Interview: Luke Bell Chats About His New LP, Why He Still Enjoys Listening to His Own Music
It's tough to find a more authentic fella than Luke Bell. The Wyoming native is part of a long tradition of homesteaders and spent much of his life working on his grandparents' ranch -- and, as he describes it, driving old pickup trucks and listening to Randy Travis tapes ... which soon turned into Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings records spinning on an old turntable he found in his grandparents' basement.
It's that kind of upbringing -- a genuine understanding of what it means to put in a hard day's work, only to go to bed and wake up and do it again, all soundtracked by the greats of country music -- that is rooted in Bell's sound. After deciding college wasn't for him, Bell packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, followed by a quick jaunt to New Orleans, La. Now, he's found himself a home in Nashville.
Finally celebrating the unveiling of his first professionally released full-length album, the self-titled Luke Bell, the Wyoming native-turned-Nashvillian recently hit up New York City,i where he hung out with The Boot before playing a gig at Rockwood Music Hall. He chatted about those classic records he discovered in his grandparents' basement, why he enjoys listening to his own music and what the summer has in store for him.
Congrats on the new album. How does it feel to have Luke Bell officially wrapped up?
Great. I'm excited to get it out and share it with people. It's been a long process to finally get the music out to people.
How long was the process?
Well, it's a compilation of a couple of different projects that I did over the course of two years: I made Don't Mind If I Do and another record that I never released; this new album is a compilation of both of those, half of each one of them.
You recorded Luke Bell at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville with producer Andrija Tokic -- how'd you get hooked up with them?
We met through some friends, the Deslondes, and my buddy Pat Reedy, and Hurray for the Riff Raff. They would all go up there to record, and I found out about that studio and loved all the way those records sounded.
Yeah, they're known for their old mics and being analog. Was that kind of thing important to you?
It is. I like what Andrija does, the sound that he gets and the warmth of his records, and that things aren't so polished that there's nothing fun left. He's really fun to work with: He's moving around all the time, he's a busy guy, but he keeps the pace rolling. He's constantly coming up with ideas if you get stuck or get in a mood, trying different things. It's a great experience.
Coming from a long line of Wyoming homesteaders, what was it like for you to say, "I'm going to move away and pursue a career in music"? Was that a big deal?
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a big deal ... to me! At the time, absolutely. It was a very different route to take; there aren't any musicians in my family. College really wasn't doing it for me, and I was looking for an independent platform to go learn, and music was that.
What was your family's reaction?
They were skeptical. [Laughs] By the time I made my first record, everyone was really supportive, and they've helped me out a lot; they're all on my team.
When you go back home, do you feel like a bit of a rock star?
Well ... I did at first, sometimes. [Laughs] The funniest part is when we go home as "rock stars" or whatever and we play a gig at some bar where we have a broken PA system and none of us have showered in days. Everybody's like, "Man, you guys are smelly and tired." That's always funny.
When you moved to Austin and then New Orleans, did you feel at home at either of those places?
I did; I really enjoyed both of the towns. I had a little apartment in Austin I loved living in, by a swimming pool. I was working construction and shoeing horses and getting off work and swimming in the pool every night. That was killer -- those were killer days. Then in New Orleans, I lived in the Lower Ninth, in a neighborhood of really great musicians. I was only there for probably four or five months.
Is that where you got connected with the Deslondes?
Yeah, but I really met everyone through my friend Pat Reedy. He pulled through Laramie with a half-wolf dog and a homeless painter when I was probably 19, and I thought that looked like a cool lifestyle.
And now you've been in Nashville for a couple of years. Do you feel home there, too?
Yeah, I really do. I enjoy Nashville -- I have a lot of good friends there.
It's probably hard as a musician, but do you ever want to plant roots somewhere?
I've gotten to where I'm just pretty open; there's no telling what can happen. I don't know if the lifestyle will allow me to settle down either. It just depends. I always try to enjoy spending time wherever I get to go, you know?
Your story involves finding an old record player and listening to Merle and Waylon. Is that something that is still important to you, spinning records and listening to music on vinyl?
Yeah, for sure. Because I've moved so much, though, I can't really do a good job of keeping up my own record collection. I've got a couple of buddies that run old 78 businesses, and they sell these old 78s. My buddy Ronnie Aikens out of Plattsburg and our other friend Brody Douglas out of Asheville, they sell these 78s, and sometimes they'll upload them to YouTube and send me songs. I'm always checking that stuff out. Or, you know, I'll go visit one of them and sit and drink beer and listen to records.
Do you spend a lot of time in the record stores in Nashville?
I go to the Great Escape quite a bit, sorting through 45s. Riley from the Deslondes is a big 45 hunter, so we'll kind of knock around in there and see what we can find.
One of the coolest things I've experienced as a fan was at SXSW in 2015, at Willie Nelson's Heartbreaker Banquet in Luck, Texas. You did this song swap with a cast of characters that included Langhorne Slim, Jonny Burke, Daniel Romano and Hugh Masterson ... it was such a cool, intimate experience.
