If ever there were a post that proves the point Karen Loves Country, this might be it.
Friday night I saw Luke Bell perform for the first time, catching his early evening show at the River Roots Live (RRL) festival in Davenport, Iowa.
Luke is the most country country singer I’ve heard in a long time. And I loved every minute of his show.
Luke and his Star Rangers band deliver a traditional but fresh country sound, featuring an upright bass and pedal steel guitar. Hip and funky. They meshed perfectly with the bluesier and rock acts at the festival. “We are eclectic but deeply rooted in the traditional country form,” said Luke during a quick chat backstage before his set.
Luke’s voice is melodic and twangy at the same time, with a mile wide range and no off notes to be heard. His low tone is anchored and smooth, yet he often tosses in a little lonesome cry as he croons higher notes. And he’s an excellent yodeler, too.
In May, Rolling Stone listed Luke as one of 10 new country artists you need to know. He released a great album Luke Bell on June 17, and recently played festivals with Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
For good reason Luke looks comfortable in the cowboy hat, Wranglers and the new Ranch
Roads boots he was sporting (and showing off on Instagram). He grew up near the mouth of Yellowstone in Cody, WY, but spent summers working on his grandparents’ ranch near Greybull, WY. He spent a few years in Austin, TX, and moved to Nashville about three years ago.
Define honky-tonk, I asked. He mentions Jimmie Rodgers and a blend of European folk music and rhythm and blues. He then recalls the first time he heard an Ernest Tubb record. “There was electric guitar and exciting elements of rock and roll, but it was laid back and friendly, like you could dance your worries away,” he said, adding that he and his band make an effort to be dance-ible and they even played a polka recently.
Luke’s songs – he wrote most of what he played Friday, with a few classic covers mixed in – certainly made me want to two-step. I haven’t done that for years; not since I visited a ranch near Tucumcari, NM, and for fun one night a big group of us drove to Clovis where we danced to a country & western band. Maybe I can convince Dan to learn to swing dance. Probably not.
Luke’s talented and jovial band includes Carter Brallier on upright bass, Ryan Elwell on drums, and Leo Grassl on pedal steel. Luke played harmonica and, perhaps reluctantly, took the reins as lead guitarist. “Normally we have another guitar player,” he told the audience, then poked a little fun at himself. “Right now we are three-fourths of the way through the set-list and we have another 45 minutes to entertain you.” Humble for such a talented guy.
The guitar player left the band for a higher paying job to support his young family. During our chat before the show, Luke and I talked a bit about the business side of making music. In the age of free streaming and cheap digital songs, Luke admits it can be difficult to support a band. “Our goal is to make a decent living so we can have wives, children and houses someday,” he says. Selling CDs at live shows helps. “We’ve had really supportive fans, we sell out of CDs at many shows,” he said.
My friend Deb and her daughters Caleista and Savannah met me at the festival. Caleista, a country music fan, was thrilled to get a CD autographed by Luke. Me too and I can’t stop playing mine!
Luke Bell’s set list (more or less) at River Roots Live August 26:
- Lonesome Joe
- The Glory and The Grace
- The Bullfighter
- Blue Freightliner
- On the Road Again (Willie Nelson)
- Ragtime Troubles
- Where Ya Been
- All Blue
- Don’t Mind if I Do
- Rounder (?)
- Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin (Ernest Tubb)
- Wabash Cannonball (Roy Acuff)
- Sneaking in the back door (?)
- Digging a Hole
- I Can’t Help it If I’m Still in Love With You (Hank Williams)
- Bumming Around (Jimmy Dean)
- You Gotta Go to Work
- Swinging Doors (Merle Haggard)
Special thanks to my friend Heidi Gilliland who introduced me to Luke’s music via Facebook after hearing him at SXSW last spring. And thanks to her husband Jason, RRL’s manager, for getting me backstage Friday for my interview.
For a taste of Luke’s music, check out this video linked from his official YouTube channel Luke Bell Music. I claim no rights to the content.