“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.”