Twenty-five years ago, the buzz in Nashville said Nathan Bell would be “the next Steve Earle.” But Bell laid down the guitar, put on a tie and walked into a world — middle management, wife, kids, golf — he thought was stable. But, of course, it was not. Folk songs used to be about the poor farmer. Then, they were about hardworking blue-collar folks. But who’s going to write the songs for all the white-collar working stiffs who did the right things and got laid off anyway? Downsized once at age 48, then again at 54, Nathan Bell may be the Woody Guthrie we need in the age of globalization. 


Story by Holly Gleason | Photographs by Hollis Bennett

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“I can’t remember the last time I played a real In The Round here,” Nathan Bell says softly, as the afternoon sunlight pokes through the 8x10 glossies taped to the front window. Falling on the floor like some kind of freeform slat work, the light slices up the little bar, as if designed to keep the dreams that didn’t quite happen corralled inside the place. But to a casual observer, the empty room — hung with collaged art filled with lyrics by the likes of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Guy Clark — could be any listening room.

Like Nathan Bell, who looks like an average working Joe, banged around a bit by life, the room in question is more than meets the eye. It is Nashville’s Bluebird Café, shot to super-celebrity by Oscar-winning director Callie Khouri and her ABC drama “Nashville,” about the city where country-music dreams happen. Or don’t.

Nathan Bell, once upon a time, was the “dream.” Until he became a “don’t.” 


He arrived with his songs in Nashville in 1991, a publishing deal already signed. Then, after two years of chasing a break in the music business, he said, “No, thank you.” Walked away, got a job as a night manager at a high-end newsstand. He stacked cold drinks, racked French and British magazines, and talked to the people who found their solace in a place that sold expensive cigars and the news of the world.

One of his customers saw how the solidly built Bell busted his hump, doing a higher cut of grunt work. He suggested maybe Bell would like to come work for him at BellSouth (now part of AT&T Inc.) selling cell phones. As Bell says of the offer, “I put on a suit and a tie, which nobody saw coming.”

He got the job, then made a go of the real world, rising through the white-collar ranks despite his lack of a college diploma, turning the work into a career overseeing hundreds of people. Bell moved from Nashville to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, outside Chattanooga, and never looked back. 

Then, 17 years after he’d been the buzz in Nashville, the star most likely to emerge at the intersection of Steve Earle’s brio and Bruce Springsteen’s conscience, Bell found himself suddenly out of work in the white-collar world. So, he did the craziest thing: At 51 years of age, he began recording a three-volume song cycle — 2011’s “Black Crow Blue (An American Album),” 2014’s “Blood Like a River (American Family)” and this year’s “I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love (Working and Hanging on in America).” He released the records, began touring behind them, and chased the songs where they took him.


It’s not always pretty. Standing in the light of day among the Bluebird’s banged-up tables and hard, wooden chairs, there’s no sparkle in the air — only dust — in the place where Faith Hill supposedly got her record deal. It’s even further from the life of a corporate manager with a 401(k) and two kids in school. 

The door is locked during the day now, not for fear of gunplay or crime in the Green Hills neighborhood, but to keep out curious tourists. Seeing a man inside with a guitar, they press their faces flat to the dirty glass. They don’t recognize Bell, but in that way of tourists wanting to believe in magic, their body language suggests they’ve seen someone. Nathan Bell just laughs that half-warm, half-fatalistic chuckle that usually comes from grandkids of Eastern European immigrants who tell lots of survival stories.


“There were a lot of nights,” he recalls, “there were more people — you know, stars and big No. 1-hit songwriters — clustered at the bar, and maybe 17 people in the whole place. You hung out; you talked about songs. People’d go down there to hear the new songs they were all working on. 

“It’s a whole different thing [now]...,” he continues. “But at least the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) took it over. They care about songs, and the idea of what songwriters do.”

Taking it all in — and trying not to get the people outside’s hopes up — Bell remembers 30 years earlier. In the late 1980s, he had a duo with his first wife — Bell & Shore — and a couple albums on the indie labels Flying Fish and ROM. Progressive bluegrass with a jolt of second-wave punk and stripped-down rock, Bell & Shore had left Boston’s music scene for Iowa, where they began carving out a niche on the folk/roots music circuit. “L-Ranko Motel,” their second album, was named Country Album of 1989 by Tower Records’ Pulse magazine. Rolling Stone raved, “[The album} is one those increasingly rare finds: an unpretentious, unified set of literate and witty songs, impeccably performed. It’s fairly bursting with soulful country rock worthy of comparisons to such classic pairings as Linda and Richard Thompson or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.”

