SLF 2016: Songwriter Nathan Bell on characters, propaganda and Taylor Swift


Songwriter Nathan Bell performs for an audience at the 2016 Southern Literary Festival, March 25 in the Student Union Ballroom. (MTSU/Sara Snoddy)

With his straightforward lyrics and everyman persona — the kind of guy who wrinkles every shirt he puts on — Nathan Bell is an accomplished Iowa songwriter, relocated to the Volunteer State in 1991. Whether he’s singing about wars, marriage equality, or working in America, the subject of his latest album, I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love, Bell cares more about characters then propaganda. This past weekend, in his SLF workshop “Social and Political Awareness in Songwriting, or, How to Write Songs, Stay True to Yourself, and Not Become Part of the Machine,” an even longer title than his last album, Bell imparted knowledge and wisdom from his extensive career to students and patrons.

“If you’re going to write songs about politics and you present your opinions as fact, that’s propaganda,” said Bell. “I try to write characters that people can look at and understand their life, their wants and their struggles.”

Just like the meaning of his song “Really, Truly,” Bell seeks to write simple stories about real people, familiar faces audiences can relate to without having to agree with the subject matter. Popular music and political speech go hand in hand, but, to Bell, the only impact you have is when you face a crowd of people who disagree with your message.

“A wedding ring is just a little bit of gold / That you can melt down next to nothing” sounds like an innocent enough line, until you reach the part about two men, “big-ass NASCAR fans,” running away to California to get married. Being the brave man he is, Bell once sang that very song to a large group of conservatives.

Inspired by such as Public Enemy when he was young, Bell believed in the idea that topical music could be popular, wanting to be more than just a guitar player. Musicians can have moral codes, but when words become involved, things become complicated. Fortunately for Bell and his career, looking like the “guy who picks the heavy stuff up” — in 1988 Canada he was mistaken for a stagehand — has made it easier for him.

“I’ve been fortunate because no gimmicks work on me,” said Bell. “I’ve also been a privileged white male. I’m the one guy in America who can walk in anywhere and be taken at face value…so you have to understand it was easier for me.”

Maybe even more surprising than the juxtaposition of his lyrics and appearance is his opinion on young artists. He considered, for instance, Taylor Swift to be an influential topical writer who was overlooked because “Women aren’t respected for their opinions,” an epiphany that occurred to him one day while driving with his pre-teen daughter, who made the comment, “Men don’t listen to women.”

And within Nathan Bell, you certainly won’t find someone who denounces the influence rap and hip-hop have had on politically-motivated songwriting.

“I think of songs as little movies, and if you’re doin’ em right — think of Kendrick Lamar,” said Bell. “I’d go stand next to him and just ask him what his secret is. He’s got a way of doing things that just blows me away.”

Follow Sara Snoddy on Twitter at @Sara_Snoddy.

For more stories and updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.

To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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