Rolling Stone called Luke’s 2016 original song and music video, “Sometimes” “a super-sized slab of throwback Bakersfield twang.”
And the magazine called his music “a rough-around-the-edges return to country traditionalism, full of honky-tonk shuffles, steel solos and the big, booming baritone of a former ranch hand who’s actually lived the cowboy lifestyle.”
Where Luke Bell actually lived the cowboy lifestyle was in the Bighorn Mountains and the sprawling irrigated fields that surround them. And the closest “town” to where Luke Bell grew up cowboying on his family’s Wyoming ranch was Shell, population 50.
This Summer, Luke Bell came back to Shell to play a show at home.
The Shell, Wyoming Community Hall neared capacity as 230 people – who’d driven trucks and trailers in from a 100 or so mile radius – two-stepped, sang along, and tapped their feet to the serenade of their own Luke Bell singing with his band onstage.
“That’s almost five times the population of Shell itself,” Luke observed of his recent show’s turnout.
Luke Bell and band – Frank Bronson from Knoxville, TN on fiddle; Matt Kinman from Boone, NC on guitar and fiddle; and Mckay Fleck from Buffalo, WY on upright bass – headlined a local, annual northwest Wyoming fundraiser dubbed “Shellebration.” The event epitomizes a good old fashioned small town Wyoming shindig – enough homemade dinner to fill everybody’s bellies and music lively enough to get more boots than not kickin up dust on the dancefloor, all going to a good cause. But Shellebration is unique in that it is the traditional follow-up to a 68-mile bike ride from Cody, Wyoming to Shell. This year, 109 cyclists pedaled the distance for the 8th Annual PEAKS to Conga bicyclists’ fundraiser.
“Having Luke and his band play brought out so many community members – because it was him,” said Laurie Parker, registered nurse and organizer of PEAKS to Conga. “It’s the biggest draw we’ve had for the community to get involved.”
Laurie estimates this year’s PEAKS to Conga event raised a gross of around $30,000. All funds go toward helping local Bighorn Basin cancer patients offset treatment costs.
“The money stays within the community – within a 200 mile radius, all over the Bighorn Basin – the money we raise is only for this area and stays here,” said Laurie. “It’s used for cancer patients during treatment for non-medical expenses – such as fuel – because people have to drive wherever they get their treatment. Or groceries – even a mortgage payment. It’s to help them have a short term offset.”
Even a little money means a lot in the face of cancer treatment.
“It doesn’t seem like that much to you or me to get a couple hundreds,” said Laurie, “But watching patients get the grant, they’re saying, ‘You don’t know how important this is.’ It just reinforces there are other people out there who care about them.”
The event has had music in the past, but no other act could bring out a crowd like one of Shell’s own sons.
“We decided to give Luke a try this year because he’s a homeboy,” said Laurie. “He comes out of the Shell area, from the Flitner family. I hear him on Outlaw XM radio all the time … And I think this was good for Luke: It was nostalgic to have him here. I think it’s the first time since he’s made it in the professional world that he’s performed out here with his band.”
“It’s been a long time,” Luke said, in regards to playing a show back home. “It’s been at least three or four years. It was really great to see everybody from Greybull [a town between Cody and Shell] and from Cody. I got to see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Luke’s mom, sister, grandma, grandpa, and several pairs of aunts and uncles danced among the Stetson-ed and Wrangler-ed ranchers, farmers, and townsfolk of the Bighorn Basin. The community hall setting and lively, western-clad band and dancers gave the whole show an almost surreal “still of small-town Wyoming” vibe.
When the band played “Sometimes,” every person of every age swarmed the dance floor til no more could fit. It throbbed with button ups and cowboy hats bobbing to the two step, twisting into pretzels, swinging round partners.
“I’ve never been in a room with so many cowboy hats,” my Californian friend Olivia commented.
We sat in metal folding chairs on the edge of the dance floor, sipping cold beer and hot coffee, appreciating musicians and audience.
“The stage looks like, if you just took a snapshot of the 70s,” my friend Melissa remarked with approval. “The fiddle player has a real 70s cowboy vibe going on.”
We took an appreciative gander at the copious jean, corduroy, pearl snap, straw and felt donning the stage.
“When they rolled up in their van, it could have been another era,” Melissa concluded. We all nodded in acknowledgement that to pass as being from the 70s is goals, for sure.
Aesthetic inspiration isn’t the only lead Luke takes from the past.
“I enjoy meeting, especially older people who have stories,” Luke said. “Lately that’s what I’ve been writing about. And I’m playing music with and listening to songs these older folks have either written or learned somewhere. I’m traveling with friends who play more old styles of music and learning more songs that have been around for a long time. I like learning about songs that are part of history and tell stories about people when they first came to this country and traveled around.”
Luke, who currently is based in Boone, North Carolina, hopes to have some new music out soon.
I have been working on some new music,” he said. “I work at it every chance I get – not as much on the road as I do when I’m at home. But maybe… Well, I don’t like to speak too soon, but it would be nice to get another record made.”
Before playing at the PEAKS to Conga Shellebration, Luke said the band played shows on several Indian reservations in Montana, and is now headed up to play several shows in Canada.