Steve Bell’s music ministry took its first steps in an Alberta prison when, as an eight-year-old, he jammed with prisoners. Photo courtesy of Steve Bell

Music takes Steve Bell from the big house to God’s house

By 
  • January 17, 2015

Steve Bell was ready to face the music: his decade-long career as a nightclub musician was over.

A little over age 30, he played in bars six nights a week, not making enough money to support his young family. He says he slipped into a deep depression and realized that, other than music, he had no employable skills.

Then one night, as he lay in bed, he felt a presence, a presence he now acknowledges to be God, which provided him with a sense that he was meant to do something else.

“So I quit playing, thinking that I was going to hang up my guitar and my career was over. But literally when I quit is when all of this new music came out of me,” said Bell. “For about six months after that, every time I heard Scripture, I heard melody. Every time I picked up my guitar, a song would come. I had the most prolific songwriting time of my life in the six months that ‘I quit.’ ”

Still viewing himself as a “failed bar musician,” Bell did not have a music ministry in mind until an old family friend knocked on his door.

Catholic priest Fr. Bob MacDougall visited Bell, a Baptist, and told him he should produce a Christian album. Bell said no, but MacDougall convinced him that his songs had merit.

“Then I remember saying, ‘How will I ever pay for this?’ And he said, ‘How much would it cost?’ I gave him a rough figure, and he pulled out a cheque... and paid for my first album,” said Bell. He titled it Comfort My People.

“The irony of a Catholic priest funding a Baptist minister’s son’s first album is pretty funny,” he said. “Back in the day it was a pretty revolutionary thing.”

Seventeen albums later, Bell, now age 54, looks back on his 25-year career — one that has seen Larry LeBlanc of Billboard magazine call him a “Canadian national treasure” — as a Christian singer-songwriter.  

“Sometimes you’ll be dismissed as a Christian artist because (your music is) Christian. Or sometimes you’ll be embraced because it’s Christian. I’d rather be known as a good or bad (artist), hopefully a good one.”

Bell was born in 1960 in Calgary. He began to hone his guitar skills at age eight in an Alberta penitentiary. His dad was chaplain at the prison in Drumheller, so that’s where his family attended church every Sunday.

“As a little boy, it was the coolest thing, right, because I was the only boy in school that hung out with murderers and bank robbers. So it was fun.” But “the wonderful and disappointing thing for a boy about prisoners is that you kind of expect a whole bunch of knuckle-dragging gorillas, and they’re just human beings.”

This changed his view of humanity for the better, and the inmates soon recognized his talent.

“There were a number of inmates that used the chapel every Saturday afternoon to have jam sessions. There were some really great musicians. And very early on, they recognized my musical capacity and invited me into their circle. And so every Saturday afternoon, I would sit with all these guys and learn guitar just by osmosis, just by sitting in their jam sessions. It was fantastic,” said Bell. “All this ministry I do largely because Canada’s most unwanted men invested in me when I was eight-years-old.”

By age 13, he was recording with his family’s Gospel band, Alf Bell Family Singers. In his early adulthood, he played with a number of bands ranging in genre from folk, jazz-rock, country to novelty.

His music has matured over the years, alongside his family life — his wife Nanci, four children and two grandchildren.

“Lyrically, it revolves around a lot about what I’m reading. I read a lot more poetry these days or better theology. What I read deepens and informs what I write about. Then of course, just life experience. When you’re young, you can write about things you don’t know. You think that the love that you have for that beautiful woman is the extent of love. Now, I’m a grandfather. You realize, oh my goodness, I had no idea how deep love got. So your experience changes and therefore you attach deeper nuances to the words that you use,” said Bell.

To celebrate 25 years since the release of his debut solo album, Bell released the four-CD set Pilgrimage. Originally meant to be one CD of new music of the same title, it now includes Unadorned, re-recorded fan-chosen favourites with just Bell and his guitar; Good Company, Bell’s songs recorded by his friends and colleagues; and Landscapes, instrumentals from Bell’s songs with no vocals.

On Good Company, he said, “we found out last year, a bunch of my colleagues and friends as a gift to me… had conspired to give me a recording of their versions of their favourite Steve Bell songs. And so I thought, well my fans would like to hear that.”

Bell now lives in Winnipeg and performs about 100 concerts a year, but wants to continue working on writing books. He has started an e-book series titled Pilgrim Year on the spirituality of the Church calendar, which he says is attracting Christians of different denominations, including Catholics.

Coincidentally, documentary filmmakers Refuge 31 approached him about sharing his life story just in time for his 25th anniversary, and now fans can watch the result Burning Ember.  

“I think what people don’t realize in music is that it really is that varied. You’re somebody in one town and you’re an absolute nobody in the very next town,” said Bell.

But “if you develop virtue and character and if you really, really care, you will have a voice as long as you want to speak. And I’m kind of hoping that I have what it takes to develop personally that I can be in that sort of position as long as the Lord lets my fingers work.”

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