Lurrie Bell's nomination for a Grammy Award earlier this month was the latest confirmation of the blues inheritance that sustained his career and even saved his life.
After learning to play guitar at the age of 6, Bell was barely a teenager when he joined Koko Taylor's band and spent the next four years on the road with her. His blues education was further advanced by years of touring and recording with his father, the late harmonicist Carey Bell, who himself started out playing bass with Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Dawkins before moving on to collaborations with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
"I wish I was around to see all those cats, man," says Lurrie of the blues legends who launched his father's career. "When I give a listen to their albums, it's a good feeling to know that you're involved with that type of music, keeping that tradition happening."
In fact, Carey Bell was nominated for his own Grammy three decades ago. Lurrie is following in his father's footsteps with his Chicago Blues: A Living History, a two-CD collaboration with Billy Branch, John Primer and Billy Boy Arnold. At next month's award ceremony, the album will compete in the relatively homogenized company of Duke Robillard, John Hammond, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band.
For his own part, Lurrie Bell says he's plenty satisfied already: "Oh, man, that's a good thing, you know — to be nominated for the best traditional blues CD is an honor for me. That don't happen to everybody, and it don't happen all the time. If it do happen, it's only once a year!"
Bell bottom blues
Bell hasn't always been in such high spirits. A prolific recording artist — he's released dozens of albums either on his own, with his father or with others — his life and career were derailed for years by struggles with addiction, homelessness and the death of his twins within months of their birth.
"You get to a level where you almost hit bottom and there's nobody else can help you," he recalls. "I got to the point where I had to quit playing music for a couple of years, you know, in order for me to get my thoughts back together. It taught me a lot, when I went through them changes back in those days. It made me look at things on a more serious level, looking at myself and what I mean to the world and to my family and those who I care about."
In addition to becoming more serious about his life, Bell has also grown in his commitment to the music that ended up pulling him through: "I'm playing all the blues that I can muster," he says. "I'm more serious when it comes to the whole history and culture, nowadays, and that's all I'm doing, is performing and sticking to the blues."
Which is not necessarily to diminish the value of the rock influence that's permeated the blues for so many years. It's just not for Bell.
"There's nothing wrong with rock music, you know, if that's what you love and hear and that's what you play. As long as you love what you're doing, that's good. Me myself, I love the blues, you know? My father loved the blues, his mother was a gospel singer, and I, as a youngster, grew up in church doing gospel songs. And so these days, you know, I wouldn't trade the blues for nothing in the world."
Nothing, except maybe gospel music. (Yes, one grew out of the other, but if you think they're the same, just talk to Clarence Fountain about it sometime.) Bell says he's recorded gospel songs in the past, but that the record he's currently working on will be his first full album dedicated to the blues' more sanctified counterpart.
"We want to try something different, you know, change my style a little bit and go off into when I was doing gospel way back when."
It's just for one album, of course. In fact, Bell's current blues style taps into much of the soulful passion and intensity that gospel music has long conveyed. His singing and guitar playing, while steeped in the Chicago blues tradition, have a deeply personal resonance that tends to get lost in the clichés of more contemporary, suburbanized blues.
"A lot of it comes from over the years when I was working with my father and being involved in the blues scene," says Bell of an approach that manages to express both authenticity and individuality. "The more you do gigs, you develop a certain style that can't nobody else get but yourself, you know? And my style is my own.
"For instance, if I do a solo or I sing a blues song, it's my own style. And these days, I can say that when I do a show, they're gonna hear the real person. They ain't gonna hear no copy of nobody."
That's true, says Bell, even when he puts down his electric guitar and picks up the Dobro National Steel he just started playing a couple months ago.
"I'm learning how to play traditional blues songs, like by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. I'm doing a solo acoustic act every week down at Buddy Guy's Blues Legends here in Chicago. I play there every Thursday and Friday afternoon, which gives me something for me to do in the daytime."
It'll be the more electric Lurrie Bell, backed by Nick Moss' band, the Fliptops, who helps local blues fans recover from any lingering hangovers on New Year's Day. That more charged-up version of Bell can also be seen in Mercurial Son: The Blues of Lurrie Bell, a documentary by indie filmmaker Paul Marcus that made its way to DVD in 2005. Combined with the Grammy nod and prominent critics calling him the best, most inspired Chicago blues guitarist playing today, you could almost see him having the kind of popular renaissance that Bonnie Raitt experienced in the wake of her Grammy sweep years ago.
Raitt, of course, was already at that point crossing well over into pop music, which had always been a part of her style. Lurrie's songs and playing — his life, in fact — are intrinsically tied to the musical style and legacy passed down to him by his father. So his success may necessarily be more modest, but no less true.
In fact, says Bell, you can make a living at it.
"As long as you keep practicing the blues," he says, "you'll be OK. I believe that."