“Lost everything to Katrina,
Wound up in Farmerville,
Wife ran off with the shrimp man,
Now I’m headed for ole Nashville …”
When your life reads like the lyrics of a Merle Haggard moaner, where else are ya gonna go?
It may not exactly have been divine providence in the form of Hurricane Katrina that thrust Bruce Bellott, his newly won, albeit well-worn, van and his trusty guitar down the brightly lit boulevards of Music City but he wouldn’t swear to it.
“It was all like a dream, some sort of fantasy,” says the 53-year-old window tinter and car alarm installer. “When Katrina hit, my wife and kids and I wound up in a rec [recreational] center at Lake D’Arbonne, outside of Farmerville, way up there by the Arkansas line. I was sitting in that place and I was the only one smiling out of some 300 evacuees there. I was smiling because I knew something big was coming.”
It came all right, like a like a fully loaded Mack truck highballin’ down Interstate 20 with Bruce Bellott watching that silver bulldog hood ornament bearing down on him.
“Man, everything hit at once, my business back in Slidell was wiped out, I was having prostate trouble; we were living in a little cabin at Lake D’Arbonne State Park with about five other families – all smokers and drinkers. All raisin’ hell all the time. I was about to go nuts! Then I get served with divorce papers. She had been seeing the shrimp man back in Slidell but I thought that was all over with. Man was I wrong! Well, she left me and took the car. I didn’t have anything. But I just knew this was a message. It was time to pursue my dream. I was going to get to Nashville and make it as a singer. And, if ever I was gonna do it, the time had to be right then. I couldn’t live with my wife and kids and I had lost everything.”
Bellott sits at a kitchen table and he’s wearing a red, white and blue stars-and-stripes shirt and a straw cowboy hat that looks as though it’s spent its fair share of time on more than one empty barstool. Patriotism, along with Louisiana State University football, the Saints and the ravages wrought by Katrina, are constant themes of the twangy country-western numbers Bellott pens and plays for whoever will listen. That bug bit when Bellott was growing up in a modest little house on the
Orleans-Jefferson line: all of 10 years old, brillianteening his hair, adding a little of his mom’s eye shadow to his still slim crop of sideburns and jiggling in front of a mirror to an Elvis tune blaring from an Emerson plastic radio.
“My friend Joey and I would play and sing for our cousins,” Bellott says. “We had all these visions of making records and being big rock ‘n’ roll stars.”
Somewhere along the line Bruce Bellott started making music, tinting windows and installing car alarms. He also made three children with two wives and became the personification of Thoreau’s observation that, “… the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” When one steps back and admires the perfectly tinted windows of a Chevy S-10 truck, there is little applause.
Then along came Katrina, which proved to be as much a door of opportunity for Bruce Bellott as it did a well-greased slide toward perdition for others.
“My wife left me and took the car,” Bellott says as he strums the strings of his guitar (there may be a song in this). “I had to walk everywhere I went. A school bus would pick us up at the rec center and take us into Farmerville for three different meals a day. When the bus didn’t come, I jogged or hitchhiked. All the time I knew I just had to get to Nashville. I had asked every driver of every 18-wheeler I could find if I could hitch a ride to Nashville. But nobody would give me a ride because of insurance and all. I was pretty down …”
But not out! When Bellott wandered into nearby Dubach, which somewhere (and for some unknown reason), in time the Louisiana legislature named “The Dog Trot Capital of the World,” he found Dubachians celebrating not ‘dog trots’ (a type of house) but chickens at the annual Dubach Chicken Festival.
“I was feeling lucky so I bought a raffle ticket about 15 minutes before they drew. They couldn’t pronounce my name so they said, ‘Slidell!’ I figured how many other people from Slidell can there be here in Dubach.”
None. Bellott drove away from the annual Chicken Festival as winner of the raffle in a 1994 Astro Van.
Taking pity on a Katrina evacuee who had just spent his last five bucks on a ticket of chance, the Chicken Festival Committee picked up the tab for title and license and sent Bellott on his way.
“I now had transportation but no gas,” he says. “So I started tinting windows around town for 20, 30 bucks instead of the usual 60 for two windows. I picked up about $300 in gas money and I headed out for Nashville. “
Travis Tritt didn’t exactly send out a limo to pick up Bellott from the Opryland Hotel and in fact, the New Orleans window tinter’s shot at the big time wasn’t going quite as he had expected.
Like so many others before him, Bruce Bellott wound up pounding the pavement, knocking on doors and looking into the faces of DJs and agents and cigar-chompin’ middlemen, all of whom knew the routine only too well: As the lyrics from the old rock ‘n’ roll song from the 1950s mocked the would-be Elvises: “Sign on the dotted line, son … I’m gonna make you a star.”
That stardom for Bruce Bellott, for the next two years, was an open-mike night gig at this lounge and that bar and a few numbers at a festival or two. When some 30 numbers he had written for his beloved New Orleans Saints were returned with the note: “Sorry, we don’t read unsolicited material,” Bellott found a new love: The Tennessee Titans football team who, at least, encouraged his efforts on their behalf.
“I never did get to play a halftime show for the Titans but I did get a tuba player and a drummer and we played a lot of Titans songs at tailgating parties in the parking lot.”
As his beloved LSU warmed up inside the Superdome to play Ohio State for the national championship, January 7, Bruce Bellott busied himself in the parking lot around the dome selling his CD, Bruce’s Tailgatin’ Tunes. It was good to be home.
“I spent two years in Nashville chasing a dream,” he says. “But I knew that I had to come home to New Orleans. I knew I had to be with my people. Right now, my goal is to play festivals around Louisiana and continue to sell my CDs. But I’ve made a promise: whatever I sell I’m going to give 50 percent to the Red Cross. These are the people who helped so many after Katrina. They fed me and gave me shoes. I’m singin’ for them now. I’m singing for the people of Louisiana!”