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One Man's Music

The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell

Vince Bell

Publication Year: 2009

Texas singer/songwriter Vince Bell’s story begins in the 1970s. Following the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Bell and his contemporaries Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and Lucinda Williams were on the rise. In December of 1982, Bell was on his way home from the studio (where he and hired guns Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson had just recorded three of Bell’s songs) when a drunk driver broadsided him at 65 mph. Thrown over 60 feet from his car, Bell suffered multiple lacerations to his liver, embedded glass, broken ribs, a mangled right forearm, and a severe traumatic brain injury. Not only was his debut album waylaid for a dozen years, life as he’d known it would never be the same. In detailing his recovery from the accident and his roundabout climb back onstage, Bell shines a light in those dark corners of the music business that, for the lone musician whose success is measured not by the Top 40 but by nightly victories, usually fall outside of the spotlight. Bell’s prose is not unlike his lyrics: spare, beautiful, evocative, and often sneak-up-on-you funny. His chronicle of his own life and near death on the road reveals what it means to live for one’s art.

Published by: University of North Texas Press

Series: Lives of Musicians


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xii

Other music autobiographies give us the culture and history surrounding the artist, the circumstances of his or her life. Vince Bell does this; he also invites us to enter his personal realm of suffering and to attempt to heal along with him, compelling But this is more than a story about a tragic car accident that left Vince in a coma for four weeks. A Foreword presents a few words be-...

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I. Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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pp. 1-3

I’ve played music since I was a B-flat cornet-packing kid. I’ve grown up in music, worked to distraction in music, married unsuccessfully in music, and I’ve been at it for several wife-times. High musical seasons and adventurous women they were. But even before those delightfully shaped dreadnoughts tacked through my life and always in their wake, there had been only one guitar. It ...

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II. Look of the Loner Looking at It

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pp. 4-9

In those days I was relentless in my pursuit of a resounding, large-bodied guitar like those I had seen that were known as dreadnoughts because of their shape. There were several capable brands, but the one for me was made by the C. F. Martin Company. I looked in all of the big cities within a day’s drive: New Orleans, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Come full circle, I saw the one ...

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III. Sweat Like a Boxer

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pp. 10-13

The Old Quarter was a rundown, two story stucco-over-brick blockhouse of a building with iron bars across broken, cloudy windows. If you played in Houston, this was the gig everyone wanted. The entrance was ten-foot-high barn doors that could not be locked without a chain and a stout two-by-four. They hung below a rusting, wrought-iron signboard swinging in the sticky ...

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IV. Sinbad and the Silver Tooth

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pp. 14-20

It was Friday night and the witching hour was at hand. Townes Van Zandt was going to play at the Old Quarter. I put on my singer’s uniform of anything-other-than-cowboy boots, tight-fitting jeans, and a working-class white shirt under a sports coat of some righteous non-color. And, of course, I packed along my other clubs. He was now living in Nashville, which made him extra ...

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V. Music Where the Words Are the Important Part

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pp. 21-23

On many a lonely road to nowhere but my next gig, my instrument set me apart from the mainstream. It rang with an identity in sound that was distinct from any other guitar. It’s fair to note that most of this distinction existed only between my ears. My first few lessons about the ragtag of showbiz taught me that if you couldn’t fool yourself first, that if an idea didn’t light you up like ...

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VI. I’m Not This Way Because I’m a Musician, I’m a Musician Because I’m This Way

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pp. 24-30

The “circuit” began for me in Twin Falls, Idaho. The plane ride felt luxurious compared to driving my Rambler to all the whistle-stops I could lie my way into in the Lone Star State. After we landed, the pilot came over the intercom and advised us that ours was the last plane before a snowstorm and the arrival of the then Vice President. He announced that none of us paying customers ...

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VII. Secret Mountain Laboratory

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pp. 31-33

In the mid-’70s my girlfriend was a DJ named “Slowly Grail.” At the time I never knew just what that meant. In time I learned it didn’t matter. She did shows for a Pacifica station, KPFT, downtown on Prairie Street. We lived with Harriet Heaton, an early owner of Anderson Fair, and DJ Richard Brooks, a.k.a. Ace Paladino, dif-erent shift, same station, as well as being the lightman at Liberty Hall....

