Five studio albums on, the veteran Knoxville (by way of Mississippi) trio mixes domesticity with tuneful, powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll. Tim Lee (of the late, great Windbreakers) and wife Susan reflect on their musical influences, their songwriting m.o., life in The Marble City, and their plans for the future. “More cowbell,” is what the distaff member of the band predicts.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Call it roots rock, indie rock or southern rock, but it really makes no difference. Knoxville-based band the Tim Lee 3 comes with a passion and pedigree all its own. While their no-nonsense approach and keen melodic sensibilities belie their stripped down trio format, the band manages to hone in on the basics while also creating a chilling, compelling sound all their own.
Tim Lee made his mark through a variety of early ventures that go back as far as nearly four decades, allowing him to accumulate a sizable solo resume. As part of power pop outfit known as the Windbreakers, the group he fronted along with his pal Bobby Sutliff, he released seven albums, while also working as a much in demand side man on tour with Let’s Active, Marti Jones and the Swimming Pool Qs. He subsequently went on to release several well received solo LPs before co-founding the Tim Lee 3 in 2006 with wife, bassist and vocalist Susan Bauer Lee and drummer Chris Bratta. The band can currently claim a catalogue consisting of five studio releases, two live albums and a recent disc from Bark (a side project that finds the Lees sharing instrumental duties). Their most recent release, 33 1/3, holds special significance; it takes its name from the Lees’ 33 plus years of marriage. (Go HERE to read our review of that record, which earned a 5-out-of-5-stars rating.)
The Lees have become hometown heroes in Knoxville, the city they took up residence in after moving there from their native Mississippi, but in person they emit an unassuming attitude and good-natured down-home attitude that readily reflects their southern upbringing. We recently spoke with Tim and Susan and asked them to share their backstory as well as their thoughts on their current state of affairs.
BLURT: So let’s start at the beginning. How did the two of you meet?
TIM LEE: The short version, as Susan likes to say, is that we met at a party at a college neither of us was attending. In the late ’70s, the Pike house on the Millsaps College campus in Jackson, Mississippi, took pretty much all of its cues from “Animal House.” I had a band that played there all the time because we were cheap and usually available at the last minute. We played one party, and Susan was there because her younger brother was in the fraternity and had coerced her into helping with the shindig.
I was pretty much smitten from the first time I saw her, but in my stupid adolescent mind, I decided that she didn’t like me. It took me about three months to figure out she didn’t hate my guts. We went on a date, and have pretty much been together ever since.
SUSAN LEE: Yeah, it took me three months to get him to ask me out… I had to keep showing up at all of his gigs.
Please share some of your early influences… musical, literary or otherwise?
TIM: I grew up in the ’60s, so my earliest musical memories were my older sisters’ 45s… Beatles, Beach Boys, Dave Clark 5 kinda stuff. Later on, my brother, who I shared a room with, brought home Dylan, Hendrix, Cream, and Sly and the Family Stone records. He was gone a lot, so I got to spend a lotta quality time with those records. The hook was set at that moment.
By junior high, I was starting to find my own music, mostly glam rock like David Bowie, Slade, T. Rex, and Mott the Hoople, who are still probably my favorite band of all time. I’d read Circus, Creem, and Rock Scene magazines religiously at the drug store near my house. Scouring the bargain bins, I found records by the Stooges, Velvet Underground, the Dictators, and such. Needless to say, I was ripe for the punk rock explosion of the late ’70s, from the Ramones to Patti Smith to the Pistols, the Clash, and the Jam. But, you know, I had started playing guitar so I was also big into ZZ Top, Skynyrd, and Thin Lizzy.
When I started hanging around Bobby Sutliff, I got a real education in obscure power pop, which paved the way for the Windbreakers and all that.
And books were always a big deal to me, starting with Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson in my teen years and going into my ongoing love of Southern Literature such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, Harry Crews, Cynthia Shearer, and others.
