Continental Drifter

You can take Hudson Bell out of the South, but you can't take the South out of this singer/songwriter

Hudson Bell needed to get out of the South. Having moved throughout Louisiana and Kentucky with his family and attended college in Oxford, Miss., the musician felt he knew the region inside and out. And he was tired of it. The dollar stores and cotton fields, the red clay ditches and the forests of tall, scrawny pines -- everything that had once seemed comfortable now felt stifling, overfamiliar, and underwhelming.

Mostly, though, he was just tired of answering his door.

"In Mississippi, it had gotten to the point that I'd wake up in the morning, and someone was showing up at [my] doorstep," Bell, 27, says from a perch in North Beach's Vesuvio. "Whether it's to borrow a dollar to go get a burrito at Taco Bell or to just come and hang out for the rest of the day ... everybody lives to drop in. It's all right sometimes, but it got to the point where I couldn't get anything going. And also I was just very uninspired in some ways. I needed a change of scenery, a change of people."

Danville may seem like a strange place to come looking for inspiration, but that's where Bell's parents had moved in 1995. When Bell dropped out of the University of Mississippi in late 1996, his folks offered him a room to "get his feet on the ground." Although he was just killing time in Oxford, taking the occasional summer school course and playing music, he was still reluctant to accept the offer. "I was like, 'No way. I'm not moving back in with my parents,'" he laughs.

But as the distractions in Oxford mounted, Bell reconsidered his mom and dad's invitation. "It was tough at the time," Bell remembers. "But it seemed necessary."

Bell moved to Northern California in January 1998. Because he no longer had to scrounge for rent, he was able to get by on the erratic wages of an office temp. His loose work schedule also gave him the thing he wanted most: uninterrupted hours to focus on creative endeavors. Though he had been composing since high school, Bell watched his songwriting flower in Danville's desiccated cultural climate.

His new material was a happy surprise after the Oxford doldrums, and Bell was especially content with his revamped vocal style. "I kind of lost my confidence singing," he remembers. "And I tried to refind, to believe what I was singing -- be more true to what I'm singing, I guess."

On older material Bell had put as much work into the singing as he had the words and melodies, pushing his broad, deliberate voice into acrobatic ranges. In Danville he began allowing the lyrics to take center stage, arriving at a style that was plain-spoken and direct, reminiscent of a Louisiana Lou Reed.

The new voice was a productive one. Nearly an album's worth of songs tumbled out, with Bell working on the louder guitar parts whenever his parents went out of town. For the first time in years, things were jelling musically for Bell, and the small successes gave him an overdue boost in confidence. By January 2000 he was ready to head back to Mississippi to finish his degree.

Six months later Bell picked up his diploma and flew back to the Bay Area, settling in San Francisco. An important connection to Mississippi remained, however: Before leaving his alma mater Bell had struck a deal to record an album with Bruce Watson in a converted-schoolhouse studio 15 miles south of Oxford. (Watson is the infamous in-house producer at Fat Possum, a label renowned for resurrecting the careers of ornery, elderly blues artists like R.L. Burnside.)

Here was a rare opportunity to work with one of the bigger names in Mississippi music, but Bell's heart -- and apartment lease -- was now in the Bay Area. After weighing his options the songwriter decided to become a very part-time recording artist, flying into town every couple of months to get a few songs on tape. "I should have thanked Southwest [Airlines] in the liner notes," Bell jokes.

The subsequent LP, Captain of the Old Girls (out now on Upperworks), ended up taking nine months to record. While many musicians would be frustrated at such a glacial pace, Bell took advantage of the unhurried schedule to allow spontaneity and improvisation to play a bigger role in the process. "I went there with an open mind and a couple pieces of paper with some lyrics and some [chord] charts," Bell says. "I think it gave the album time to appear."

As the record slowly unfolded, it became clear that the two years spent in Danville had left their mark on the songs. The mood of Captain is searching, contemplative -- the sound of someone far from home sorting through his memories, trying to make sense of his past.

A talented musician, Bell played most of the parts on the album himself, with his cousin Winn McElroy playing piano and keyboards, and Craig Pickering sitting in on drums for a few songs. The result is spacious and open, a mix of acoustic meditation and electric abandon that puts the CD somewhere between The Velvet Underground & Nico and Son Volt's seminal altcountry record Trace.

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