Vince Bell - Survival of the fiercest
"This is 20 minutes before I was knocked into the decade of the '90s," Vince Bell says by way of foreshadowing as he slips a tape into the living-room stereo at his home just outside Nashville. The recording he has quite candidly volunteered to play for me on this cloudy spring afternoon is something I've been intensely curious about for five years, ever since I first heard Bell's 1994 debut album Phoenix and learned of the staggering story that lurked behind the record's creation. To criminally condense a decade of struggle into a paragraph of summary: On December 21, 1982, Bell's car was struck by a drunk driver in Austin, Texas, nearly killing him and inflicting injuries to his head, right arm, spinal cord and liver that drastically redirected his future. At the time of the collision, Bell was on his way home from a recording session for a demo tape that featured contributions from some of Austin's finest musicians, including ace guitarists Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Poised on the brink of a breakthrough in his musical career, Bell instead found himself poised on the brink of death, in the blink of an eye. That story has been told many times in the past several years -- most thoroughly and effectively in Bell's self-published new book, One Man's Music, which chronicles his long and arduous, yet heroically inspirational, road to recovery. But I'd always wondered about those fateful demo sessions -- specifically, whether the recording process had ever gotten far enough along to produce anything resembling a final product. The tape he plays as we're winding down our hour-long interview provides the answer to that question. Though Bell's vocals are just rough takes that were intended to be replaced later, they're still solid enough that the three-song demo could easily pass for a finished recording. Musicians who at the time were playing with such folks as Christopher Cross, Carole King and Delbert McClinton lay down confident (if stereotypically '80s-sounding) tracks behind Bell's peppy, energetic vocals. And, sure enough, wailing through the bridges of two songs are the inimitable styles of Johnson (on the first cut) and Vaughan (on the last one). As Stevie cranks it up a notch, soaring to the nether edges of the fretboard, Bell howls deliriously in wonder. "Whoooo! Smokin'," he concludes, as the song rolls through the final verse and the tape player goes silent. "Twenty minutes later, it's over. What a decade." If Vince Bell's story had stopped with the release of Phoenix five years ago, it would still rank as one of the greatest comeback triumphs of all time. As it is, however, that was just the first flower of his late-blooming career as a recording artist. In April, Nashville-based Paladin Records, a small subsidiary of Warner Bros., picked up Bell's second album, Texas Plates, shortly after he'd begun selling the disc independently via the internet. Produced by Robin Eaton and featuring musical support from accomplished players such as Al Perkins, Brad Jones, Mickey Grimm, Ross Rice and Maura O'Connell, Texas Plates continues where Phoenix left off, tastefully presenting Bell's songs in acoustic arrangements that bring out the subtle magic of his carefully crafted lyrics. Thematically, the album is loosely structured around Bell's home state. A Houston native who starred at quarterback on his high school football team, Bell spent several years in Austin in the '70s and '80s and, after moving to California in 1990, returned to Texas for a four-year stint in Fredericksburg, a small town 90 miles west of Austin "out on the edge of the desert," as he quite rightly describes it. Texas Plates kicks off with "Poetry, Texas", a song Bell wrote for his good friend and fellow songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard. "You can tell where I am/By where I'm not," Bell sings, echoing his comment in our interview that "the most lovely thing about Texas is what you find in the rearview mirror." Which is another way of saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder: "Sometimes when I'm at home in Texas, it's not near as impressive as it is when I'm sitting in New York City and I might be a little lonely or something. Then I can go, 'Yeah, it's a good ol' place to be from,'" he explains. Other songs reflect the spirit of the state through various ways and means. "2nd Street" deals with the day-to-day struggle for survival among homeless people who gather at a street corner in Austin every day, waiting for construction contractors to drive by and gather up a truckload of transients eager to work for whatever meager pay is offered. Bell knows whereof he sings: A chapter in One Man's Music details his own attempt vying for work among the 2nd Street crowd during one of the bleaker stretches on his road to recovery in the '80s. The album's most musically mesmerizing song, "100 Miles From Mexico", is a mood-piece that conjures up the transcendent mysticism of deep, dark evenings in the heart of the Texas hill country. In a journal entry on his website, Bell distinctly recalls the moment that inspired this tune: "I'll never forget driving over the Devil's Backbone late one starry night with my guitar and a six pack of Pearl beer in the backseat, this song in my head, and a big, coral orange moon in the cloudless sky." "I wanted to write an album that had Texana on it," Bell acknowledged when