ago, he returned to recording with a vengeance. He's cut five albums—all packed with powerful songs—in the interim. He returned to full-time work last month, but he's staging a going-away gig, sharing the Hillbilly Haiku House Concerts stage with upstart Kentucky songwriter Angaleena Presley, with whom Bell has co-written, including the harrowing tune "Hillbilly Heroin," which Bell included on his Father's Days album.

Bell is going out just as he came in: pulling no punches, and telling everyone he can that he considers himself a lucky man.


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