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Nathan Bell | Black Crow Blue

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United States - Tennessee

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Folk: Alternative Folk Country: Americana Moods: Type: Acoustic
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Black Crow Blue

by Nathan Bell

A cinematic, plainly spoken, and intimate musical journey through a life in working America.
Genre: Folk: Alternative Folk
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. American Crow
3:49 $0.99
2. Me and Larry
3:52 $0.99
3. Stone's Throw
4:39 $0.99
4. Gypsies
3:15 $0.99
5. Red and White
4:42 $0.99
6. Crow in Oklahoma
3:01 $0.99
7. Rust
4:44 $0.99
8. Pittsburgh
3:04 $0.99
9. Black Crow Blue
4:00 $0.99
10. The Striker
2:43 $0.99
11. My Favorite Year
4:29 $0.99
12. She Only Loves Blue
4:06 $0.99
13. Wherein Crow
4:22 $0.99
14. We All Get Gone
3:33 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
"Bell lives in a world of less thans, left behinds, lost souls and not enoughs and isn’t afraid to rail against the scraps that are supposed to suffice. Get ready to be inspired. "
- The Yummy List (Nov 03, 2009)

Liner Notes by Glen Hirshberg

“We become the tales we tell,” Nathan Bell sings on “Me and Larry Brown,” a gorgeous early track on Black Crow Blue, which collects tracks from Bell’s absurdly ambitious Meacham Project. I’ve staked my life on that being true. Here’s a tale I’ve been telling lately:

More than twenty years ago—I don’t remember how or where—I stumbled across a couple of beautifully etched, hard-edged, luminous records by an Iowa duo called Bell and Shore. The songs on those records have become part of the permanent soundtrack to my life. “Pretty Plains Girl” was the first and sweetest ghost story I sang to my son (“young boy, young boy, you’ll soon be mourned/if you chase that girl through the I-wa corn…”). I can barely remember a single scene from all those deadly serious, well-intentioned post-Vietnam movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but I am still haunted by the bemused, resilient DJ/veteran on “Radio V-i-e-t-n-a-m.” I’ve never stayed at the “El Ranko Motel.” But I know who has.

Last year, stuck yet again in the middle of a novel about the Federal Writers’ Project called The Book of Bunk I was increasingly sure I would never finish, I gave up on the scene I was failing to compose and started Googling. I’d hunted for news of Nathan Bell many times before. But he seemed to have vanished.

Suddenly, that day, there he was. And—after fifteen years of inactivity, or at least public inactivity--he was writing up a storm. He had a website, even, and a fan group: the Cult of 8. I wrote and told him to make it 9. A month or so later, he wrote back and asked if I was the Glen Hirshberg who wrote The Snowman’s Children. Not long after that, he sent me a song.

My art has given me many gifts: a lifetime of stories; a series of impossible dreams; the peace that comes with knowing you have to find peace yourself; the knowledge that every now and then, through circumstances that probably have only a bit to do with what I’ve written, my work has moved somebody, made someone’s days better. I’m not sure any of the above means as much to me as Nathan Bell’s song, “The Snowman.” It was the first instance I know of when my work apparently helped trigger a truly magnificent piece of art from someone else.

Nathan Bell has always been a passionate, fiery, smart, funny, tuneful, devastating song and lyric writer. But the Meacham project, which he announced to the Cult of 8 a while back, struck me as about as sane an undertaking as my unfinished, hopeless novel. There’s been lots of writing about music. There’s lots of music about writing. There’ve been plenty of songs about or inspired by books. But lyrics are different than poetry or prose—not better, not worse, just an entirely different art—and songs about writing have to dance through all sorts of traps; the too-many-words trap; the fawning fan letter; the potted plot summary; the my-whiskey-with-Gatsby.

But as a songwriter…well, Nathan Bell can dance. These tracks aren’t summaries of poems and stories and novels. Sometimes, I suspect, they contain only the faintest glimmers of the art that inspired them. The Larry Brown in “Me and Larry” is a deftly cross-hatched sketch of a man a songwriter knew, who happened to write Larry Brown’s stories. The dark traveler working his way through the eerie, sly “The Striker,” inspired by Marvin (father of Nathan) Bell’s “Dead Man Poems,” is a wicked and very contemporary variation on an American trickster archetype as old or older than the country itself. The American Crow in “American Crow” and “Crow in Oklahoma”—restless, unpredictable, self-destructive, tough, proud, mythic, staring at a world where there’s “nowhere left for the light to go”—certainly sounds deeply rooted in Sebastian Mathews’ literary creation. But he also sounds like a Nathan Bell character, fresh from a pitstop at the El Ranko on his way to vanishing into the I-wa corn. I’m glad to have met him. And I can’t wait to seek out Mathews’ original.

