He was one of the most authentic and magnetizing artists to grace the country music art form in the modern era. And those who knew Luke Bell, they know this assessment is in no way hyperbole or flattery. Even though he released only one album, in that single volume, Luke Bell captured a bygone era, aura, and mood in country music that escapes even the most adept and gifted of country music artists today. They’re added by the filter of modernity that Luke Bell was strangely immune from. He was not of this time or place, and never fit in it comfortably. That was his gift, and his burden. As troubled as he was talented, Luke Bell nevertheless left his mark. And through the gift of his music, Luke Bell leaves the Earth a more pleasant place than he found it.
Having gone missing on Saturday, August 20th in Tucson, Arizona, Luke Bell was found today, August 29th, 2022, not far from where he disappeared, and in a manner we all feared he would be when we first heard the news. Confirmed by Saving Country Music through Luke Bell close friend, confidant, and the guy who has been caring for him for the last six years—traditional country artist Matt Kinman—Luke Bell has passed away at the age of 32.
Luke Bell was never one of staying in one place for very long. That was part of his magic. Born in Lexington, Kentucky on January 27th, 1990, and raised in Cody, Wyoming, he tried to go to college for a bit in Laramie and started playing in a band in a local bar. But it was a chance meeting with singer/songwriter Pat Reedy that opened up Luke’s mind to and entirely different world he’d hadn’t been exposed to previously. “[Pat] pulled through in an ’85 Datsun diesel pickup truck with a homeless painter and a half wolf dog. It was just a picture of a different part of the earth,” Luke told Saving Country Music in 2016.
Luke Bell was in Austin, TX, bumming around the infamous Hole in the Wall bar near the University of Texas campus around 2011, when Mike and the Moonpies, Leo Rondeau, and Ramsey Midwood were the artists-in-residence, and a man named Dennis O’Donnell was the bartender of note. Luke would couch surf around the area, and perform at the Hole in the Wall when they would let him, which was not often since he was still honing his chops, and was hounded for playing too loud in a rock and roll band he formed called Fast Luke and the Lead Heavy. They played from 3 to 5 pm, and were eventually fired.
When Dennis O’Donnell opened the now famous White Horse on the east side of Austin, Luke took his bumming ways across town, working as a bar back at the new joint, building the fence around the bar’s patio, and eventually landing a regular performance slot on the stage with a decidedly more honky tonk style.
But the road eventually led Luke Bell to Nashville, where he recorded an album called Don’t Mind If I Do that he released on Bandcamp in 2014. Similar to how Bell had fallen right into the honky tonk scene in Austin at the right time, a similar fate found him in Nashville where he began performing regularly at the infamous Santa’s Pub. A video for his song “Sometimes” from 2016 shot at Santa’s illustrates just how immersed Bell became in that scene, with appearances from fellow performers like Logan Ledger, Kristina Murray, Erin Rae, and other notables in the east Nashville world.
And it wasn’t just the independent country community that was paying attention, and dutifully impressed. One of the top booking agents at the prestigious WME agency caught wind of Luke, and saw a star in the making. Soon, without any real national touring experience or record label backing, Luke Bell was put on tour opening for names like Willie Nelson, Hank Jr., and Dwight Yoakam.
All of a sudden a semi-homeless and generally adrift Luke Bell was presented a serious opportunity to make it in music, and it was due solely to the strength of his voice and music. In the spring of 2016 he would be signed to Thirty Tigers, and was set to release a self-titled album that took most of the best songs of Don’t Mind If I Do and combined them with a few new tracks. With his debut self-titled album, Luke Bell became a national name, drawing comparisons with the type of team and momentum Sturgill Simpson had behind him, with the same flight path towards big success.
But few were factoring in that the same authenticity that made Luke Bell so appealing to fans as the rugged Wyoming cowboy turned musical troubadour is also what made the business side of making music naturally unappealing to Luke Bell personally. Many had big plans for Luke, but Luke’s plans remained decidedly less aspirational. A tour was planned for the fall of 2016 to help promote the record, but it never went off.
Luke Bell continued to perform though, however infrequently, and was now regularly appearing with Smithsonian Folkways recording artist Matt Kinman. Always looking for the essence of authenticity, the Pickathon festival outside of Portland booked Luke in 2017, with Luke and Kinman playing side by side. In February of 2018, Luke Bell re-appeared in Memphis, Tennessee where he won Best Honky Tonk Male at the Dale Watson-backed Ameripolitan Awards.
But afterwards, Luke Bell virtually disappeared from the public eye. Although rumors and allegations would rise to the surface about his whereabouts and state of mind, it was just as hard to pin down information about Luke Bell as it was to pin down Luke himself. He would hop freight trains, and travel the country. But Luke’s life wasn’t all poetry during this period. He was hiding as severe battle with bipolar disorder that he ultimately would never shake. Stories would surface of unruly behavior, right beside ones about how Luke Bell could be the sweetest person you could meet. Some friends were forced to distance themselves from him.
Long periods would go by where nobody heard from Luke Bell. He would end up in hospitals, or at times, incarcerated. Over the last 1 1/2 years though, Luke Bell was finally beginning to find a new level of equilibrium thanks to medication and treatment. He appeared in shows and live streams with Matt Kinman, appeared with Martha Spencer covering Guy Clark. But while out West recently, Luke’s mental state took a turn for the worse. While in Tucson with Matt Kinman, he ran off while Matt went to get something to eat.
Luke Bell’s struggles are now over, but the legacy of his music remains. And hopefully, like so many troubled troubadours before him, Luke Bell is just beginning to find his audience, his worthy appreciation, and his deserved legacy.
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Luke Bell’s cause of death is pending an autopsy.