As the buzz was picking up in ’89, Bell & Shore landed a 6 p.m. slot at the storied Bluebird Café. Bluebird founder Amy Kurland, Bell says, “used those slots for bands people wanted to see, or a publishing company that wanted to do something with their writers. She gave us one of those slots, and it was three-quarters full, which was a big deal. And the thing about Kurland: She was exceedingly honest. You could talk to her, and she’d tell you how things worked. She was a champion of songwriters, too. So, when she put you on an In The Round that didn’t seem to make sense, you just said, ‘Yes.’” Two years later, he moved to Nashville.

That, though, was two lifetimes ago, maybe three. And this is the story — ironically — of how a man who by choice walked away from his shot at being “a star” lands in the Hallmark American dream, only to return to music when he finds himself at a downsized dead end. 

Shaking his head, covered with short, teddy-bear fuzz, he allows, “It’s crazy, I know.”

Then again, most everything about the story of Nathan Bell, son of big deal Iowa Writers Workshop poet Marvin Bell, is left of center. But at a time when American jobs are shrinking, loyalty to longtime employees has evaporated under the pressure to meet investment bankers’ quarterly stock-market targets, this is both a cautionary — and a Cinderella — tale.


“I’d been in such a failing tailspin, because I wasn’t suited for the job they had me in, and the [telecommunications] industry was in such a place,” Bell says. “It was just falling apart. And then there’s the horns of the dilemma: Fail or make little compromises that people tell themselves aren’t compromises — but are really big moral dilemmas. You think, ‘I’ve been there so long, I can ride this out long enough that there will be a management change.’ But the truth is: I’m a poster boy for how a good company loses its standing, can’t keep its good employees. The priorities shift to things other than customer service and satisfaction.”

The pragmatic Ukrainian atheist living in the South lets his voice trail off. Raised by an unsentimental father who believed in “the miracle of hard work,” there’s no invective here: just sadness that basic values had eroded to the point where Bell no longer respected the way his company did business.

In 2008, AT&T Inc. streamlined its workforce and Bell lost his job. By 2009, he was back working for the company, in a job he says he was ill-suited for, but wound up keeping for another five years. 

“I thought I was gonna lose that job in a year and a half,” he says.


In his first 15 years at AT&T, Bell says, “I learned by doing in a culture filled with old, honest salesmen who worked very hard and took care of their customers, their employees, and knew the business.” But by the time he was in his second job there, things were changing in ways that didn’t feel good.

“I managed eight, nine people. It got up to hundreds; I brought people in — lots of women and single mothers,” Bell recalls. “I’d been able to work my way up, and that’s what America is built on — learning, working hard. I was running a P&L for 12 years. But … I thought the company asked the people to act in unethical ways in an implied way. When you choose failure, you may sleep better at night. But when you’ve got a family, what are you supposed to do?”


When Nathan Bell first arrived in Nashville in 1991, he came face-to-face with high expectations. His wildly literate character sketches had already attracted an impressive circle of admirers.

Signed to 1010 Publishing, he was being championed by the folks who managed country superstar Alan Jackson. The buzz was so strong that Richard Bennett — then the chief architect of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” sound and Emmylou Harris’ producer — had signed on to make a record. Progressive country star Rodney Crowell had come to some shows to check Bell out, and Harris had agreed to sing on whatever they were recording.

“When I came to Nashville, I was immediately told what a tough son of a bitch I was,” Bell recalls. “And when you’re told that enough, you start to need to live up to it. It’s the Iggy Pop problem, though I wasn’t looking to start fights.”

Bell also wasn’t looking to kiss ass, or play the game. Having grown up at the University of Iowa with his father in residence, “It was always, ‘Here’s another guy who’s got books!’ Fucking famous people were always showing up at the University of Iowa, going to parties at the poet’s house. It was like being the ball boy for the Lakers.”

He’s blasé about it even now. In Nashville, though, Bell’s reality was simple. 

