Album Review

Nathan Bell - 'Blood Like a River'

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Nathan, You Had Me at Hello

By Donna Mavity

Often, the first record you hear from an artist is like the first kiss from your first love.  Hard to top. Nothing that follows ever lives up to that initial soul-siphoning experience.

So, when Tennessee singer-songwriter Nathan Bell sent me an advance copy of his new release, ‘Blood Like a River, ‘ I wondered about this ‘first kiss’ theory I have of troubadours and their tunes.

I was introduced to Bell when a friend passed-on a copy of his 2011 release, Black Crow Blue. I liked it so much that I named it to my ‘Best of’ list on my radio show, ‘Donna’s Americana Radio Hour.’

But from the first words of ‘Blood’s’ opening track, “Names,” the ‘first kiss’ theory was shot to hell.

In movie-speak, like Renee Zellweger to Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire, Nathan, you had me at ‘hello.’

With the heart of a father, a brother, and a son, ‘Names’ tells the stories of three service men and women who have become ‘just a name’, ‘a candle in my mother’s hand’, as their lives are cut short and their dreams left unlived. ‘You don’t know the things I’ve done…and will never do…for I am just a name to you…”

I have never heard a more powerful tribute to those who have become both instruments of and victims of war.

The album is all Bell. Every instrument is skillfully played by him, all songs from his pen. His is the only voice, a satisfying blend of gruff masculinity and a sensitivity you may not expect to find there.   (Think James McMurtry or Grant Peeples meets Sam Baker.) Similarly, his songs are a mix of intriguing introspection and insightful observation of those around him, their heartaches, confusion, and desires.

Listen to the record and you’ll hear stories of an armed robber whose victim sees into his soul (Trigger), gay lovers who are finally wed (Really, Truly), and the thoughts of those on opposing sides of an adoption case (Fathers and Mothers). And then there are the songs whose reality is so palpable that they must be autobiographical, though one never knows with such a skillful storyteller as Bell.

He sings of a father’s heart smitten by a daughter following his muse (She Sang the Blue Kentucky Girl), and the complicated emotions and experiences that bind one human being to another (Blood Like a River.) Several songs are musings on aging, and Bell’s thoughts are reassuring: “I’m angry I won’t get to do this again, but goddamn, I’m thankful too….” (Fade Out)

Blood Like a River is a sophomore release that takes us deeper into the heart of a gifted and thought-provoking songwriter.  Not one song disappoints. The album captures, and compels one to listen from beginning to end.

So Nathan, thanks for blowing my theory.  Some songwriters take you with them wherever they go. And don’t worry---in your own words (The Snowman), your motor’s still running… strong …

Listen to the record.   You’ll know what I’m talking about.


Trespass Music/Stone Barn Records