asked about the thread running through most of the songs on Texas Plates. "I tell everybody in this world -- especially the people from Europe -- that Texas is a state of mind....When I was in Toronto last year playing, I told them, 'You people are waaay the hell up here -- it's almost Oklahoma! And that's how I feel about it. Texas is a state of mind to me, it always has been that way." It's been a bittersweet state of mind for Bell over the years. His hometown of Houston has changed drastically since the days he first began playing music around 1970 at the long-gone Sand Mountain Coffeehouse, where Townes Van Zandt taught him to play an A-minor chord. Austin, of course, carries the indelible baggage of the crash that changed his life. When he and his wife, Sarah Wrightson, moved from the Bay Area to Fredericksburg in 1994, it proved fruitful in some respects; they finished One Man's Music, with Wrightson conducting all the interviews of friends and family members, and Bell doing the writing. But living out on the edge of the desert ended up being a liability in terms of furthering Bell's musical career. One of the reasons they'd chosen Fredericksburg was its close proximity to Austin, where his record label at the time, Watermelon, was based. Watermelon obtained the rights to Phoenix in 1994 after the album had already been completed; Bell recorded it in California with producer Bob Neuwirth, who employed a virtuosic backing cast that included stellar string players Geoff Muldaur, Stephen Bruton and David Mansfield, plus guest spots by John Cale (piano) and Lyle Lovett and Victoria Williams (backing vocals). Phoenix is, quite simply, one of the best songwriter documents of this decade. Three of its songs have been covered on other artists' albums (Nanci Griffith has done both "Sun & Moon & Stars" and "Woman Of The Phoenix", while Lovett recorded "I've Had Enough" for last year's Step Inside This House tribute to Texas songwriters). "Girl Who Never Saw A Mountain" and "Just Because" emphasize Bell's penchant for effortlessly catchy little ditties that benefit from the winsome strain in his voice. "The Beast" and "Troubletown" travel the darker side of Bell's journey back from oblivion, an odyssey introduced definitively on the opening track, "Frankenstein" -- which, ironically, is the only song on either of his records that Bell didn't write. From its opening line, "I've got stitches all over my body," it was clearly destined for Bell's repertoire. "I waltzed into Anderson Fair [a renowned Houston folk-music haven] one night, and here's this kid up there singin' about Frankenstein," Bell recalls of his encounter with songwriter Gary Burgess around 1989. "And I could see the guy in the black and white movie better than I ever could, from what this kid had written. And I thought, 'He looks an awful lot like me the last few years.'" To be certain, the '80s days Bell writes about in One Man's Music were full of monstrous challenges. "I was head-injured, and I didn't go outside the walls of my house anymore. Not for years," he recalls. "Because I didn't want people seeing me drooling and stuttering. I didn't want that kind of shit. All anybody ever remembered of me was I was young and drunk and hot to go. And I didn't want 'em to know any different." Occasionally, glimmers of light shone through the clouds, courtesy of devoted relatives and true-blue friends. Bell remembers the day Townes Van Zandt stopped by his house with a special gift of very personal news. "I was just sittin' there one day, and knock knock knock, Townes is at the door. 'Well,' he says, 'I named a kid after you,'" referring to William Vincent Van Zandt, the late songwriter's youngest son. "That was too much." Most of One Man's Music, however, deals with the obstacles Bell inevitably had to overcome on his own. Though the drunken driver responsible for the wreck that night got off with merely a $600 fine, Bell realized fairly quickly that he had to find ways to channel his rage over the injustice in positive directions. "I hadn't time for indignation, anger, or ill will. No grudges would help," he writes. "I could tell that from even this early on by the strange and unfamiliar depths from which I was gloomily peering. It would take the best of my thoughts, the bravest of my intentions, plus tedious years of toil, just to relearn how to do the simple things again. The path of malice and animosity had always pointed straight downhill. That would only take precious time from me -- time I didn't have. I would find that time and patience were now my biggest allies." Not to mention a Herculean penchant for perseverance. Things didn't work out in the long term for Bell with Watermelon, which eventually filed bankruptcy papers in December 1998. By that time, he and Wrightson had already moved to Nashville "because I wasn't able to make anything happen in my music career" from Fredericksburg. "We came here to provoke the music business; I'm here to upset the natural order of things," he adds with a sly laugh. Though he'd visited Nashville several times in the past, "I came here only long enough to be put off by it -- put off by the opportunities that I wasn't able to make happen," he says. "But when I decided to move here, I was steadfast and determined. You know, you shouldn't say no to a guy like Vince. Because I'm just like a small dog, I'll just grab the guy by the leg." One of those guys was Robin