Luke Bell Remembered: Late Country Singer’s Inner Circle Describe Struggles, Triumphs of Man With ‘Biggest Heart in the World’

Luke Bell would sometimes go missing for weeks at a time. His friends and inner circle would stay up for long, anxious days and nights searching homeless camps, jails and hospitals for the country singer who was prone to walking off while in the midst of a mental health crisis. They often feared the worst, recalling the time they found him shoeless and without a coat on Christmas Eve in Denver, describing a gentle soul who could turn on a dime when the “demons” took over.

“I am bipolar,” Bell wrote in a Facebook post from July 17 in which he addressed his disease publicly for the first time. “Each day is different and presents new challenges. The trouble with bipolar is now knowing which personality is going to show up for the day.”

Those fears were realized this week when the 32-year-old promising country star was found dead in Tucson, Arizona after wandering off 10 days earlier. “He was witty and very smart, disarming… in more recent years he carried on like he was a country bumpkin, but he knew more than he let on,” says his longtime manager and friend Brian Buchanan, his voice choked with emotion as he describes a generational talent who struggled with bipolar disorder for the majority of his short career.

“He was more sophisticated than he seemed, and he could disarm you with a wink and a smile. He was just kind, not malicious or mean… unless he was under the spell of his demons,” Buchanan adds. “One time he was in a real bad way and he wouldn’t answer to ‘Luke.’ He’d say, ‘I’m not Luke,’ and be dead serious. He would fight your over it.”

Speaking to members of Bell’s inner circle in the wake of the singer’s death, the common thread that emerges is of a kind-hearted, wildly talented songwriter and performer who was laid low by devastating mental health struggles that required constant vigilance, and tender understanding from friends and family who knew his true heart — and fought like hell to get him the help he needed.

“I wish you weren’t calling me right now…” 

Matt Kinman would rather be doing just about anything on Thursday morning (Sept.1) than talking about his friend Luke Bell. “I wish you weren’t calling me right now about this,” he says — explaining that he’d rather be out searching for Bell, just as he’d done countless times over the past decade. It was Kinman who put out the APB to country music blog Saving Country Music over the weekend, asking for help in finding his friend and musical partner, after Bell went missing in Tucson.

It was a desperate plea to find the artist, who Kinman says he’d gone to fetch “so many times in really bad places” when Luke was “not in his right mind” during one of his bipolar episodes. The pair met in New Orleans when Bell was around 20 years old, and journeyman trad country player Kinman — a former member of Old Crow Medicine Show, who has shared the stage with Emmylou Harris and Marty Stuart — befriended the “young little punk,” who just kind of grew on him as they got to know each other.

When Bell moved to Nashville to be closer to Kinman after his band quit on him in 2014, they hit the road together, playing all over the U.S. and touring in France with the preternaturally gifted singer/songwriter, whose songs hearkened back to a time before country was focused on beers, babes and Bronco trucks. At first, Kinman says he didn’t realize Bell was struggling with mental illness, but after they moved to North Carolina things kept getting worse and worse — with Luke becoming “scared to death” that someone was after him.

“One time I picked him up in Atlanta after a lady called and said, ‘Come get your friend,’” says Kinman. “I don’t even know if he remembered his own name after [some guys] whipped up on him.” It’s one of half-dozen stories about times when Bell vanished, was hospitalized, and then disappeared again, sometimes hopping a freight train without knowing which direction he was headed.

This isn’t a romantic tale of a restless troubadour riding the rails, though. Kinman mentions a permanently disfigured finger he suffered during one of Bell’s episodes  — “I wish he’d broken it the other way, so I could reach down the neck of my guitar more” — a scar he says he’d happily endure again just to see his friend alive. Another time he recalls Bell stripping naked and leaping into a river as cops stood by, while Kinman and some friends fished the singer out. And then there are the three times he saw Luke pull his own eye out in the midst of scary bipolar episodes. “That’s how bad it was,” he says. “He couldn’t help it.”

Asked why he dedicated so much of his time and heart to perpetual vigilance of Bell, Kinman seems perplexed by the question. “If I didn’t do it, who was gonna?” he poses. “Everyone says, ‘I wish I could have helped him.’ Well, where were you when he was needing you?”

