Sex, Love, and Murder; or, Glenna Bell’s Perfectly Legal Tale

In the right hands, stories of sex, love, and murder go beyond tabloid sensationalism to reveal truths about the human condition, drawing not just tears and laughter but the somber recognition that we are all flawed (so get over it with wine, women, and/or song). As soon as Glenna Bell gets behind the mic with her guitar, go ahead and kick back—you’re in the right hands, buckaroos.

Bell’s got the boots of a country star but sings without the safety net of two-step country clichés. Her stories on Perfectly Legal: Songs of Sex, Love and Murder take us down the country roads we usually see from our air-conditioned cars and hold us spellbound until we acknowledge we too have sinned in our heart, whether contemplating the bloody murder of a spouse (in the eerie 1-2-3 of “The Southern Gothic Wedding Waltz”) or lusting for a nineteen-year-old (“He’s hot, hot, hot!” in the cheerfully unapologetic “The Cougar Anthem”).

Glenna Bell was born, raised, educated, and is now teaching* in Texas (minus a quick swerve to Los Angeles) and you’d better hear it from me first before you go and put your cowboy-booted foot in your mouth: Texas is not all about cowboys and cattle, buckos. Its eastern forests, right on the border of Louisiana, have cultivated stellar blues and country musicians like Edgar and Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin, and George Jones. The dirt roads, and the songs inspired by them, wind past quiet backwaters, whispering pines, and into the dark emotion of the heart. In Bell’s stories—I mean, her songs—sex, love, and murder take on a macabre tint that is part comedy, part tragedy but all female awesome groove.

Glenna Bell, 2008 copyright Amy Morris

I say “stories” instead of songs because of the way the characters drift out of the lyrics to sit beside me and entertain or spook. “Frankie and Johnny,” an American Civil War–era song about a woman who faces the law after killing her man for doing her wrong (“rooty-toot-toot three times I shot”) is told from Frankie’s point of view, making it pretty clear that for her at least, getting sentenced to the electric chair for the deed is worth the satisfaction of seeing that hound of a boyfriend get what he deserves.

“Hurricane” describes a world-weary woman yet again swept away despite her better judgment by the power of love and lust—“It’s too late to run away / I’ve slipped under again.” Like a play in miniature, a woman who’s steeled herself against getting hurt is drawn up into a man’s embrace only to be hurt again—the tragic power of love that’s also hinted in the sweetly sad duet in Dewayne Blackwell’s “Honky Tonk Man.”

Taking, Nebraska City, 2009 E. Smith

Plays are familiar territory to Bell, who was a theater critic in L.A. and Houston before studying with Edward Albee. But the long and winding road from plays to stripped-down country/roots music is pretty short as the crow flies, actually. Like many a writer, Bell was always writing something as kid, even the rite-of-passage bad poetry (the badness of which she acknowledges). A college roommate taught her a few chords on guitar in one of those chance happenings that playwrights and novelists adore making much of—or is it just me? The first songs she wrote were more like poems set to music, but as “songs are fleeting,” in Bell’s words, she developed an economical lyrical style that comes alive through the grace of the connection between performer and audience.

The album Perfectly Legal, with its four-act structure and moody character studies, comes from Bell’s theatrical background—the first album of hers, she says, that was consciously created to do so. The other albums “unfolded, and now there’s a sense of knowing what I want to do—of how I want to go forward,” she says. “It’s hit the right note.” After this, she sees a direction toward a musical inspired by the minimalist and absurdist plays she studied, with her songs in a Brechtian vein. I see more moments of gritty transcendence in store. Anyone interested in collaboration with Glenna Bell? Step up, buckaroos, and give her a yodel.

Perfectly Legal: Songs of Sex, Love and Murder and her other albums can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon, as well as on the official Glenna Bell site.

Glenna Bell is performing FRIDAY, JUNE 24TH, 2011at

Gizzy’s, 9-9:45 pm 16 W. 8th Street, New York New York 10011



Starving Artist Cafe 3 pm 249 City Island Avenue, Bronx New York 10464



Godfrey Daniels Theater, Opening for Jack Williams! 8-8:30 pm

7 E. Fourth Street, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 18015

(215) 867-2390


Banjo Jim’s, from 10-11 p.m 700 East 9th Street, New York, NY 10009

(212) 777-0869 ‎


Hill Country Barbecue 7:15-8:45 pm, 30 West 26th Street, New York New York 10010





*As a former educator myself, I have to give a shout-out to this dedicated teacher. Bell teaches writing to students at Houston Community College. Her students range from the usual starry-eyed youths and good-student grandmothers and those with learning disabilities to students in gangs, with criminal records, and who struggle in grinding poverty. They learn practical writing skills and hopefully a sense that life can be transcended, even if just for the space of a song. The inspiration is twofold: She’s learning that “no dream is too preposterous.” Awesome.



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