Luke Bell

Strange NotionLuke Bell (2012)
JuarezLuke Bell (2012)
Sinking ShipsLuke Bell (2012)
Don't Mind If I DoDon’t Mind If I Do
Working Man’s DreamDon’t Mind If I Do
LorettaDon’t Mind If I Do
SometimesLuke Bell (2016)
Where Ya Been?Luke Bell (2016)
Glory And The GraceLuke Bell (2016)
The BullfighterLuke Bell (2016)

Luke Bell photo 1

Luke Bell – photo Laura E. Partain



Luke Bell playlist


Contributor: Andrew Shields

Writing a Toppermost on a songwriter who died at a relatively young age will always evoke questions of “what if?” and “what might have been?”. This is even more the case when the artist involved had appeared a few years earlier to be on the cusp of fulfilling the musical potential which he had displayed from his earliest days performing in small clubs in his native Wyoming. Sadly, Luke Bell was deprived of the opportunity to add to his already impressive body of work when he died in tragic circumstances in August 2022. He was only 32 at the time. Such was his musical potential, however, that Rolling Stone had already described him as someone “who played honky-tonk with a wink and a yodel” and summoned “the sleeping ghosts of country better than any voodoo spell ever could”.

Indeed, Bell’s interest in music had been evident from a very young age. It was not, however, until he went to study at the University of Wyoming at Laramie that he began to perform professionally. After dropping out of college there, Bell moved to Austin where he formed a country rock group, Fast Luke and the Lead Heavy/ (some of their music can be heard here). When it became clear that the music had only a relatively limited appeal, Bell started to perform solo in a far more overtly honky-tonk country style.

Growing up in Wyoming, he had been exposed to many different types of music. He later claimed that it took some time before he “grew into country music”. According to him, Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee live album had been a formative influence in that process. Through Merle, Bell also found his way back to Jimmie Rodgers. For Bell, Rodgers’ music came from a time when country was a true ‘melting pot’ which incorporated blues and jazz. Along with these old school and Bakersfield influences, Bell was also a keen fan of more contemporary songwriters, including Blaze Foley, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and John Prine. As we shall see later in the piece, there was also a Woody Guthrie-esque element in some of his later work.

Through his live performances in Austin, Bell developed a local reputation there. This led also to recording his first self-titled solo album in that city in 2012. He did so with a band which included Ricky Ray Jackson (who has also played with Steve Earle and the Dukes) and Kim Deschamps (who has played on sessions by artists including Barenaked Ladies and Fred Eaglesmith) on steel guitars and Dan Cohen on banjo, lead guitar and dobro. It is an extraordinarily accomplished album for a debut but it is exceedingly difficult to track down a copy of it now. The album’s opener Strange Notions is clearly indebted to John Prine, both for its rolling melody and tongue-in-cheek lyric. However, it is a strong enough song in itself to bear the comparison and it is my first selection (it can be heard here). My next choice from the album, Juarez, is a narrative ballad which shows Bell’s superb ability to tell a story in a song. It also shows the influence which the Austin school of songwriters had on his work. This is a live performance at Antone’s Record Shop in Austin in 2012:


My final pick from his debut album is the beautifully mellow acoustic ballad Sinking Ships. There is also a melancholic air to the song which may reflect Bell’s own struggles with depression.

Because Bell released two self-titled albums in his career, I have distinguished between them by adding the year they were released, although this is purely for convenience. Just to confuse things further, as the second of these albums was his first with a recognised record label, it is also sometimes incorrectly described online as his debut one!

Luke Bell’s wandering streak led him eventually to leave Austin and move for a time to New Orleans. From there, he eventually made it to Nashville where he recorded his second album, Don’t Mind If I Do. This was a crowdfunded release which Luke co-ordinated through Kickstarter. My first pick from it, Don’t Mind If I Do, is a classic folk-style song, which even features some Jimmie Rodgers type yodelling. It also has that easy sense of fun which was characteristic of the ‘Singing Brakeman’s’ style. In his early youth, Bell had spent most of his summers working on his grandparents’ ranch in Wyoming. There he had learned the love of animals (especially dogs and horses) which was such a marked feature of his later life.

When starting his musical career, he had also worked on numerous ‘odd jobs’ including in construction and, at one time, going door to door delivering pizza coupons. This hands-on experience means that the next selection, Working Man’s Dream, has an air of authenticity which many songs on similar themes by other artists lack. There is also a good-humoured boastfulness which characterised some of Woody Guthrie’s songs.

Like several of his best songs, it also had the air of being written by someone who had stepped directly out of an earlier time, without, however, any sense of his music being forced or anachronistic. My final choice from the album, Loretta, is a classic honky-tonk ballad which is good enough even to get away with rhyming ‘Loretta’ with ‘better’ …


The high quality of his work up to this point meant that he had begun to attract interest from some of the major players on the country music scene. Among these was the booking agency WME which went on to secure prestigious opening slots for him with artists like Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jnr, and Willie Nelson. He also signed to the Thirty Tigers record label, on which his third album – and second self-titled one – first appeared in 2016. Rather confusingly, it also included several tracks which had originally appeared on his second album, along with a number of new songs specifically written for it. It also had a slicker, more commercial feel than his earlier albums, although this was combined with the maintenance of very high artistic standards. This was possibly due to the presence of Andrija Tokic – who had previously worked with artists like the Alabama Shakes and Margo Price – as producer. My first two selections here, Sometimes and Where Ya Been, both showed this potential for country chart success. Both were also excellent vehicles for Bell’s resonant and twangy baritone voice (official videos at the foot of this post).