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VIII. Six Strings, No Kick

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pp. 34-40

I’d been playing that acoustic guitar long enough for it to look like a Brazilian-rosewood-and-spruce extension of my rib cage. It was where all the songs I wrote came from. Nevertheless, I wanted to add new tunes to my repertoire. I wanted to play with other like-minded musicians. I wanted to interpret the music I had loved since I was a kid, as well as write music I hoped was just as ...

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IX. Three-Day Ride to the Kitchen

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pp. 41-45

In late 1976 I decided on a move to Austin to work as a singer/songwriter for Moon Hill Management. It was just in time for the Progressive Country days, and I was booked all over Texas doing half-music, half-comedy shows wherever they would pay me. It seemed my songs could keep me in places I could barely negotiate on my own. With my unsophisticated voice like a high-school...

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X. The Songwriter

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pp. 46-48

Throughout all the luck, good and bad, I wrote songs. I wrote them in the kitchen, in the car, in the evening, on holidays, but mostly when it was inconvenient. A lot of the work I put into a new tune was done when trying to sleep, before I would wake for the day and put my thoughts to the test. I have always had collections of ideas and tunes penned in an “idea cache” of Black Books. They were ...

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XI. Elastic Plastic Fork and Pitiable Paper Plate

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pp. 48-51

In those days, one of the places you would always be welcome to play was the place that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay you any money. Money so that maybe you and that 28 could do it tomorrow. And there were the occasions where you teed it up for your buddies. The buddies remained the preeminent reason you started talking that talk with a dread on your hip in the first place. Sometimes ...

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XII. Bermuda Triangle

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pp. 52-54

Fun’s funner ’n hell. My pals and I survived it for more than a decade. But as in all showbiz scenes, there’s a fat lady. Willie Nelson was making hit recordings of some of my friends’ tunes, but many had moved on to other places or became known for something other than country music as the ’80s arrived. Anyway, we hadn’t turned out country music. We’d turned out Texas music....

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XIII. Name Unknown

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pp. 55-65

Admit Date: 12-21-82 Admit Time: 02:12 a.m. Multiple trauma patient transported from scene of MVA— found lying, face-down on ground—unconscious but breathing spontaneously. Male in 20–30 age range. Name unknown. 2:30 Dr. C. notified at home 2:50 Dr. W. notified Preoperative Diagnosis: Multiple System...

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XIV. Rumor of My Demise

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pp. 66-73

The rumor of my demise certainly spread far. Larry Monroe, who has been a mainstay of the University of Texas’ radio station for over 25 years, remembers, “I had been working at KUT for a little over a year and a half on December 20, 1982. That was my last night of work for a few days because I was flying back to my hometown for the Christmas holidays. I finished my blues program, ‘Blue Mon-...

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XV. Room 933

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pp. 74-80

On January 8, I began to write, left-handed in a scrawl, on a yellow legal pad that I still have: Drink Water. No people. Goodbye. I just want something wet. Help get my head up. Tom Pacheco. Oxygen. Juice. Turn off the fan. Suction. I’m tired but I’ll do what you ask. Let me have some Coke to drink. I’m tired. On January 9, I was transferred out of the ICU...

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XVI. If It Was Time for the Musicians to Call, It Was Time to Go Home and Fix It

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pp. 81-88

The fellow who ran into me with a Ford LTD was fined $600 for ending my life. In one split second he threw my chosen career to the dogs. He put me into an uncertain loop of treatment after treatment for many years to come. “A day or two after the accident I had gone to the police station to talk to an investigator about the kid who had been driving the car,” Shary remembers. “I asked what they were going to do to this dude—...

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XVII. Providence Street

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pp. 89-101

I was released from Brackenridge County Hospital on February 3, 1983. A couple of months of hospitalization did not prepare me for the home. I couldn’t stay awake, so I didn’t leave the bed much. Memories of everyday life and of my dearest friends were either erased completely or bewilderingly abbreviated. It was way beyond my ability to understand the depth of my injuries or how it would affect every one ...