“It was a dark cloud”

Some of the stories Bell’s friends tell sound like apocryphal tales from outlaw country history. Such as the time he was at a party at the house he shared with Bobby Bare Jr. in East Nashville, and he scared the other partygoers by firing off a gun through the ceiling. “People freaked out — and he had started to get a bit of a reputation by the time I began working with him [for incidents like that],” recalls Brian Buchanan, who served as Luke’s manager for many years.

He met the singer when Bell came to a party at his house in Nashville in 2013, where “he kept me up all night playing music.” He’d never met the young songwriter before, but was immediately struck by his voice, which could range from a high and lonesome (“Working Man’s Dream”) to deeply affecting (“Loretta”). Soon some friends asked him to step in and manage Bell, whose hell-raiser reputation he realized was mostly tied to the hard-to-control, chronic mood disorder.

“It was a dark cloud that hung over him, and by 2018 we had a lot of concerns, and he wasn’t in a state to go out on the road and do shows,” he says of the singer — who by then was bending ears, thanks to his trad country 2014 Bandcamp-released debut full-length, Don’t Mind If I Do.

The singer’s family never gave up on him, Buchanan says, noting that his mother recalled a loving, happy childhood. “She never gave up on her boy,” he says. “She loved [him], we all did… [But] he would turn into a different person and wouldn’t remember his actions, sincerely didn’t, and apologize for things he didn’t do. She tried to get him help as well… at one point they said he had alcohol psychosis, and if he quit drinking it would go away, which is hard to tell a 27-year-old who likes to drink beer.” (Like many musicians, Bell also did not have insurance — and when Buchanan tried to get him covered, the singer resisted.)

Buchanan says Bell’s mental health began to seriously decline after the singer’s father died in 2015. “Luke had all this success, a record deal and all these people behind him — but he didn’t have his dad, the one person that you want to be there to see you succeed,” he says.

By that point Bell had signed a deal with Nashville-based label Thirty Tigers, a marketing/distribution/management company for independent artists, whose roster includes Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, Alanis Morissette and X’s John Doe. President and co-founder David Macias had sought him out after hearing rumblings around Nashville of an upstart young singer whose sound reached back to an earlier era.

“He was just a good dude,” says Macias, who was enamored with the “Where Ya Been?” songwriter’s vibe — which mixed traditional, old-school country with the laid-back Bakersfield, California sound and a touch of outlaw country. He began chatting with Bell’s publisher the year after the singer put out his debut, then signed Luke to Thirty Tigers in 2015 after falling in love with such moving originals as “The Bullfighter.”

His lone release through the label, a 2016 self-titled full-length, featured five songs from the first album, along with such Hank Williams-inspired tracks as “Sometimes,” and the Johnny Cash-esque train-track country blues “All Blue.”

“He was a real poet”

Macias compares Bell to Amy Winehouse, recalling a screening of the Oscar-winning 2018 Amy Winehouse: Back to Black biopic that made him understand how the late British crooner “processed her own life and pain [in her songs]. I felt like it made me understand what Luke struggled against and, going back to listen to his music, he was very much an artist in that tradition.” He talks about the “very generous impulse” in songs such as the heartbreaking “Where Ya Been?,” whose chorus can be read as a plainspoken plea for a direction home.

“Where ya been?/ Hey mister in the mirror, where’s my friend?” Bell sings in his signature twang over finger-picked guitar and pedal steel in the lament — which sounds like it should be bleeding out of a 1950s honky tonk jukebox. “I went out on the town/ And I ain’t seen him since/ Hey, hey, where ya been?”

“You learn about his struggles and it takes on a much deeper poignancy, as many artists who mine their own pain and lay it out there for other people to recognize and not feel so alone,” Macias says. “He was that guy.” Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1990, Bell was raised in Cody, Wyoming, where Macias says he moved in 2018 so he could get help from his family as his mental health issues became more pronounced.

Best known for the traditionalist tunes from his 2016 self-titled Thirty Tigers debut — which has sold 5,000 copies, as its songs have collectively earned 8.5 million on-demand streams to date in the U.S. through August 25, according to Luminate — Macias says he was drawn to Bell because he was “a real poet,” someone who was beloved by those who knew him as well as those who felt a connection to his simple, but sometimes deeply poignant songs. The last time they saw each other was at a gospel brunch in 2018 in Nashville, before Bell moved back to Wyoming, where he told Luke the “door was always open” to working together again.