Eaton, who often works in conjunction with producer Brad Jones at Alex the Great Studios (their credits include Steve Forbert, the Ass Ponys and Tim Easton). "I had been after that guy for two years," Bell begins. "I had come here two years before I moved here, to play the Summer Lights festival, and I went over to his house for a party that evening, after I played my gig. So I find out this guy owns a studio here; not only that, but he is a superfan of Phoenix. So I started pursuing this guy; I wrote him letters from Fredericksburg, made phone calls...and when I finally moved here, I started going over to the studio and bothering him, pestering the poor man." Eaton eventually agreed to produce Texas Plates, which Bell decided to release on his own label (dubbed One Man's Music, the same as the title of his book). "We made 1,000 copies [of the CD]," he says. "We were selling them on the internet, just like we were doing with the book. We were gonna sell the book, we were gonna sell the album, and if it wasn't gonna work, we were gonna die trying. "And all of a sudden, my publisher, Peter Cronin, calls up and says he took a copy of Texas Plates over to Jim Zumwalt, a Music Row lawyer, and Zumwalt says, 'Yeah, this is cool, I gotta release this.' So I got a release date, April 13. Like, the fastest record deal on record. Two months. You'll never hear of anybody who had a faster deal." Zumwalt's label, Paladin, has released albums by Brian Wilson, Steve Forbert, Stacy Dean Campbell and Jamie Hartford in the past few years. They picked up Texas Plates exactly as it was, complete with the packaging designed by Bell himself -- "right down to the typesetting," he says, proudly. "My schooling was in commercial arts, so I did the album cover [a photo of his great-grandparents taken in the 1940s]. To be able to put the whole package together was lots of fun. You know, I'm very competitive about stuff, and I wanted to really turn out something nice, even though all I had was a black and white presentation. I had one color photograph -- the license plates on the back of the CD, from Luckenbach, Texas." Those rusty old plates adorn the men's room at the classic dance hall in the tiny town made famous by Waylon & Willie & the boys, just a stone's throw from Bell's former abode in Fredericksburg. Bell earned his degree in commercial arts from Austin Community College during the '80s, his education sponsored by the Texas Head Injury Foundation. Before the crash, the only consideration he'd ever given to college was getting a football scholarship out of high school, which didn't happen. "I graduated high school in '70; nobody would give me an athletic scholarship after being the quarterback for that big 4A school," he recalls. "If they weren't gonna scholarship me, I quit. I said, 'Forget it, I'm gonna go play music, bye-bye.' I never intended to go to college. I'd never have gotten a college degree if it wasn't for that wreck." Indeed, one of Bell's greatest virtues is his ability to realize the positive things that have come from such a negative occurrence. Another prime example is his guitar-picking style, which he calls "The Claw." "I spent ten years back there in Austin trying to relearn how to play with flatpicks," Bell starts. "And then I'm out there in California, living in Berkeley, I'm ten minutes away from meeting Bob Neuwirth. What happens? I'm writing a song called 'Girl Who Never Saw A Mountain'. What's wrong? I can't play it fast enough. I can't play it as fast as I've written it. So, OK; let's get a new way to play. On go the fingerpicks, out the window goes the flatpick, and I almost end up strumming with the fingerpicks, doing a down-strum. You notice how I play: I've got fingerpicks on, but I'm down-strumming as well." Like Vic Chesnutt, who glued a pick to a glove when he relearned how to play after his car wreck in the mid-1980s and became a more emotionally effective guitarist -- "I played too damn jazzy back then," Chesnutt has said of his pre-wheelchair days -- Bell fashioned a style that was specific to himself, and ultimately made him a more inventive musician. "And yet, if it wasn't for that wreck, I wouldn't have that to show," he muses. "You know, when Neuwirth took my project [the Phoenix album], and we were sitting there doing 'Frankenstein', Geoff Muldaur looked over at me and he goes, 'Look at how he's playing the guitar!' And I was like, 'I love this!' He recognized what all this work had produced." His accomplishments as a guitarist and as an author notwithstanding, Bell's truest talent remains as a lyricist. "I don't know if I'm gonna be a prose writer so much, but I want to be an expert at this story," he says, explaining that he expects to do occasional updates and additions to One Man's Music (available through www.vincebell.com) for subsequent printings. "I often have said in the past that what a prose writer does with a shovel, a poet does with a microscope. It's the same thing, just different tones, different weights, different lengths. One's 200 pages long. One's three verses long. One can kill you in three verses. You don't need no damn 200 pages." Just as Vince Bell vividly remembers driving across the Texas hill country with "100 Miles From Mexico" rising into his mind, ND co-editor Peter Blackstock will never forget the songs of Phoenix shining like lighthouse beacons through the mist on a drive along the Oregon coast in the summer of '94.