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XVIII. Even Up on Misery Ave.,They Sometimes Dance and Sing

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pp. 102-109

The complications caused by my brain injury were vast. And the confidence in my heart was one of the last qualities of my former self to consider returning. Regaining self-confidence was certainly the hardest thing to accomplish. If I needed a confidence boost, the only way I was going to get one was to make it happen. Sitting in the safe, silent obscurity of home was a com-...

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XIX. Path of Least Regret

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pp. 110-121

The psychiatric hospital north of Houston was solemn as death during my first few days there. I never realized just how self-conscious I was about seeing anyone in the mindless condition I floundered in. Because I had acknowledged to myself that I was losing the struggle, I lost some hard-fought...

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XX. Music School

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pp. 122-134

For years I had kept that series of Black Books. Every writer must have one, I believed. Each consisted of 300 pages filled with musings in my own hand. Now that I could write again, I used the black books to goad myself into believing that I could do what I must to return some quality to life. I needed them to determine if it was possible to accomplish the most frustrating goals. ...

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XXI. Edge of the World

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pp. 135-143

“I don’t know the physiology of traumatic brain injury,” Stephen Jarrard says, “but the difficulty seemed to be not that Vince was not the same person but that he couldn’t remember who he had been, what he liked or didn’t like, wanted or didn’t want. If he’d done something, or thought something, or felt something, he didn’t remember it. In other words, he was himself, ...


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XXII. Monday for Two Years

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pp. 144-151

I bought assorted fruit trees from that same plant company later in the year, thinking that I was doing well enough to give growing something outdoors a chance again. I ordered $150 worth. When they arrived, I put them behind the front door until I could plant them. They wouldn’t fit anywhere else conveniently because they were so tall. I forgot they were behind the door almost immediately. They were gone from my recollection and I didn’t find them for months. ...

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XXIII. Keep Your Eyes in the Sky

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pp. 152-160

The night at the Fair was as sobering as the air-conditioning bill in summer. It kindled intensely private fires in me that over the next years I kept well under wraps. Though a feeling of urgency incinerated me, I would contain my desire to again live the life I once sacrificed everything for. I could hold onto the dream. In my heart of hearts, I knew it wouldn’t let me down. This was an ac-...

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XXIV. Second Street

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pp. 161-165

School had been a great diversion. It was the most patience-testing activity I could ever have dreamed of. It kept me more constructively busy than anything else I had subjected myself to. It sharpened my thoughts like a blade. And the next diversion was on its way. I began running a musical lounge show out of the State Theater, a rundown Triple-X movie house in downtown Austin, ...

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XXV. Fate Worse Than Death

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pp. 166-173

For five years I had not been able to remember where anything was unless I put it someplace where I would routinely go every day to rediscover the things I would need. I had introduced a support system that allowed me to keep track of every-thing I valued or needed. Consequently, my life was arranged into a rotation of stations. There was a bowl for my wallet and keys at the ...

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XXVI. Wizard of Odds

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pp. 174-178

On a hot and humid East Texas day in May of 1990 I drove to my parents’ house in New Waverly. I pulled “The Hotel” up in the drive and walked quickly, without much of a limp at all, into the den. I sat down on the couch and faced my smiling but curious mother. I was a house afire. My jaw was set like charred foundation stone. I said, “Mom, I’m a songwriter, and I’m going out to live ...

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XXVII. Adrift in Paradise

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pp. 179-189

I disembarked on St. Croix on one of those rollaway staircases. The air was heavy with water. Steamy warm. As I entered the two-room terminal without air conditioning, the collar on my shirt instantly relaxed to my shoulders. Mike Walters and I shook hands and fetched my guitar cases from the outdoor baggage...

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XXVIII. Give Chance a Chance

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pp. 190-198

Bob Sturtevant remembers, “The time in the Virgin Islands was not easy for Vince, but I felt it would be good for him to go out there and get stretched. Of course, I didn’t know that he was going to have nothing to eat but bread for a month. But when he came back, he had had an adventure, and I think he felt more independent. And he did make enough money to pay Fitz...

