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Honky tonk heavyweight: Knut Bell & the Blue Collars help Americana be all it can be



He grew up listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, the Seattle Weekly gave him its 2012 Best Country Artist award, and his natural singing voice is lower than Johnny Cash's bass-baritone rumble.

So it makes sense that Knut Bell recorded his most recent album, Wicked, Ornry, Mean and Nasty, down in Austin with two legendary country sidemen. Pianist Earl "Pool" Ball had played with Cash for 20 years and also appeared on Gram Parsons' Americana-defining album Safe at Home. Grammy-winning guitarist Redd Volkaert, meanwhile, has been touring for well over a decade with Merle Haggard. Both musicians shine on nearly every track.

The only problem is that Bell was too out of it to fully appreciate the situation.

"It was kind of like a dream, it was surreal," says Bell, who met the two musicians through mutual friends. "Of course, I was in the middle of my outlaw phase, so I didn't really know what was going on, anyway."

Which is not to say it was all an alcoholic blur, as evidenced by the way Bell lights up when asked about the low-slung Telecaster twang on originals like "Skagit Days" and "Bad Bad Girl." Like Steve Earle's early work, the songs have that baritone guitar sound favored by spaghetti westerns and surf bands.

"That's Redd's setup," says Bell. "It's not a baritone, but it is a Telecaster, which he's got pretty souped-up. He tucks it under his right arm and he actually bends the neck, which is how he gets those low sounds."

While Bell now gets his kicks from martial arts and Eastern spirituality, his relationship with demon alcohol has deep roots. It began with the death of his maternal grandmother, who'd bought him a Sears and Roebuck guitar when he was just 10.

"My musical influence and my best friend was my mother's mother," explains the native of Skagit County (which made national news last month when, as Bell puts it, "we had a little bridge collapse"). "When she passed away suddenly, I started drinking, and that took me down all different avenues, places I never dreamed I would go."

Not all those places were good ones, and Bell would eventually change course after going through an out-of-body experience. "It wasn't a white light," he says. "It was a blue mist."

Along the way, Bell's musical identity became more focused. He'd spent years in Alaska on commercial fishing boats, socking away enough money to start his current band, Knut Bell & the Blue Collars, when he got back home.

While the group mostly plays close to home, a string of Colorado dates were set in motion by his long-standing admiration for the U.S. Army Special Forces, which invited him out here to play an anniversary bash.

"When I was 12 years old, I had a green beret that said De oppresso liber on it," says Bell, whose songs often pay tribute to friends in the service. "I didn't end up going, but I'm blessed that everywhere I go, it seems, there's Special Forces around me.

"A lot of us take for granted what we have. But these guys understand what it's about. Nothing's ever perfect, but I think we're here to do the best we can, and to learn how to do the right thing."

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