It'd be worth the 12 bucks just to sit in the living room and listen to Phil Lee, roots rocker/long-haul trucker/new grandfather and the guy that Nashville writer Peter Cooper calls "the Don Rickles of disenfranchised nashtwang," tell stories. He can explain his role in the Michael Schenker Group video for "Rock Will Never Die" and detail how he wrote the theme song for the National Dirt Track Racing Association. Then there's the one about somehow getting booked to play a "Tribute to the Legends of Motown" show. When asked to describe his second album, 2001's You Should Have Known Me Then, he chuckled out probably the shortest answer of his colorful career: "Same shit, different flies." There's a good chance that he had to be talked out of using that summation for the record's title. Either that or Leprechaun Cadaver. (See the album cover for clarification.) Lee once dated Miss Dutch Treat, you know, and the former cigar temptress is now a psychologist in Cary. (Names have been concealed to protect the accredited.) He might even talk a little about late B-movie goddess Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, his one-time girlfriend and drummer. Lee and his band playing some tunes between tales would be gravy.
Make no mistake, though. It's an appealingly salty gravy and one with a recipe perfected by almost 40 years in the business. What often gets lost in the outrageous sound bites and spicy bio (as it nearly does here) is that Phil Lee is a top-shelf songwriter and musician. His first group won a battle of the bands in 1966, and he left his hometown of Durham five years later to try out New York and Los Angeles, as rockers will do.
He returned to the Triangle in the late '80s and formed Phil Lee & the Sly Dogs, a rock-hearted, country-flavored outfit that was a good six years ahead of the alt-country curve. That band's "I Don't Like What You Have Turned Into" remains one of this area's top ten musical accomplishments, the perfect meeting of the Stones and rhinestones. Lee split for Nashville in '93, where he remains headquartered, and it was there that he released his Richard Bennett-produced debut Mighty King of Love at age 49. Rock and country are the twin pillars on both his albums, but he dips into much of what he's absorbed over the years. Calling on everything from Merseybeat to "Mercy Mercy" beat, Lee has made his records both iconoclastic and icon-celebrating (Hank Sr. and Jr., the Carter Family, Dylan). Through it all, Lee displays his trademark mix of self-deprecation and hard-earned confidence.
"I've taken kind of a wild turn in some departments," Lee tells me while talking about some of his new songs, "because I've been listening to a lot of Jimmy Durante. If Durante can do it, so can I. We've got the same two-note range."
When asked to name some of his favorite musical moments, there's a bit of silence, typically a stranger in Phil Lee interviews, before he offers, "Making those records with Richard Bennett and finally getting a record deal after all those years. I'd pretty much written it off at that point." He continues, "Let's see, my first fan mail. My first royalty check. The royalty check I got today. Now that was a great moment."
Tell us another one, Phil, and then sing us another one.
Phil Lee and band play an Afternoon Nap house concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 23. See www.afternoonnap.org for ticket information.