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XXIX. Prize for Not Working Hard Enough

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pp. 199-202

An important project of my Bay Area years was about to begin. There I was, fancying myself some kind of romantic, but I didn’t even have my work collected in a place that I Hobart Taylor recalls, “I talked to Townes [Van Zandt] on a trip to Nashville. He thought Vince’s work was so good that it should be catalogued. His exact words were, ‘Vince is a poet. He should do a ...

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XXX. Phoenix

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pp. 203-213

“After the Complete Works was done, I began to think a recording would in fact be possible,” says Hobart. “I had a short list of producers in mind, with an eye to sensitivity to music and sensitivity to the artist. Sometimes you’ll trade one for the strength of the other, but that’s what I had in mind. Todd Rundgren, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Rooney, Elliot Mazer, and T. Bone Burnett were ...

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XXXI. “Album of a Lifetime”

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pp. 214-218

Phoenix was released on July 16, and the morning began with a radio interview on KUT, the University of Texas’s radio station. After lunch with my family, who had come to Austin to help me celebrate the album’s release, Geoff Muldaur, David Mansfield, and I had a short rehearsal in the living room of my healthy and able to a crowd that would critically watch my every move. Would I panic if I looked out and didn’t know where I was? Would I ...

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XXXII. The Poetry in the Prose

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pp. 218-221

T. Bone Burnett wrote the liner notes to Phoenix: Vince Bell, is, as far as I know, the only writer who has ever read his own obituary. In between Indio and Joshua Tree his tape turns around for about the fifth time. It is other worldly music. Heart breaking music. In a world of entertainment and musick—a world that celebrates the sameness...

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XXXIII. Play Like You Practice

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pp. 222-229

I took three trips to Europe during that Texas stay. The first was in 1995 to Holland and Belgium as the supporting act for the Jayhawks. March 22 Tivoli, Utrecht (w/The Jayhawks) 23 Paradiso, Amsterdam (w/The Jayhawks) 24 Luna, Brussels, Belgium 25 Noorderlicht, Tilburg (w/The Jayhawks)...

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XXXIV. Texas Plates

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pp. 230-235

Two months after moving to Nashville, we packed up the Jeep with the guitar, the border collie, and boxes of CDs and made a swing through the northwestern U.S., playing not only in and Texas. In Portland, it was NXNW, the Pacific Northwest’s version of Austin’s SXSW. In Denver, it was a show with Bill Morrissey, during the worst snowstorm they’d seen that early in the year in decades. ...

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XXXV. Say in Your Owndamnway

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pp. 236-240

Sometimes the loudest sound in my cabin outside of Nashville was the rice frying. When songs are trying to become songs, it’s quiet as death, hour in and hour out, except for cursing punctuations in the midst of the music I envision. Write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. Sometimes till you’ve made a huge circle of scrabbling in the sky, only to find you’ve come out the other ...

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XXXVI The Bottom Line

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pp. 241-245

I was asking for an adventure, and I got it. Six days and five nights on a bus, 118 Americano dollars, Nashville to New York. And back. Forty straight hours of bumping up and down, with 47 other completely miserable people in spaces smaller than coffins stacked next to one another, with a chemical toilet at the left I got on at the Nashville Greyhound station at two o’clock in the ...

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XXXVII. Live in Texas

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pp. 246-251

The success of a good piece was its importance to those who cared to listen in the first place. Nonetheless, writing was pushing the envelope for the adventuresome of us. It was as much unanticipated discovery as it was knowing calculation. Thus the attraction for someone with a leaky ballpoint pen in a shirt pocket and nothing but a table napkin, or a matchbook cover, on which to illustrate ...

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XXXVIII. Rough Old Texas Hands

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pp. 252-253

I took the Martin to a very hip, very expensive guitar store in Nashville to get it appraised and to find out how the retail world would value my lifelong instrument. The owner appeared when it came out of its flight case the size of a small refrigerator. He said right off the mark that because of its worn, practically varnish-less condition, it probably wasn’t worth much. But the last ...


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pp. 254-261

E-ISBN-13: 9781574413656
Print-ISBN-13: 9781574412666

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 20 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Lives of Musicians

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Subject Headings

  • Blues (Music) -- History and criticism.
  • Bell, Vince.
  • Country musicians -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Blues musicians -- Texas -- Biography.
  • Country music -- History and criticism.
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