“It just f–kin’ sucks,” Macias says, clearly struggling to articulate the loss. He’s aware of some demos that Bell recorded, which he hopes will come out some day, to go along with what, for now, is his last released recording: a 2021 cover of John Lennon’s 1971 ballad “Jealous Guy.”

In the meantime, on Thursday, Bell’s self-titled album was in the top 10 on the iTunes all-genre chart — and, happily, Macias adds, more people are discovering the rare, beautiful talent he feels lucky to have crossed paths with.

“He had the biggest heart in the world” 

For now, what happened on Bell’s last walk-out remains a mystery. The Tucson Police Department has confirmed that they found the singer’s body on August 26, but no details have emerged about the cause of death, which is still under investigation. Two weeks ago, as he was leaving for an overseas trip, Buchanan got one of his semi-regular calls from Bell asking for a check to cover expenses. At the time he had around $6,000 in royalty payments for the artist, who said he and Kinman were stranded in Wyoming and in need of some gas money.

“I later found out that he was not in Wyoming at this point and was already in Arizona,” Buchanan says. “I’m not sure why he lied about it, but I suspect he had already made up his mind  to ‘disappear’ again. I deposited the money in the bank for him and let him know. He asked how the family was doing and I told him about taking my little boy to see a monster truck rally. He seemed interested in that. He always asked about my boy.”

Buchanan says his goal as a friend/manager/advisor was always to “keep him alive, rather than further his career.” So, he deposited the checks on August 18 and two days later — the day Bell had planned to attend his sister’s wedding in Wyoming — the singer ran off. At the time, Buchanan says he felt confident that Bell was safe with Kinman and seemingly in an “okay state” of mind. But on August 20, Bell disappeared for the last time.

“Prior to that, it was me and Matt dealing with it — and we’d go to sleep at night like, ‘Where the f–k is he? Is he going to be dead this time?” Buchanan says of the many anxious nights Bell’s closest confidants and family spent waiting for news about his whereabouts. “This last time I had a feeling that would be it.”

“Matt messaged me and was looking high and low,” Buchanan adds. He keeps coming back to the uncharacteristically “sweet, honest assessment” Bell posted on FB in July about his battle against bipolar disorder. It was the first, and last, time Bell would speak openly about his state of mind.

“Some days I feel calm, cool and collected while on another day I’m sad, depressed or angry,” Bell wrote on FB. “On a good day I can laugh and play music and write songs. On a bad day I lash out at loved ones and retreat into terribly stormy moods unable to socialize and enjoy others.” The note ended with wishful sign-off, “I hope you are also finding some peace and blessings.”

Calling him one of the “most talented and promising” songwriters he’s worked with, Buchanan perks up as he remembers a pitch they’d gotten a few years ago while he was at Bid Deal Music publishing for Bell to write a song for viral Walmart yodeling sensation Mason Ramsey. “He wrote a song in a couple of hours and sent it to me,” he says. “It was one of the most authentic, Jimmie Rodgers-type songs you’d ever hear.” Turns out, it was too authentic for what Ramsey’s people were after.

The night Bell went missing he and Kinman pulled into a restaurant in Tucson and while Matt ran inside to get some food, Bell jumped out of the car and vanished into the dark. As he’d done a dozen or more times before, Kinman looked everywhere he could think of, alerted the police and let them know that his friend was sick and needed help. A few days later he got the call all Luke’s loved ones had always feared: police had found Bell’s body not far from the restaurant.

“He had the biggest heart in the world,” Kinman says. “He was a boy that had a big heart and a troubled mind. When he was right, he’d give you the shirt off his back and the last dollar from his pocket… and I seen him do it.” But Bell was tormented, as tormented as anyone Kinman had ever known. “The last doctor he saw did the best he could [with medication], but it was getting worse and worse.”

Still, Kinman has no regrets about the sleepless nights he spent driving around hoping for a sign of Luke. “I’d do it all over again,” he says. “I’d go get him right now if he’d call me. He’s some kind of famous person now, but to me he ain’t no famous guy. He’s just Luke Bell.”

Listen to Bell’s 2016 album below.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide or struggling with a mental health crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.