“I don’t play that well with others,” he says. “And I don’t go for slogans, which is why I don’t go political rallies to stand around and chant — or write jingles by committee. I kept my mouth shut... and when it’d get awful, I’d run into Townes Van Zandt in the grocery store.”


Richard Bennett remembers the gaps between the expectations and reality. “When they signed Nathan as a songwriter, I think they had hopes he’d temper some of that (blunt, detailed) writing enough to get some hits for other artists,” Bennett says. “He had a serious point of view that no one else had.”

There were all kinds of theories about why Nathan Bell couldn’t crack. Bennett thinks part of the trouble was that the record company’s staff in Los Angeles and New York didn’t find his music pop enough. He also reminds me that, in those days, no defined marketing category existed for music like Bell’s. “‘Americana’ didn’t really exist,” Bennett says. 

“Like Steve Earle, Nathan had a very strong sense of self,” Bennett says. “They were brave artists, fearless. And Nashville was a bit of a mystery to him — because coming from the folk world, Nashville worked as a factory. There has to be a certain amount of compliance to go along in Nashville. Nathan wasn’t always a nice boy. If he didn’t want to do something, he’d say ‘No.’ He had that spirit, but didn’t need to get up in your face about it.”

The album Bennett made never found a home. Marked by the razor-sharp character sketches, buzzing guitars, gun-crack drum beats and a tossed-out vocal style that celebrated the brio of working people, the project captured holy rollers (“Poisonous Snake”), the state of the South (“Rebel Flag”), a young writer trying to sell his songs to get married (“Gold Wedding Ring”) and hard, blue-collar work (“Walking Iron,” “Steel City”).

“For all his saying ‘No’ back in the day, Nathan tried,” Bennett says. “But once he took a proper job, he put his guitar away.”


Work never frightened the 5-feet-9-inch songwriter. Though raised in the world of academia, he saw through its vanity and entitlement. In spite of heading to Boston to study criminal justice — “to be a cop, for internal affairs” — it wasn’t long until the young man saw through education, too. 

“It wasn’t some Kerouac ‘On The Road’ thing,” he says. Instead, he took the jobs he could find. He worked for New Balance at a retail location, then in shipping and receiving. He spent time working for different seafood suppliers, unloading fish from the fishermen and getting them back on trucks once prepped. Eventually, he landed at The Bostonian Hotel, doing everything from food prep to standing in for the concierge to buying the liquor. 

They were jobs, honorable jobs. Bell particularly liked the diverse crew at the hotel. But it was the original music scene in Boston that piqued his interest. With all the gentrification, Bell headed back to the Midwest with Susan Shore, figuring they could figure making music out.

“My father is a surrealist in some ways and spiritual, but writing was also a job,” Bell explains. “His attitude was, ‘If you get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, and you write, if you have any talent at all, it will come.’


Long before Bell got to Nashville, he had an encounter of his own with Chicago social critic and writer Studs Terkel, known best for his oral histories of working people. Terkel’s work framed a great deal of how Bell saw the world.

“I had this vision of him not editing people’s voices, which really impressed me,” Bell remembers. “But I wanted to see if he really was more interested in the story or if he was all about Studs Terkel. How do you get into a conversation with someone that you’re going to reveal things about they may not intend? When I talked to him at the time, I asked, ‘When you talk to people when you don’t live in their world, can you speak to them from a legitimate position?’ He said, ‘All you can do present your art honestly — and the narrator will present itself to you. You can’t control the narrative.’”


Time flew away after Bell laid down the guitar and took up a straight job. He rose in the corporate ranks, at dinner “at home with my wife and kids 90 percent of the time.” He took up golf and started winning local tournaments. He wasn’t just the Dad taking his daughter to ballet classes and recitals, he actually took the role of The Mouse King in the Chattanooga Ballet’s annual staging of “The Nutcracker.”

“Ballet is good because it’s an unforgiving motherfucker,” Bell says. “I was telling some of the teachers the first year about some issues in my hips from all my sports over the years, and they were like, ‘Come to class.’

“Even those little kids, because the Chattanooga Ballet splits time between being a dance company and a school, they come out with their eye of the tiger, taking it serious. Because — like playing solo guitar — there’s nowhere to hide. You can either cut the gig or get off the stage, so for a lot of those kids to be there every day for 10, 11 years, you have to have this full-speed-ahead thing to you.”

