Singer and songwriter T. Mitchell Bell pursues simplicity — the kind found in a blues harmonica line or a Hank Williams lyric. But it took a long time to get back to simple – decades, in fact, for the small-town Southwestern Pennsylvania kid who fronted a bar band at 15 to become the artist who in 2009 released The Ballad of Philo Paul, a rootsy 11-song debut album.
Bell’s path might have seemed obvious. His earliest memories include watching his father’s band rehearse in the basement. But life got complicated fast: When Bell was 7, his father moved out, leaving his mother (whom Bell still calls his hero) to raise four kids on her own.
Music helped keep Bell going, but by the time he was 20 he’d sung “one too many K.C. and the Sunshine Band songs.” A stint in the Air National Guard followed, along with his first marriage and his first child. Work kept him moving around the country.All along Bell kept writing and performing, mostly solo and acoustic, from Virginia coffeehouses to a Pittsburgh radio station and even a home recording studio in Seattle. His writing style changed: Lyrical cleverness gave way to influences from classic country to Gram Parsons and Steve Forbert. “It’s not about technical skills,” he says. “It’s about communicating a feeling to the audience, and the magic when that happens. It took me a long time to figure that out.”
Even in finding his voice, Bell struggled to get heard. Several times, busy raising a family, he considered letting his dream fade. Once, ironically, it was after chance (and MySpace) led him, in 2006, to Nashville-based producer Mitch Dane. But studio sessions were simply too expensive.
Yet Bell found a way, largely thanks to a simple question he credits to a nondenominational Christian church he joined in Kansas City: What is my purpose in life? “Music,” he realized, “has been part of my life, my entire life. That’s what really sparked that whole go-for-it with the CD. Doors opened up all of a sudden.”
The support of his wife, Sonja, helped. “Just do it,” she told him. “You don’t want to be looking back 20 years from now and saying, ‘I should have done that.’”
In 2007, Bell took a buyout at work; The Ballad of Philo Paul was recorded at Dane’s Sputnik Sound Studio, in June 2008. The musicians, assembled via MySpace and personal contacts, included upright-bassist and cellist Bryn Davies, who’s toured with Patti Griffin and Tony Rice. Also playing key roles were Joshua Vance Smith, who co-produced and engineered the sessions, and Vance Powell, who mastered the CD.
The sound on Ballad of Philo Paulranges from spare acoustic settings to full-band arrangements. Bell credits the musicians with the album’s grounding in blues, bluegrass and old-time music. But the songs are deeply personal. The oldest is “Prodigal Son,” which he wrote 25 years ago. “Manna Momma” and “Father’s Face” — the latter written just before the recording sessions — round out a “family trilogy.” On tracks like “Sago Mine” and “Earth Disease,” Bell passionately addresses topical subjects.
The linchpin is the poignant title track, in which Bell tells the remarkable story of his own great-great-great grandfather. “Here’s this story about a farmer: 200-acre farm, nine kids, decided to enlist in the Civil War when he was 38 years old and fight as a private. That really intrigued me: Why did he do that?”
There’s even a song called “Simple.” “I want my life to be … simple,” Bell sings. These days, simplicity is easier for him. “I guess I kinda stopped caring what people think. It’s just, ‘This is it. This is me. This is what I write.’”