One of those guys was Robin Eaton, who often works in conjunction with producer Brad Jones at Alex the Great Studios (their credits include Steve Forbert, the Ass Ponys and Tim Easton). “I had been after that guy for two years,” Bell begins. “I had come here two years before I moved here, to play the Summer Lights festival, and I went over to his house for a party that evening, after I played my gig. So I find out this guy owns a studio here; not only that, but he is a superfan of Phoenix. So I started pursuing this guy; I wrote him letters from Fredericksburg, made phone calls…and when I finally moved here, I started going over to the studio and bothering him, pestering the poor man.”
Eaton eventually agreed to produce Texas Plates, which Bell decided to release on his own label (dubbed One Man’s Music, the same as the title of his book). “We made 1,000 copies [of the CD],” he says. “We were selling them on the internet, just like we were doing with the book. We were gonna sell the book, we were gonna sell the album, and if it wasn’t gonna work, we were gonna die trying.
“And all of a sudden, my publisher, Peter Cronin, calls up and says he took a copy of Texas Plates over to Jim Zumwalt, a Music Row lawyer, and Zumwalt says, ‘Yeah, this is cool, I gotta release this.’ So I got a release date, April 13. Like, the fastest record deal on record. Two months. You’ll never hear of anybody who had a faster deal.”
Zumwalt’s label, Paladin, has released albums by Brian Wilson, Steve Forbert, Stacy Dean Campbell and Jamie Hartford in the past few years. They picked up Texas Plates exactly as it was, complete with the packaging designed by Bell himself — “right down to the typesetting,” he says, proudly. “My schooling was in commercial arts, so I did the album cover [a photo of his great-grandparents taken in the 1940s]. To be able to put the whole package together was lots of fun. You know, I’m very competitive about stuff, and I wanted to really turn out something nice, even though all I had was a black and white presentation. I had one color photograph — the license plates on the back of the CD, from Luckenbach, Texas.” Those rusty old plates adorn the men’s room at the classic dance hall in the tiny town made famous by Waylon & Willie & the boys, just a stone’s throw from Bell’s former abode in Fredericksburg.
Bell earned his degree in commercial arts from Austin Community College during the ’80s, his education sponsored by the Texas Head Injury Foundation. Before the crash, the only consideration he’d ever given to college was getting a football scholarship out of high school, which didn’t happen. “I graduated high school in ’70; nobody would give me an athletic scholarship after being the quarterback for that big 4A school,” he recalls. “If they weren’t gonna scholarship me, I quit. I said, ‘Forget it, I’m gonna go play music, bye-bye.’ I never intended to go to college. I’d never have gotten a college degree if it wasn’t for that wreck.”
Indeed, one of Bell’s greatest virtues is his ability to realize the positive things that have come from such a negative occurrence. Another prime example is his guitar-picking style, which he calls “The Claw.” “I spent ten years back there in Austin trying to relearn how to play with flatpicks,” Bell starts. “And then I’m out there in California, living in Berkeley, I’m ten minutes away from meeting Bob Neuwirth. What happens? I’m writing a song called ‘Girl Who Never Saw A Mountain’. What’s wrong? I can’t play it fast enough. I can’t play it as fast as I’ve written it. So, OK; let’s get a new way to play. On go the fingerpicks, out the window goes the flatpick, and I almost end up strumming with the fingerpicks, doing a down-strum. You notice how I play: I’ve got fingerpicks on, but I’m down-strumming as well.”
Like Vic Chesnutt, who glued a pick to a glove when he relearned how to play after his car wreck in the mid-1980s and became a more emotionally effective guitarist — “I played too damn jazzy back then,” Chesnutt has said of his pre-wheelchair days — Bell fashioned a style that was specific to himself, and ultimately made him a more inventive musician. “And yet, if it wasn’t for that wreck, I wouldn’t have that to show,” he muses. “You know, when Neuwirth took my project [the Phoenix album], and we were sitting there doing ‘Frankenstein’, Geoff Muldaur looked over at me and he goes, ‘Look at how he’s playing the guitar!’ And I was like, ‘I love this!’ He recognized what all this work had produced.”
His accomplishments as a guitarist and as an author notwithstanding, Bell’s truest talent remains as a lyricist. “I don’t know if I’m gonna be a prose writer so much, but I want to be an expert at this story,” he says, explaining that he expects to do occasional updates and additions to One Man’s Music (available through www.vincebell.com) for subsequent printings.
“I often have said in the past that what a prose writer does with a shovel, a poet does with a microscope. It’s the same thing, just different tones, different weights, different lengths. One’s 200 pages long. One’s three verses long. One can kill you in three verses. You don’t need no damn 200 pages.”
Just as Vince Bell vividly remembers driving across the Texas hill country with “100 Miles From Mexico” rising into his mind, ND co-editor Peter Blackstock will never forget the songs of Phoenix shining like lighthouse beacons through the mist on a drive along the Oregon coast in the summer of ’94.