Houston native Vince Bell was a familiar sight on Texas stages (most notably in Houston's Anderson Fair) in the late '70s/early '80s, when he played both onstage and off with such friends as Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and, his closest compadre, the late Townes Van Zandt, who named a child after Bell. Country-tinged without being bound by the traditions of the genre, these singer-songwriters proved that "there's a tear in my beer" was not the epitome of literary expression in country music.
In December 1982 Bell was leaving an Austin recording studio where he had been laying down tracks for his debut with the help of guitarists Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson. Driving home with his then-wife, Bell was blindsided by a drunk driver. The impact threw him 60 feet from the car and caused massive internal, external and head injuries. Bell actually flatlined on the operating table momentarily. Fortunately the plan to amputate his right forearm was scratched when the anesthesiologist recognized Bell as a musician. Surgeons opted to replace the shattered bone with steel rods, while the patient spent the next month in a coma.
After awakening, Bell found that he could not talk, stand or walk. He had little or no memory of who he was and could not read or write, much less play guitar. Head injuries subjected him to violent mood swings, a leading factor in his divorce. His wife was also undergoing her own physical rehabilitation.
For the next ten years Bell slowly learned how to do everything all over again, as recounted in his autobiography, One Man's Music. With the help of an all-star lineup of friends, Vince Bell finally released his debut, the critically lauded Phoenix, on Austin's Watermelon Records in 1994, at the age of 42. When the label went out of business the following year, Bell began selling Texas Plates on his Web site, before it was picked up by Paladin.
There is no superstar help on Texas Plates, but somehow you get the feeling that this record is more sincere artistically than his first effort. Featuring mostly Bell's raspy and rough-hewn (yet not unpleasant) singing to his acoustic guitar and understated accompaniment, the record is full of Sunday afternoon porch songs, the kind that seem so right to listen to with the breeze in your face and a beer in your hand.
"Poetry, Texas" is the appropriately laid-back opener, a travelogue about driving down Highway 59 over hot asphalt. "All Though My Days," a solid but not overly sentimental tribute to a soul mate, with a nice backbeat and Bell's sincere vocals, is great. There's a high comfort level and warmth in Bell's material, which flows naturally.
But Bell's greatest strength is as a lyricist. Most of his songs could stand alone as poetry. And the most successful material on this record is the combination of affecting melodies and beats and great observations, as in the buoyant (and perhaps telling) "Best Is Yet to Come." (Sample lyric: "The outskirts of heaven / look good on her.") In that same vein, "Fair" (a nod to his favorite Houston venue, perhaps?) has the protagonist visiting old surroundings that nonetheless don't seem so familiar with the passage of time. "The faces have all changed from the bad old days," he rasps, but we're not sure if it's his memory or expectations that have failed.
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The record's closer, "Last Dance at the Last Chance," is an ode to anyone who has hoped to go home with something more tangible than a good buzz at 2 a.m. The quiet desperation of the lonely bloke at the bar juxtaposed with the happiness of the twirling couples on the dance floor is a powerful image. Bell doesn't need to get poetic to make that scene work.
Texas Plates isn't all great. "2nd St.," a paean to Bell's days as a struggling musician in Austin, seems maudlin and shallow. And "All the Way to the Moon," which is a mix of history-book listings (think Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire") with quotes from Neil Armstrong, Stephen Hawking and Charles Manson(!), is misguided from the start and comes to a tepid conclusion.
The car that sports these Texas Plates has a solid body and runs smoothly. And you could do far worse for a tour guide than Vince Bell.
Vince Bell performs at Anderson Fair, 2007 Grant, on Saturday, October 2. Call (713)528-8576 for more information.