At first glance, singer/songwriter Jan Bell may be a bit of an oddity: An Englishwoman writing and playing country music in Brooklyn, NY. But when you dig deeper, there are striking similarities in background and singing style between Jan Bell, a Yorkshire coalminer’s granddaughter and Loretta Lynn, the country music star (and Kentucky coal miner’s daughter) to whom she has oft been compared. “Loretta’s songs about the South and the coal mines could easily have been written about the people in and mining towns of Yorkshire,” says Bell, who also ties the history of music in Northern England and Wales to traditional Appalachian music and culture.
Bell says she “identifies with that part of the world and the essence of country music, where brash girls speak their mind and hold their own with the guys…Madonna is in that tradition just as much as Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Patsy Cline.”
A fixture on the Brooklyn folk and alt.country scene since the early 1990s, soon after she arrived in New York City, Bell gigged with other local and transplanted musicians at the Ironworkers Bar (now 68 Jay Street). She started performing with the Urban Cowgirls Cabaret on the back of a pickup truck owned by Tanya from the DUMBO restaurant Superfine.
In fact, it was nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge at that lesbian outpost on Front Street that Bell found her New York home. “Superfine is my surrogate family, and DUMBO, back in those days, wasn’t posh or trendy,” says Bell. She organized the DUMBO Arts Festival for several years where musicians played on the back of a loading dock and founded the all-female Little Red Hen Collective to support indie artists in forging and staging their careers.
Bell has played individually and with various bands throughout her career and her connection to The Maybelles is two decades strong. Jan Bell & The Maybelles have an extended-play release out, “Hello Stranger,” produced by Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas. Bell has opened for Emmylou Harris, Ferron, Odetta and countless other musical legends, but is a longstanding and lauded fixture in the alt.country music scene in her own right.
After 20-plus years of touring on both sides of the pond, Bell is settling down a bit. She now divides her time between Brooklyn and Philadelphia, where she says she finds the cost of living to be more reasonable and the music scene less crowded. “If I’m going to open my own venue, it’s not going to be in the far reaches of the JMZ,” she jokes. “The spot in DUMBO where I first set down Brooklyn roots is now a big, expensive condo building.”
Bell will be performing with The Maybelles twice in the next few days as part of the annual APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenter) Convention. Jan Bell & The Maybelles are on a bill with two other Charisma Artist Agency bands at the Living Room this Saturday and at Sullivan Hall with a slew of other performers Monday night.
Be prepared to hear a spirited, soulful twang and inspired lyrics from this veteran of the international alt.country scene. Bell will play guitar while Rima Fand pulls her bow across the violin and Megan Palmer pumps the piano.
Saturday, January 8 at The Living Room, 154 Ludlow St, 212-533-7235, $10 requested donation: 10pm, The Wiyos, 11pm Jan Bell and the Maybelles, Midnight, Woody Pines. Monday, January 10 at 7pm at Sullivan Hall, 214 Sullivan St, 866-468-7619, $10 (in order of appearance: Jan Bell and The Maybelles, The George Cole Quintet, Two Man Gentleman Band, Fishtank Ensemble, The Defibulators).
For more information, see janbellmusic.com and themaybellesmusic.com.