There’s a song inspired by my new book, too. The one I was sure I’d never finish, and finished a few months ago, after 13 grueling years. I’m not sure I even recognize any element of my novel in “Black Crow Blue.” Except maybe an openness to experience, a ghostly trace of youthful optimism grown old but never tired, at least not yet (“Have you ever seen a sky so wide/You can fit the whole world inside/I have”), a sense of fatalism tempered by the determination to go not just on but through, a willingness to love (“Have you ever been afraid to touch/”Someone that you loved too much/I have”).

Best and most important of all, these are songs. The lines quoted above seem memorable to me, but they stick out not because (or not only because) they’re artful lines but because they’re pegged to bits of rhythm or brambled twists of melody that pull off that most elusive of songwriter’s tricks: they sound familiar, even ancient, and also brand new. The sense of loss in “Me and Larry Brown” comes wafting out of that gentle, insistent guitar before Nathan Bell even opens his mouth. “The Striker” could be a Woody Guthrie talking blues, but the accent falls more heavily on the blues, the quiet but relentless chigger of the rhythm, the exhausted murmur of the vocal. You’ll appreciate the words. But you’ll remember the music.

Glen Hirshberg
Claremont, California
January 2010



to write a review

M. Jae Soleil

Songwriting at Its Best: Nathan Bell
"Black Crow Blue," the title track from Nathan Bell’s most recent album on Stone Barn Records, opens with the question: “Have you ever seen a sky so wide/That you could fit the whole world inside. I have.” He then inquires, “Baby, can you see me now?” Here in this tender ballad, inspired by writer Glen Hirshberg’s Book of Bunk, Nathan displays his sensitive and attuned eye for poetic metaphors that are sparse yet accurate descriptors of love, hardship, and what is, at times, the inexplicable journey we’re all on in our lives.

He captures what it means to be alone and, particularly, what it means to put love at the forefront of anything else that we think matters.

It is in this, with Nathan's sharp gaze at life, that his songs illuminate how we all are taken in and either worn smooth or left ragged by this journey. Nathan credits much of his inspiration for songs from the works of well-established writers: Hirshberg, Sebastian Matthews, and his father: poet, Marvin Bell, amongst others.
Yet, his songs stand as unique creative works in their own right as well. One doesn’t need to know all of the literary references to still get his music.

In “American Crow,” Nathan describes his character Crow as a man who never stays put, symbolized by “ . . . tattooed wings beneath [his] skin.” In this opening line, I hear echoes of the “Crow’s” who have passed through my life. I acknowledge my own impulse to take flight at various junctures. When he sings, “Black feathers/Hollow bones/Nowhere left/For the light to go/ Sitting on a fence post at the side of the road, American Crow,” I’m reminded of Paul D in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who “ . . . didn’t believe he could live with a woman---any woman---for over two out of three months. That was as long as he could abide in one place.” I suspect that Crow, like Paul D, leaves because it’s the only way he feels free, and it’s a liberation that dodges heartache.

Nathan’s songs lay bare the inclination to wrap ourselves in deceits so that we might avoid facing our own mortality and flaws. In “Me and Larry,” Nathan reminisces on his connection with the late-writer, Larry Brown. He sings, “Somehow always in the end/We become the tales we tell.” Later, he reflects, “It was twenty years ago my friend/When I thought that we weren’t mortal men.” He traces the trajectory of believing in time eternal just where it fades as we approach middle age, an age when we begin to experience the loss of others, once young with us.

Black Crow Blue, however, isn’t a bleak album.

Yes, Nathan writes about tough times, exploitation, and unfair treatment. But he never neglects the thread of love or shard of hope that holds us together. We hear this in “A Stone’s Throw” when he sings of a man barely getting by, reeling from a bad economy and poverty. While others want to turn their heads in shame, the singer tells us, “But I look them in the eyes/Say man, it’s me, don’t you realize/We’re all we’ve got if we’re going to survive.” Ultimately, the song stresses that type of survival: through community, even in the face of unjustness.

(A notable mention here: “Stone’s Throw Away” was picked up by singer Lizanne Knott for her upcoming 2013 release Standing in the English Rain. She does a kick-ass rendition and arrangement, worthy of checking out.)

On the album’s closing track, “We All Get Gone,” Nathan digs into a strict blues groove, his wailing harmonica getting as much play time as his vocals. He moans, “ . . . I’m just traveling/Watch me traveling away/Cause get it right or get wrong, sooner or later/We all get gone.” Despite the resolute attitude of the singer, Nathan conveys a candor that is welcoming and intimate. I’m feeling as though I’m sitting at a coffeehouse table one dusky evening while Nathan strums, picks, toots his harmonica, and lights up the stage with his voice.

Throughout Black Crow Blue, Nathan’s vocals, measured and at times with a grittiness reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen, deliver the lyrics with clear-headed certainty of the stories he tells. His descriptive guitar playing, forceful when necessary, provides the clean well-structured melodies that turn his poems to song. In Nathan’s writing are songs that encourage the listeners to claim the poetry of our own lives and to find the songs in others’. It’s a good way to think about being in this world.