Spotlight: William Bell (Winner of Best Americana Album Grammy)

Chad Berndtson on February 13, 2017

Here’s another look at our Williams Bell feature from last year. Bell’s albumThis is Where I Live took honors as Best Americana Album at last night’s Grammys, amidst stiff competition from True Sadness by The Avett Brothers, The Cedar Creek Sessions by Kris Kristofferson, The Bird & The Rifle by Lori Mckenna and Kid Sister by The Time Jumpers.

William Bell’s history is extensive. A Stax veteran with both Georgia Music and Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Fame titles under his belt, he is the author or co-author of standards like “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday” and “Born Under a Bad Sign;” he counted Otis Redding and other genre giants among his close friends; and he has long since entered the pantheon of classic soul and R&B singers. Yet, as his collaborations with everyone from Warren Haynes and Joss Stone to Sinead O’Connor and Snoop Dogg certainly prove, he isn’t interested in simply resting on his laurels.

The 76-year-old singer remains committed to creating original music, and, whether he’s in the midst of a performance or an interview, he is as exuberant-sounding as he must have been when Stax co-founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton discovered him a half-century ago. “We were all teenagers back then,” Bell says with a disarming laugh. “Jim and Estelle gave us so much opportunity. We were just neighborhood kids, man. We got to hone our craft and experiment. It was a great time to be alive.”

In June, Bell will drop This Is Where I Live—his first collection of new material in almost a decade and first for Stax in four decades—and support the album with a run of shows backed by many of the same musicians that appear on the record. The 12-track release, which includes highlights like “The Three of Me,” “The House Always Wins” and “I Will Take Care of You,” sounds familiar without feeling nostalgic. (Stax has enjoyed an interesting renaissance; relegated mostly to reissues in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the label began to turn out new work again after Concord Music Group acquired its parent company in 2004.)

“Some of these were songs I had kicked around for a while. I’ll keep a song in my head for a long time and, eventually, the pieces of it fit together,” Bell reveals. “The subject matter is a little different, and that comes with age. But I still write about things people will identify with. I write about life, and I write about things that will touch people. I like a good melody. That never changed.”

Bell found both a simpatico listener and a fan in his This Is Where I Live collaborator John Leventhal. The 63-year-old producer, who’s copped several Grammys and is married to singer Rosanne Cash, describes working with Bell as a career highlight. “Writing songs with the man who wrote ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ is a dream come true,” Leventhal reflects. “Getting to produce him and hear that voice in the studio every day—unimaginably satisfying.”

Bell adds: “I’m a people person, and I also enjoy the creative process in the studio. Being out there, keeping moving and keeping abreast of what’s going on keeps me young. I’m just really comfortable in front of an audience and it’s always been that way.”

The musician, who hails from the musical hub of Memphis and now lives in Atlanta, started performing in his church choir at the tender age of 7, and recalls the older musicians who shaped his influences early on. He makes a point of mentioning his mother, who let him work weekends in local clubs as a singing guest of various bands, allowing him to absorb the blues, jazz, pop and country elements that defined his hometown.

“I’m an old soul—all my life,” he observes. “Sometimes I’m more comfortable onstage than I am off. I had the opportunity to be coached and schooled by some of the best from the time I was about 14, and I soaked all that in like a sponge.”

It’s part of what’s allowed Bell to be a natural mentor to a younger generation of musicians with a deep interests in soul and R&B. Warren Haynes befriended him in the mid-1980s, when Bell was in consideration to produce Haynes’ debut album as a bandleader, 1993’s Tales of Ordinary Madness.

Haynes recalls: “Had I made more of a Man in Motion-type soul music record then, he would have been perfect. It’s fascinating that if you fast-forward decades, I finally made that kind of record, and it was for Stax, and it had one of his songs. We’ve always threatened to write a song together. We hit it off immediately. I was really impressed from the beginning with how laid-back and down-to-earth he is.”

Bell has appeared with Haynes on many occasions, including as a special guest in New York around Man in Motion’s release in 2011 and with the Allman Brothers Band. However, Haynes’ favorite collaboration with Bell may have been his appearance with an all-star group at the 2009 Christmas Jam that included Trombone Shorty, founding Meters bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Adam Deitch, guitarist Eric Krasno, saxophonist Ron Holloway and others. The awe-inspiring performance even turned heads onstage—and, as Haynes recalls, perhaps nobody was more enamored than Porter.

“He’s a huge, huge William Bell fan and he comes from that generation—he called him ‘Mr. Bell,’” Haynes reveals with a chuckle. “Everyone was so stoked to be in his presence.”