Bell was also going full speed ahead — being a family man, looking out for the employees he was managing. After the downsizing in 2008, he learned how to make things work. Getting rehired in 2009 into a job he “totally disdained,” he took this approach to AT&T’s new world order: Know as much as you can, and make that knowledge work. Everywhere he looked, he saw people having the same thoughts, making the same deals with themselves to get by. 

“In the corporate world where the job was to understand all the different compromises that’ll keep them employed, everything is really about higher management,” he says. A middle manager like Bell was, he says, “the guy with the umbrella trying to keep the rain from falling all over them. It may not be perfect, but it’ll keep ’em employed. That’s the thing of it. You know it’s not perfect, but these are your people. You stick together. You want to believe the work is honorable—and you show up for work every day for 30 years, some of the days are rough, but you do it for love — not for the work, but for the people the work supports.”

Therein lies the seed for the third album in Bell’s new cycle — “I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love.” Take everything away, there remains not the glory or the recognition, but the people you do it for. “I’ve got enough Armenian Jewish blood to be a Jewish gypsy,” he says. “It means I’m a man out of place and out of time everywhere, and my family is all that I truly have.” 

Bell and Leslie, his wife of 25 years, have two children — a son, 21, and a daughter, 18, who just entered college.


After he was laid off the first time, in 2008, Bell found himself thinking about songs again. What it meant, he didn’t know, until he came home to find that Leslie, his wife, had cleaned out the large walk-in closet, put in a small table, a chair and a guitar.

There was no expectation, only the idea that writing would be its own reward. 

“When I was laid off in 2008, I fully expected to keep playing music for a living,” Bell says. “I started to get a few gigs and could see a light, and I was putting together the idea for this trilogy So, in 2009, I was shocked to discover that AT&T would hire me back. With two children in high school and a wife juggling a freelance job and raising the children, I felt like I had no choice but to abandon touring and put the plans for the record on the back burner. However, as I worked and failed, and failed, and found myself convinced that the white-collar world was trying to tear me apart...I started to work on those songs as a way to stay sane.”

His first output, a bunch of raw demos called “In Tune, On Time, Not Dead,” explored all of Bell’s working-class themes, idiosyncratic characters and family. Rough and intended only for the ears of “the Cult of 8,” a small group of people he trusted, the dozen songs suggested Bell could still write tunes worth hearing. There was some tension beneath their surface, and their protagonists pushed beyond their limits, unsure of their places in the world.

Bell didn’t think too much about it; he just knew it felt good to play the guitar again and to write these narratives. His conversation with Terkel haunted him, and his own father reminded him that the work is where the art comes from.

“You wake up, and you have a baby, and then another one,” Bell says. “You’re going to work, and dealing with the things that happen, and life goes by. You don’t even think about it. When I started writing, the ideas were still there, the ability to edit myself down to the ground was there.

“But the machine to do it with — the fundamental muscle memory was intact, but I had busted up a shoulder and there was arthritis in some of my fingers. So, where in the ’90s, I was an articulate player — and it drove the lyrics, made me really lift us — well, now I had to use the lyrics to raise up the playing. I had to be more simple and open — and the songs had to carry.”

With no master plan beyond enjoying the process, Bell looked around. He had a notion that his writing needed to deepen. And after his time in the corporate world, found himself dialing into humanity in a different way. 

“If you’re gonna be a teller of stories, you better do it with love and honesty,” he says. “I was writing about people I knew, all the jobs I’d done, my family and how I feel about them. Only I wasn’t willing to have myself in the songs. There’s that boring truth, because I’m the poet’s kid, I know the specific can be universal, but the universal all by itself is terribly boring. Back then, the characters were drawn intellectually, now there’s sentimentality and genuine heartfelt commitment to the songs. I’ve always been a really great observer, so with the compassion, I was able to get further into the micro. Maybe I could show them as broken (people), because that’s part of it.”

The cynic inside Nathan Bell laughs a little, continuing lunch over hush puppies and cheeseburgers at Nashville’s old-school Brown’s Diner. “My people don’t meet their grandmother in heaven. And there’s no harm in presenting the breakage, ’cause that’s real life. The trick is to bring compassion into it.”


