By Rod Miller, Cowboy State Daily
I first met Luke Bell in front of the Buckhorn Bar in Laramie. It must have been a dozen years or so ago. He was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, busking for spare change with his hat upside down beside him. He was trying to put together enough money to go inside and buy a beer.
Luke was singing “Long Black Veil”, and channeling Lefty Frizzell as if his next beer depended on it. So, I dragged him inside, bought him a PBR tallboy, and we sat and talked for a bit, while the business of the Buckhorn bustled around us.
It turned out that I knew Luke’s family, through the Budds and the Flitners. Luke’s people have been cowboying in northern Wyoming since dirt was warm, so we had folks and places in common that we could talk about.
For instance, I learned that both he and I had eaten Rocky Mountain Oysters tar-tare, right out of the scrotum, next to the branding fire. But neither of us could explain why we had done that.
And I am godfather to his deputy step-cousin’s firstborn son. And a couple of his kinfolk and I had all been 86-ed from the bar at a Stock Growers convention back in the day.
When Luke talked, you could hear home in his voice, and family, and trail dust, and horse sweat. If you listened closely, you could probably hear just a foreshadowing of honky-tonk heartbreak.
David Romtvedt, the Basque Bard and Wyoming Poet Laureate, likely piqued Luke’s interest in lyrical writing and the power of words. Likewise Laramie singer/songwriter Birgit Burke has been mentioned as a lyrical influence on Luke. The lessons took.
Wyoming connections. They run deep and last a long time.
I heard today that Luke died in Arizona. He was 32 years old, and the “Burn The Candle At Both Ends” poster boy. Luke Bell was a neon comet lighting up a honky-tonk sky who burned out too early, but showered us with rhinestones in his passing.
I struggle with how to honor creative forces like Luke Bell – and just a while ago, Jim Angell – who come into our lives, then leave us too soon. But they leave us with memories and legacies that transcend their years.
The rumor around the ol’ campfire has Luke bumping into Pat Reedy (who was exiled from Laramie for having the meanest dog on the planet) a year or two after we met. And Reedy, a renegade of the first order, taught Luke the subtle joys of writing songs and jumping freight trains.
Luke learned how to drag joy and pain by their roots from the depths of the human heart, and to put them to music in waltz time. Chicks dug the songs. Folks paid money to hear ‘em. And Luke no longer had to busk on the sidewalk.
After riding the Nashville Dragon for a while, Luke ended up opening shows for Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam and Hank II. In the parlance of our times, the world was his oyster, and he had the world on a string with a downhill pull.
But something about that whole scene didn’t sit right with our boy. Glitz didn’t fit his pistol, and he never wore anyone’s brand.
Like all of us, Luke wrestled with his inner demons and angels. But he wrestled buck-ass naked, with no referee and no clock. And he did it one-handed, while the other hand strummed a guitar. The rest of us watched. And listened.
In the midst of it all, Luke’s constant was his roots. Those deep, stretchy roots in the rocky soil of Wyoming that grip tight and draw us back for brandings, or to meet our sister’s new husband, or to have coffee at a familiar kitchen table.
Forget that he died alone in Arizona. Remember how Luke Bell lived in Wyoming. Remember how he sang to us about the heartbreaking beauty of being human in this world (Luke Bell – “Sometimes” Official Video – YouTube ).