My other two picks are very different types of songs which reflect Luke Bell’s mastery over a range of musical styles. The first, Glory And The Grace, has a Guthrie-esque quality and expresses a refreshing brand of American patriotism based on a love of its landscapes and people.

My second selection, The Bullfighter, is an instant classic and, perhaps, Bell’s finest song. It features one of his loveliest melodies and a deeply layered lyric which may reflect some of the inner conflicts which he experienced at this time.


Although Bell had struggled with depression for most of his life, this became more severe in his last few years. His family later identified the death of his father in 2015 as one of the principal triggers for this. This also coincided with his becoming identified as a potential future country music ‘star’. It is possible that the pressures which this caused further exacerbated Bell’s difficulties with his mental health. His behaviour became increasingly erratic and his tendency to go ‘walkabout’ (to use the Australian term) became more pronounced and concerning for his family and friends. His live appearances also became more intermittent and he gradually faded away from the recording scene. After a gap of several years, however, he resurfaced in 2020, performing with his friend, the folk-musician Matt Kinman. He also contributed backing vocals to the Wonderland album by the Appalachian singer, Martha Spencer, in early 2022. Here he is performing Hesitation Blues with Kinman and Spencer.

Sadly, however, this brief revival – which apparently was in part at least a product of a change in his depression medication – proved to be a false dawn. In September 2022, Luke Bell went missing in Tucson, Arizona while touring there with Kinman. After a ten-day search – which through the efforts of his family and friends – received national attention in the US, his body was discovered in a car park near to where he had first disappeared. Although his death was ultimately ruled as accidental – due to a fentanyl overdose – his family linked it to his long battle with mental illness.

While it is very sad that there will be no further albums from this extremely talented songwriter, nevertheless his work was so finely crafted – and the best of it so timeless in its quality – that it will, in all likelihood, last far longer than that of many now more fêted songwriters.

Will conclude with this fine version of The Bullfighter by Luke Bell’s friend, JP Harris. It begins with a fine tribute to Luke:

Here is another version of the same song with JP, Pat Reedy, Bell’s early mentor, and his sister, Jane:

Postscript: As mentioned above, John Prine was one of Luke Bell’s main musical heroes. Luke repaid this debt with this superb version of Mexican Home which is easily one of the best Prine covers I have ever heard.






“Want to know what CMA Fest (Country Music Association) might have sounded like back in the Seventies, when it was still called Fan Fair and Wranglers were more commonplace than trucker hats? Enter Luke Bell, who plays classic honky-tonk with a wink and a yodel that summons the sleeping ghosts of country better than any voodoo spell ever could. Often playing with other arbiters of traditional twang like Cale Tyson and Johnny Appleseed, Bell’s shows are welcome excuses to click your boots and down an extra sniff of bourbon. And songs like Sometimes are such uncanny time warps they almost make his sets appear in Technicolor.” (Rolling Stone 2015)

“Luke Bell’s death, at a tragically young age, has taken from us a man of great talent who leaves behind a small but lasting legacy. He was an original in his writing and performances. In his 2016 AUK interview, he described his music as ‘modern country music with traditional sensibilities’ which seems very fitting as both a description and an epitaph.” (Americana UK)


Luke Bell photo 2

Luke Bell – photo Laura E. Partain


Luke Bell (1990–2022)


Luke Bell’s Family Speaks Out about Mental Health
After His Death at 32 (People Magazine 2022)

Remembering Luke Bell, ‘Wyoming’s Troubadour’ (WyoFile)
Friend and photographer Mike Vanata, who documented Bell’s rise, shares images that celebrate a life of creativity and charm.

Luke Bell remembered by photographer Laura E. Partain (+ photos)

Finding Our Friend, Luke Bell (The Musical Divide 2022)

Searching For Luke Bell (Saving Country Music 2020)

Backstage with Luke Bell (San Diego Union-Tribune 2016)

Luke Bell interview – Dan MacIntosh (SongFacts 2016)

Luke Bell releases self-titled album (Maverick magazine 2016)

Luke Bell: The Country Gentleman – James Orme (Slug Mag 2016)

Luke Bell biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

Read the Toppermosts on these great American singer songwriters mentioned in this post: Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie

TopperPost #1,067


  1. David Lewis
    Jun 16, 2023

    This is really great stuff. Such a tragedy. One artist who it can be said he didn’t meet his full potential. A great selection of songs.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 20, 2023

    Thanks for the kind words David. I think the best of Luke’s music will last, as it has that kind of ageless quality. Very sad that he will not be able to add to that legacy.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Jun 21, 2023

    “Sinking Ships” was the one that hooked me; I was Luke’s from then on. Many, many thanks Andrew for the excellent intro to a man I’d never heard of before. And it’s a great shame that he’s with us no more.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Jun 22, 2023

    Thanks for this Dave. Agree that ‘Sinking Ships’ is an outstanding song. Luke was hitting a very rich vein of songwriting form in those years.

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