SUSAN: I didn’t pick up a bass until a year or so into the double-naughts, so I can’t really claim any historical influences on my playing… I was mostly influenced by people who I was hanging around with… Tim and, at the time, a musician named Don Coffey.
Songwriting came several years later, and a lot of that inspiration did come from southern authors… particularly Cynthia Shearer, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah, and a few stories from weird news articles or from someone I know. Tim and I have a lot of the same tastes in southern lit.
What prompted your move from Mississippi to Knoxville? Are you both originally from there?
TIM: Over the first 20 years we were together, Susan and I moved around a lot. It just became habit. We might move down the street, or three states over. Right around the turn of the century, we had the opportunity to move to Knoxville to work for a magazine that was relocating here, so we took the plunge. Now 15 years later, we’re still here. It’s a very different culture from Mississippi (where we both grew up), more Appalachian than Delta, but there are tons of good people here. Fortunately, we know a lot of them now. Our friend RB Morris calls Knoxville “the Bermuda Triangle of Appalachia.”
Tim, why did the Windbreakers wind down? Was it due to you and Bobby wanting to go in different directions? Were you pleased with the notices that the band received? Did the two of you ever think about reviving the band?
TIM: The Windbreakers existed off and on throughout most of the ’80s. Bobby and I were never not friends. We hung out and played together, even when we weren’t necessarily working on Windbreakers-related projects. We did a quick tour after the release of Electric Landlady, but it wasn’t long after that time that I started easing away from music. I’d grown weary of the way the independent scene had gone south in the wake of major label’s involvement. It was getting a bit too show-biz for my taste, so I fell off the face of the earth for several years.
[Below: an early promotional photo of the Windbreakers. Bobby Sutliff is on the right. Oh, and note the photo credit affixed to the promo sheet.]
Susan, when did your musical ambitions begin? Were they spurred on after you met Tim? Were you nervous, apprehensive etc. to take such a pivotal role in the band? You appear so confident on stage – was that a process or did it come naturally?
SUSAN: I didn’t start playing until a year or so into the double-naughts, and it was every bit as much a surprise to me as it was to Tim, but damn if the words were hardly out of my mouth before he was already back from the pawn shop with a bass in hand and ready to start teaching me how to play. I was on stage in six months and my first recording experience was Tim’s No Discretion  album.
I was fairly nervous for the first few live shows — if you look at photos from then I look like a deer in the headlights — but it wasn’t long before it felt totally natural. These days I can’t imagine not playing.
I didn’t start singing ‘til a few years later, and that was a more gradual progress. I started with small background parts in the studio — I think it was on Concrete Dog  — but it was a while before I felt confident enough to sing live, and even then, it was a good while before I felt that I could carry a whole song.
Is it extra challenging carrying on as a three piece as opposed to having more players in the band? Does it limit the parameters at any point, or do you feel like it offers ample opportunity to express yourselves in a more barebones way?
TIM: For years, I thought I’d never want to be in a three-piece, and I always insisted on having another guitarist. But the first time we did it, I just thought, ‘”Why didn’t I do this years ago?” I love it. The fact that Susan is such a solid bass player, and she and our drummer Chris have a great chemistry makes it easy for me. They’re so together that I can drop out at will and nobody notices I’m gone. Logistically, it’s great, because Susan and I know each other’s schedule, and Chris is super-easy to deal with, so it’s pretty effortless on all levels really.
SUSAN: Three people and gear fit really easily into our van.
How would you evaluate your progress so far? Are you pleased with the reviews, the gigs and everything else? More importantly, do you find it fulfilling?
TIM: At this point, I’ve been doing the band thing for nearly 40 years, and the record-making thing for over 30, and without a doubt this band is by far the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. If Susan had never started playing, I doubt I’d be half this active. But there’s just a ton of joy to playing in this band for me. We play more than I ever figured we would, which is cool, and our records are pretty well received among that tiny slice of the world’s population that’s likely to hear them.
