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Nashville Scene A Survivor's Tale

Phil Lee's raucous tunes are stranger than fiction, and funnier too

By Michael McCall

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Phil Lee has a perfectly good explanation why it took him three decades to release his first album: "It always seems to go back to alcohol and women," he says, feigning seriousness for a few seconds. That's about how long he can stifle the mischievous grin that he wears as naturally as his taut, grizzled skin and his stringy, gray-streaked hair. He's endured a hard-knock life, but the North Carolina native avoids the usual bellyaching that most struggling veterans issue when discussing the music business. Lee, for one, is ready to accept blame.

"I had an ill-defined sense of danger," he says of his past, which included lengthy stints in New York and Los Angeles, where he had a few near-miss runs in semi-popular bands. "For way too long in my life, I was always into trying something. I felt like I could do something, no matter how stupid or illegal, and I wasn't going to get killed or sent to jail for 25 years. I was good at getting out of jams. But at some point, you wake up and everybody around you has been handed down some kind of sentence."

Standing at about an inch or so over 5 feet and weighing in at 110 pounds, Lee gets by these days with a personable mixture of optimism, sarcasm, and self-deprecation. At age 48, this Nashville resident no longer drinks, and last year he gave up his big-rig truck-driving job because his music career started building momentum. Now, finally, after all these years, he's celebrating the release of his first album, The Mighty King of Love, which came out Jan. 11 on Shanachie Records, a well-regarded New York independent label.

Writing songs like a cross between Hank Williams Jr. and Bob Dylan, and fronting a band that sounds like a redneck Rolling Stones, Lee is already starting to reap critical acclaim from those who like roadhouse, country-flavored rock with a lot of backbeat and cranked-up, chunky guitar riffs. His colorful songs include "A Night in the Box," in which he tries to lure a new acquaintance back to his trailer by bragging about how hard it rocks; "I'm the Why She's Gone," in which he explains to a friend why he stole his gal; "Somebody Oughta Do Something About That Guy," in which he complains that his ex-girlfriend's new man gets away with treating her even worse than he did; and "She Ran Out of Give (Before I Ran Out of Take)," a self-explanatory honky-tonk weeper.

Throughout, Lee depicts rough-and-tumble stories of love and emotional struggle with a mix of honesty and humor. Even in his most exaggerated and blatantly novel tunes, he comes off sounding cunning and smart--he's clearly writing from experience. Take "Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs," or, "The Trash, It Is White." A rollicking, loose-limbed Cajun rocker, the song is a cheeky portrait of a low-life redneck who speaks of his trashy mate in alternately loving and lacerating terms--with references to Jean Paul Sartre and a chorus in French, no less. "Is she pretty? No she's not. Is she sleazy? Yeah, so what? Let us be, les debris, ils sont blancs," Lee sings with perfectly exaggerated theatrics. "I can't take her anywhere, but I do 'cause I don't care."

Of his songs, he says with typical aplomb, "Most of it's true, but a lot of it I made up." The same could be said about the stories he tells: He offhandedly mentions being shot by an ex-wife, but when pressed about it, he quips, "Let's not go into that. I don't think there's a statute of limitations on attempted murder. Besides, back in those days, I was almost faster than a speeding bullet." He play-acts dodging a shot and getting plugged in his side, gasping with pain as if remembering the incident. Then he smiles and shakes his head, adding, "Sometimes I tell these stories, and it's like talking about somebody else."

Anyway, that's all in the past, Lee reiterates. "I'm playing it pretty safe these days. I'm not asking for trouble anymore. Not much happens to you when you're lying there watching the Matlock Marathon in the burglar-alarm district."

For the first time in his life, Lee says, he's in a happy and sane marriage "to absolutely the best woman." Unprompted, he launches into a description: "She's beautiful, she works at a bank, she's a great cook--she goes on these baking frenzies, that's how I got up to 110--and she looks good in a cheerleader outfit. I tell you, we go into restaurants and get a lot of looks. I usually tell the waiter she's my parole officer."

Lee jokes about his album's impending success, saying things like, "Now that I'm going to be a teen-age idol...." Speaking earnestly, he says he's glad he hooked up with a producer and a group of musicians who grasped what he wanted to do and had the combination of expertise and recklessness that he admires. "It's hard to get that sound, that runka runka thing that I love. A lot of people try to get that sound, but they can't. They play it too straight. But these guys get it. The songs I write are lurchy and kind of stumbly. If you're not precise, it's only better. If it weren't a little out of kilter, it wouldn't sound right."

Producer Richard Bennett, a highly regarded guitarist whose production credits include albums by Kim Richey and Steve Earle, let Lee keep a few soulful mistakes on tape. Guitarists George Bradfute and Keith Taylor, bassist Lorne Rall, and drummer Craig Wright also enjoyed the rock 'n' roll abandonment that the bandleader encouraged.

"Not that there's anything wrong with the motor skills of my band," Lee says. "Every one of them can play their asses off. There's world-class playing on my record. But they know how to get that runka runka thing. They don't mind playing it real loose. And I'm at the top of my game when I get a band that can get that down."

Now Lee is ready to get out and travel again. Only this time, he figures he'll limit his reckless behavior to what's happening onstage. "I still like rocking out," he explains. "I still like the illusion of danger. I'm still a thrill seeker, only now I'm fairly cautious about it. I'm going to be down for the count this time."

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