I haven't done many things like that. I've done a lot of shows with songwriters where we pass the mic between us, but usually we're all traveling together, so we have a little routine to it. That was different because we were sort of tossed in there cold and just sat up there. That was a really fun experience; I had a great time that day.
It was so simple and different than a regular performance.
Oh yeah. It was a lot of fun.
I know you said you feel at home in Nashville -- do you also feel at home musically? Obviously you have the Music Row side of Nashville, and then you have the cool, hip side with East Nashville ... Do you fit in somewhere?
Yeah, at Santa's Pub. I like all of Nashville, but we all like to hang out at Santa's.
What's the story there, because you give Santa's Pub a nice big "thank you" in the liner notes for the new album.
When I moved to town, I started going there. I was landscaping, and my buddy Carter -- he plays bass with me -- he runs the honky-tonk night there every Sunday night. I started going to that, and the community-based feel of what it's about is kind of what got me into it. We play all covers on Sunday nights, these old classic songs, and people talk and visit and dance. It's a show, but people are doing whatever they want. It's a really relaxed feel and just feels like a place to spend time together. That has been awesome. We ended up frying a goat on the porch and doing a CD release at Santa's, so it's always been a home away from home there with friends.
A big part of your time at Santa's is covering classics, a big part of your own personal history is spinning the classics on vinyl, and with Luke Bell, it instantly has this classic sound and feel to it. That sound stands out in 2016 -- it doesn't really have a spot in the mainstream world or even the alt-country and Americana world. What draws you to it?
I come from a traditional background. The things that I love are traditions -- you know, cowboy culture and American culture. When I started digging back through records and listening to older music, I kind of became fascinated with all the techniques and flat-tire shuffles on the drums on Ray Price records or the George Jones boogie and guitars ... you start looking at all those things. I'm always working on houses with JP Harris, and you wouldn't go build a house without going to someone to learn how to frame it first. It's a better idea, I think, to study a little bit. That's kind of what my work has been, studying old music and using different techniques and experimenting a bit to make my own brand of sound.
I think it has a lot to do with where you recorded it, too, and that kind of vintage technique behind the scenes. And obviously, how you grew up in Wyoming -- that kind of lifestyle is ingrained in you. I'm curious what your view is of the current state of country music.
Yeah, that's one of those subjects, you know ... I just try to focus on doing a good job for what I do. There are a lot of things involved in the business, and everyone is working hard. You can't blame anyone for playing music that you might not like. If they're selling records, they're selling records. [Laughs] I know what I like to hear, and I would like to hear more of my friends on the radio. I'd like to hear more of some of these guys I mentioned, and Cale Tyson and Teddy and the Rough Riders, and all these guys from Texas, like Ramsey Midwood and Leo Rondeau -- the list goes on and on. There are a bunch of great bands that I really love, and they're all good friends ... like the Banditos. My roommate, Mary, she's the singer, and they're just great.
If you're doing what you're doing in 2016, it seems like the end goal might not be to sell a million records and sell out Madison Square Garden.
How'd you see right through me? [Laughs]
But you still do it, and you still love it. Where do you find the drive to not worry about the noise around you?
To be honest, I live in the day, and I count smiles. [Gives a big smile] That's it. Listen, half the time, I end up drinking beer with my neighbors. Life's not that bad. The downside, in some ways, is I don't have a wife and kids, but at the same time, it's pretty ideal right now. I just travel around to other cities and hang out with other people. [Laughs]
Speaking of traveling -- your summer schedule seems a little light on live shows ...
I decided to kind of take it easy this summer. I had a pretty busy summer last year -- you know, we signed with WME and Big Deal and then went out and did a bunch of dates with Dwight [Yoakam] and Willie [Nelson] and Hank [Williams Jr.] and drove a lot. So, this year, I just wanted to get the record out and then work on some new stuff in Nashville.
So you're already thinking about the next record ... that's awesome. Are you the kind of guy who is always looking ahead, or do you enjoying reflecting on what you've done?
Oh, I reflect. There are times when I have sat at listened to my own records until I'm sick of them. I've always enjoyed listening to my own records after they were done. I don't care what anybody says. I mean, there are times when you're so sick of it by the time you're done ... but, Don't Mind If I Do, that was such a fast deal. Andrija put together this awesome group, and we went in and knocked it out in six days. We didn't even have time to think about it. So when it came out, I loved listening to it and listening to all those players nail stuff. Steve Daly, my guitar player, he's really fun to work with in the studio. I always like to make sure my band doesn't know the song that well, so you can kind of hear them guessing their solos -- it adds to the tension.
Like you said earlier, that way it's not too over-polished.
Yeah, exactly. It gives it this exciting feel -- it's fun to listen to someone who doesn't know exactly where they're going.
Is that how it is in the studio with you?
That's always the goal, but there are times when I have been a miserable pain in the a-- in the studio. The goal is to have high hopes and low expectations ... and have a good time.
Listen to Luke Bell's "All Blue"