SUSAN: I like to say that we pretty much fly underneath the radar… We are grateful for every kind word, and even the unkind one or two. Progress is relative, but we’re certainly happy with where we are in the grander scheme of things. We’re not fighting anyone for our slice of the pie… We’re making our own pie, and it’s damned good.
You’ve become key figures in the Knoxville music scene. So how would you sum up what’s been happening there since your arrival? How have you seen the scene developing? Do you think the town is getting the notoriety it deserves?
TIM: Knoxville has a lot of great music. The scene can be kinda scattered at times, but there’s never any shortage of cool stuff going on. In some ways, it’s kind of a well-kept secret.
SUSAN: One of the first things we noticed about Knoxville, when we started making pathways into the music scene here, was that there were a bunch of people who played music, liked cool music, and who didn’t know each other. If we’ve done anything here at all, I’d like to think it’s that we helped foster a sense of community … that we’re all playing the same three chords, so if you’re playing in 3/4 and I’m playing in 4/4, that’s no reason we can’t help each other out.
You frequently record in Tucson. Why do you choose to record there? What kind of vibe do you get and how does it impact the music?
TIM: Tucson has been kind of a home-away-from-home for our band over the past eight or nine years. Wavelab Studio is just such a great atmosphere for creating. The easy-going vibe reminds me a lot of recording with Mitch Easter, which we’ve done as well. In both instances, you’ve got tons of cool gear, but more importantly you have the right people to challenge you and to also push you further. You know, it’s the people who “get” you, who like your ideas, take them in and then come back with two more.
I’m a big fan of collaborative recording. There are some new studios coming along here in Knoxville, so it’s likely we’ll be doing more recording here as well.
Do the two of you collaborate on the songwriting? How do you develop your material? Do you test it onstage prior to going into the studio?
TIM: We’ve collaborated on songwriting a bunch of different ways. It goes in phases. We’ve sat down, toe to toe, and worked things out. We’ve thrown ideas out and one or the other has taken that idea and run with it. Lately, we’ve both been bringing in mostly complete songs, but we always edit each other. There’s not a lot of sense of “this is MY song” or “this is YOUR song.”
I like giving some of the songs I write to Susan to sing. She has a great knack for making them her own, both vocally and lyrically.
The vast majority of our songs get played live before recording. The exception is when we book studio time and don’t have time to work the songs out live.
SUSAN: Considering how long Tim had been writing songs, it was kinda intimidating for me to show him things that I was writing, so i just started leaving them on his desk on sticky notes. That’s how our collaboration started, and from there it went in every possible direction it could. There’s not a singular way we write… it’s all inspiration.
How does collaborating impact your lives? Some couples find it difficult to separate their work from their home life. How does the arrangement work for you?
TIM: Honestly, I think it’s like breathing for us. It’s not a big dramatic thing. It’s like, “Oh honey, don’t forget we need coffee when you go to the grocery store. And by the way, I’m working on a song. Wanna hear it? Oh, and what do you think about doing this gig on the 11th?”
To my mind, we really are just different halves of one being, so the collaborations are generally pretty smooth and effortless. My name may be the one in the band’s name, but to my mind the Tim Lee 3 is every bit as much Susan’s thing as it is mine.
SUSAN: It really is like breathing… When you’ve been married as long as we have, and you collaborate on everything in life, then music is just a natural part of our day to day existence. I don’t think we could separate it with a crow bar, real or metaphorical.
How would you describe the Tim Lee 3’s musical evolution? Where do you foresee the band going next?
TIM: I’m not sure I can properly answer that. We generally just write the songs, and then give them the leeway to become what they need to become. We don’t really plan things out, we try to trust our instincts and follow whatever muse comes along. We go through phases. There have been times when our live sets involved a lot more guitar solos and longer songs. These days, we tend to keep the songs pretty short and to the point. I do think our records have definitely become more involved and detailed, sonically speaking, since our first one, which was pretty much barebones rock n’ roll. We’ve got some new songs we plan to record soon, and so far they seem a little rootsier and straight up rocking. But who know what’ll happen when we get in the studio?
SUSAN: More cowbell.