Something happened between his first, post-layoff demos and the release of the first of the three albums that came after. “Black Crow Blue” was recorded in 2011 while Bell was in his second job with AT&T. The writing pulled into focus, and Bell’s stories came to conclusions that made the listener think. An album that crunchy and organic like Neil Young’s “Harvest” in places, dark and stark like Young “On the Beach” in others, it was held together by a handful of songs about a character named the Crow, “who was the trickster, the one who shows you both the good and the bad side of yourself.”

“Crow” considered men alone in the world — loners and outliers. But ultimately, they were people grappling not just with their places in the world, but their own struggles with sense of self. 

“The middle-aged white guy is never cool,” says Bell. “Those stories are told in the Willy Loman way: The white middle-class man goes to work every day ’cause he’s a sucker. But he’s not a sucker; he’s a huge part of the American experience. He’s caught in the cracks — and that romanticism for the blue-collar, that’s only supported by people who don’t have those jobs. So, that leaves guys with a bit of survivor guilt: Every day they have that job, if they’re thinking men, they know how lucky they are. And they know how it is without it. That’s the thing — no matter the color of his collar, regardless of sexual identity or socioeconomic reality, these men I’m writing about are reflective of this place and time.”

If “Crow” was a series of character studies of such men, “Blood Like a River,” from 2014, considered the dynamics among them and larger interconnections. In many ways, “Crow” and “Blood” were almost fraternal twins. With “Crow” almost done, and knowing he would soon need shoulder surgery, Bell, who was playing most of his own instruments, decided to double down and make “Blood” before going into the hospital. He had 30 days to write and record.
These stories also tried to bind people together in things that seemingly challenged our culture. “Names” focused on (fictional) soldiers who’d lost their lives in the Middle East. “Really, Truly” considered the reality of love in a world where only heterosexuals could marry — and how the coming marriage equality bill might play out.


“My relationship with work, social justice, marriage equality isn’t personal,” Bell says. “It’s not something to just paint [a person] as a hero or a victim; it’s part of the art and narrative to be honest. To be honest with love, and compassion.”

Mark Kemp, former editorial director of MTV and author of “Dixie Lullabye: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in the New South,” recognizes Bell’s willingness to push his writing to a place of grace, not just what’s easy or expected. Raised in Asheboro, North Carolina, he understands the inherent discord of being conscious in a place many view as backward and close-minded.

“He is sensitive, compassionate and realistic,” Kemp says. “He tells stories of human beings that go straight to the heart, and they’re essential. They go right to the gut of it. Lots of people write confessionals or create portraits, but Nathan pulls the truths out. With ‘Names,’ for instance, he brings several lives to life in that one song. He talks about what we lose by creating specific people, using details, making the hole where they used to be specific. People know when they hear him, this is something special.”


Bell may or may not have known that his new work was “something special.” But he noticed, as he was recovering from surgery, a quickening around his music like he’d never seen before. There were opportunities. There were reviews. There was even... radio play!

“Mostly folk radio,” he cautions. “MIT’s station, a lot of political shows. I was popping up on song lists with people who’d been doing this 20, 30 years. Any show that was playing Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, Prine, Seeger, Dylan... I’d be on there, too. ‘Names,’ especially, but some of the working songs like ‘Striker’ and ‘Rust.’”

He takes a moment to talk to a waitress, who was clearing his dishes, about her career as a blues singer. He nods and agrees with her about how hard it can be to hustle up work. As she walks off, he continues, “Then, there’s the Dutch thing that happened. They’re actually willing to show up, put their butts in seats and buy the shit out of my CDs. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a relatively small fish over there, but still a bigger fish than I am here.”

Here, though, he sees the effects of time away from home while he’s touring, not to mention shrinking record business, and he works on building a scrappy team for to support his unlikely campaign. He still does house concerts, plays a certain number of bars, college venues and benefits when called, but dreams of getting on a tour with a more established act. 

“I can’t do 250 dates a year,” he says, “not at this age.”

There are many things guys Bell’s age can’t do. But for some reason, re-starting a Quixotic music career that he once walked away from isn’t on that list. 

When he got off the phone with the manager who laid him off, Bell didn’t flinch. Instead, he leaned into his father’s wisdom. 

“My father taught me not to waste any time lamenting something you’re not doing,” he says. “He was a very present guy, and to him, the present was what mattered.”

Bell wonders if things hadn’t been falling into place with his music between the first layoff and his rehiring, would he have been so clear about what to do after the second layoff? He recognizes he could go into any job and make it work, and he says, “If we had to move to a smaller house, that’s not really the end of the world.”

