Luke Bell — a Cody-raised country singer affectionately known as the Wyoming troubadour — has died. He went missing on Aug. 20 in Tucson, Arizona, and was found Aug. 29 not far from where he disappeared. He was 32 years old.
Laramie photographer and videographer Mike Vanata grew up with Bell and documented the rise of the musician’s career.
“I’m speaking for the whole state here, but we really did feel like we had a hometown hero,” Vanata said.
His photos and videos capture Bell’s charm and exuberance. While Bell’s untimely death is devastating, Vanata said, “I don’t want anybody to forget about the joy he brought.”
When Vanata heard Bell had gone missing, he hoped the singer was up to his old ways. “I thought he wanted to go hop trains and maybe just go explore and be by himself for a little bit,” Vanata said.
Bell was known to sneak away to travel with his pitbull, Bill, only to reemerge with new songs. “He just kept gathering all these really great stories of being on the road. And that’s why they called him the Wyoming troubadour,” Vanata said.
But Bell’s sense of adventure was complicated by worsening mental illness in recent years, a development that worried Vanata and other friends. Things got so bad that Bell gave his pup Bill away, Vanata said. “Luke was like a ghost, and nobody knew where he was at. And you know, the moments he popped up were special.”
The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner confirmed Luke Bell “was in their care” but could offer no information about cause of death at this time.
Vanata saw Bell for the last time a little over a year ago in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanata was headed to a sold-out show and his friend didn’t have a ticket, but “in old Cody-boy fashion,” as Vanata put it, Bell snuck in. Once inside Bell found a bucket and started walking around asking for tips for the band. “He thought it was one of those shows where the bands weren’t making a lot of money,” Vanata said. Some thought Bell was trying to scrounge for cash, but “everybody that knew him was like, ‘he’s just trying to help out. He’s just being the good old little musician he is.’”
It reminded Vanata of one of his first memories of Bell from high school. Vanata threw a party that started to get out of hand. “At one point, everybody was going wild and grabbing my dad’s guns off the walls,” but Vanata said Bell, in his own special way, stepped in to help.
“Luke grabbed a guitar and started playing ‘Gin and Juice’ by The Gourds which is a Snoop Dogg song, but they had covered it in a country kind of tone. And, you know, that was just Luke’s charisma, like getting everybody to sing along with him and pay attention to him,” Vanata said.
“I remember him telling me, ‘you know, Mike, one day, I’m gonna go be a country singer.’ And I was like, ‘you know what, I don’t know, us small town folks here in Cody, I don’t know if we really go and do any cool things like that.’ But I was like, ‘good luck,’” Vanata said, rubbing a tear from his eye.
Bell moved from Cody to Laramie and then to Austin. “He was doing joe jobs, like at one point he was going door-to-door selling pizza coupons to people,” while he worked his way into the music scene, Vanata said. “And then Luke came back with this first record that a lot of people haven’t heard, and it blew my mind. That’s when I realized that Luke was an incredible songwriter,” Vanata said.
“Stained glass man, can you make a window for me? I’m doing the best that I can. I need new colors don’t you see,” Bell sings.
“While the preacher talks and talks of sins and prayers it’s on the stained glass that I lay my stare. And I said: Let the sun shine through the Virgin Mary. Let the glass be her skin. I read the stained glass like a revelation. The eternal hymn.”
Bell’s death is an important reminder that “people need to be aware and kind and understanding of people who are going through mental illness,” Vanata said.
Bell’s light will no doubt continue to shine through his songs; his eternal hymns.