THREE OCTAVES LOW, SIGHTS SET HIGH: Phil Lee

Phil Lee

Tarheel-born and currently residing in Nashville, the veteran Americana singer-songwriter talks about his new album, a film and a concert DVD, and a little ol’ band known as Crazy Horse.

 BY EDDIE HUFFMAN

            Phil Lee is no Bad Blake, even if he plays a singer in an upcoming movie who might have traded slugs from a whiskey bottle with Jeff Bridges’ character in the movie Crazy Heart. In real life, Lee left that kind of excess behind decades ago.

            “I wouldn’t say I eat right, but I certainly don’t smoke – never have,” Lee says, speaking by phone from the home in East Nashville he shares with his wife, Maggie. “I haven’t had a drink in 30 years. I’ve got mental problems, but I don’t think they can kill you. I might kill other people.”

            He grew up in Durham, North Carolina, the son of a county jailer, and began his career as a teenager playing drums on TV for Homer Briarhopper and the Daybreak Gang before the morning farm report. He went on to a life of rock ‘n’ roll excess in New York and L.A. in the 1970s and ‘80s before cleaning up and making a name for himself as a lively roots-rocker with a wicked sense of humor.

            Lee’s past is well-documented. But at 61, he has plenty of new developments to talk about, starting with his fourth album, The Fall and Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love. (Not to mention the movie appearance, a live DVD, an impending move to California, and a planned album with Crazy Horse.) Beyond the kind of decrepit-old-man joke Lee has been telling on himself for at least two decades, the title of the new record is a reference to Lee’s first official album in 2000. The Mighty King of Love appeared after years in the wilderness.

            “I have never been successful, so I don’t know what it’s like to have it jerked out from under you,” he says. “Man, I’m making 300 bucks a night. Sometimes a thousand bucks a night! You can buy a lot of Beanee Weenees with that.”

            Lee worked hard to get a toehold in the music business, driving a truck for Neil Young on the Rust Never Sleeps and Trans tours, putting out self-released cassettes, and chasing evanescent gigs like a brief stint in the early ‘90s when he fronted a reunion of several original Flying Burrito Brothers. More than once he put his music “on the ol’ back burner,” to borrow a line from the Dylanesque title track to “The Mighty King of Love.” For awhile he hauled meat for the Tennessee Dressed Beef Company, but the music always called him back. Moving to Nashville in the mid 1990s helped him establish a modest level of success, connecting him with a network of outstanding musicians and providing a stable home base from which to tour the United States and Europe. He records in Music City with help from people like guitarist-producer Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Marty Stuart, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Mark Knopfler, et al), former Uncle Tupelo/Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist/engineer George “The Tone Chaperone” Bradfute.

            “He used to live down the street from me, and he just came and knocked on my door one day and said, ‘Hey, let’s make a record,’” Bradfute says. “I’ve been helping him out with all these records since then.”

            The Fall and Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love was recorded at The Tone Chaparral, just northeast of Nashville in Madison, Tenn. – AKA Bradfute’s basement. It’s in a ranch house that country music legend Jim (“He’ll Have to Go”) Reeves called home before his death in a 1964 plane crash. Most of the album was recorded live in a whirlwind session over a couple of days.

            “Phil sounds like he’s a real spontaneous guy and he is, but he really works on that stuff,” Bradfute says. “He really will work on all the little nuances that you think are just something off the cuff.”

            Like its predecessors, Lee’s new album ranges all over the stylistic and emotional map. “Few people can write about misery with a sense of joy, but Phil Lee understands the inherent worth of both ends of the spectrum and has a unique way of reflecting that range in his well worn songs,” Brian Baker writes in a Country Standard Time review of The Fall and Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love.

            The album kicks off with the slow, Stonesy blues of “I Hated to See You Go” before moving on to the gospel-tinged moan of “Chloe,” the ‘60s-style go-go pop of “I Like Everything,” and the Tex-Mex swing of “She Don’t Let Love Get In the Way.” There are plenty of examples of Lee’s trademark mix of playful swagger and self-deprecating humor: On one track, he sings, “You may want to see me nekkid – many people do,” but elsewhere he refers to himself as “Grampy Lee.” There’s no mistaking a Phil Lee record.

            “I’m the only one doing that, which is good – I’m the only guy you can get that shit from,” he says. “There’s a finite number of people who would rather listen to me.”

            But Lee’s music has also taken a turn to darker, weightier material in recent years. His previous album, 2009’s So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You, kicked off with “25 Mexicans,” a song that starts on a light note before putting the listener in the shoes of a truck driver who left his smuggled human cargo to die in the south Texas heat. (Based on a real-life incident from 2003.) The new record’s darkest moment comes on “Cold Ground,” in which the singer’s laments are countered by a series of voices asking, “Is there something I can do?” (In the liner notes, Joy Lynn White, David Olney, and Chris Wilson are credited as the “Concerned funeral attendees.”)

            “Well, maybe there is,” Lee responds. “You can make this sadness cease, breathe life back into the deceased.”

            The song, Lee says, resulted from “walking past a lotta caskets,” including the one that held the young wife of a former bandmate: “I just answered the question, ‘What can I do?’ Not a fuckin’ thing. Just tell God I can’t take it.”

            The past half decade has been “a sad five years,” Lee says, but he has experienced some positive transitions, as well. He acted on the silver screen for the first time in a forthcoming movie called The One Who Loves You (www.theonewholovesyoumovie.com; view the trailer above, and a clip featuring Lee, below), currently making the rounds at film festivals, and he contributed several songs to the soundtrack. It’s set in the ‘70s and has a feel similar to Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” Lee says.

            “I play a crusty, washed out, burnt out star from the ‘60s,” he says. “Basically I play an old guy playing guitar in a hotel room. That also is not a real stretch.”

            Lee is the star of the show in a forthcoming DVD – a concert video recorded at The Purple Onion in San Francisco, a club that’s been around as long as the singer. Many legendary comedians performed there at the beginning of their careers, including Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Phyllis Diller. In 2005, actor/comedian (and fellow North Carolinian) Zach Galifianakis recorded his own DVD at the club.

            “It was the place back in the ‘50 and ‘60s,” Lee says.

            It won’t be his last West Coast gig. He and his wife own a house near Big Sur and Carmel, and they’re in the process of making it their permanent residence. “I can see sea islands from the porch,” he says. He plans to take the train up and down the coast to play solo gigs. Just over the hill from Casa Lee stands the home of Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina, an old buddy from Lee’s days driving a truck for Neil Young. Lee was set to record his latest album with the legendary band, but Young called them out on the road shortly after the sessions began. Lee already has a set of new songs ready to go for his fifth album when Crazy Horse gets home from their world tour.

       “It’s unmistakably me and totally them,” he says. “They do that one thing. It’s hilarious – it sounds like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, only Neil ain’t feelin’ too good that day. His voice is, like, three octaves too low.”

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