He adds, “I have a certain amount of freedom now, instead of when I was tucking the music into corners. I’ve always been better about work than inspiration — and there’s a difference between having ideas people remember and finding those things. Because I can work at this, I’ve become more creative. Once I realized the company wasn’t going to change, there was no reason to go back. Had they offered me a job within six months of when I was let go [the second time], I don’t know what I would’ve done. That’s the truth; but here I am.”

Kemp can’t figure out why Bell isn’t as impactful as Earle or fellow poet’s child Lucinda Williams. He thinks some of it’s timing, some of it’s luck, some of it’s just the way the music industry has fallen apart. But the author also thinks there’s no substitute for a songwriter/artist who truly brings a particular perspective to the human condition.

“Authenticity is a way overused word,” Kemp concedes. “But the way his art and his music contain so much of his character. You put all those things into his music, and he’s the kind of artist that says so much about who we are in times like these.


“I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love,” the final work in Bell’s new trilogy, considers what people do to support each other. Working on most songs with seven-time International Bluegrass Music Association Award winner Missy Raines and her band the New Hip, Bell crafted an album that is present, warm, slightly creaky. In the end, it’s an aural reflection of the dead-ends and not-quites that define his songs.

“I told the engineer, ‘I don’t care about leakage. I’ll never use Auto-Tune. Just turn on the tape and let it roll,’” he says. “You can only do that in a studio where they know how to get a mic on the instruments.” He had such skill in Ben Surratt, the International Bluegrass Music Association Award-winning producer and the founder of Nashville’s Rec Room Studio. “You know, with bluegrass and punk, it’s the performance that drives everything — and you can’t dub that on later.”

The power of Bell’s live-in-the-studio performance with Raines and her band is evident on “Georgia 42 (Someday We’ll Look Back),” an elegy for the carpet mills, “Stamping Metal,” a whirling take on men doing men’s work, and “Jesus of Gary, Indiana,” which serves as a wake for the union guys clinging to their glory in a world that’s moving on.

“Most of the kids don’t think they’ll have a job more than a few years,” Bell says. “Their lives are already invested in semi-permanence. They don’t believe in building something for the long haul — or getting on the wagon and that wagon will take you forward.”

No generation in the last century has seen the kinds of shifts the 50- and 60-something American has. The Internet changed everything. The global economy interconnected the world. The profiteers in America realized they could exploit cheap labor forces in China, India, Taiwan and Mexico. Suddenly, it was open season on white-collar workers, too.

“I never expected to get 40 or 50 songs out of this thing I was writing about,” Bell says. “You know, it’s all interconnected, and one song led to another. It starts out with a guy trying to hang onto his strength in ‘Black Crow Blue,’ and it peels away some with ‘Blood Like a River.’ That record considers how we connect to each other, how we see each other.

“And this one? Well, it ties straight back to me. This is Van Gogh doing self-portraits of himself for six years — only in my case, it’s trying to understand the love that keeps people doing what they do for their families. In that way, I’ve never really strayed from my interest in what work represents.

“My father made a comment about the new stuff he’s heard. He couldn’t come up with a word for it, but basically, he said I couldn’t have written this until I wasn’t what I was before.”

“King of the North” captures a young man turning old who still gets out and plays ice hockey with his friends. That holding on can keep you alive, or in Bell’s case, it can bring you back.

“Unforgiven,” the second to last song on “Love,” could be the vaya con dios for Bell himself. Though true to form, he never bows or buckles. Instead, he delivers the rambling shuffle with a half-sung, half-spoken delivery before culminating in a chorus that declares:


Bell remains philosophical. For every 50-something who’s lost a good-paying job in the name of the bottom line — knowing that if they can find another job, it will pay half they were making before — Bell is searching for the line in the sand in a land of shrinking opportunities.

“Some people find their groove in their 20s or 30s, and I spent that time with a life a lot of people in the music business wish they’d had,” Bell says. “You know, I wouldn’t trade anything for that. But I think when they look at me, people will find I progressed like a poet, or a novelist. I got here later because I was developing into a much more open, forgiving, loving person. The time spent raising my children, being a husband to my wife, I became a more observant, kind, aware human being — and that changes how you write. It just does.”