"I just really enjoyed those hats," Lee says, referring to the headgear displayed on his album covers, which has become something of a trademark for him. "I've lost them. They're gone. They were either stolen from me or I lost them, I don't know. Those two album covers were completely happenstance. Neither of them was meant to create anything. They were just hats I liked to wear."
Lee's certainly got plenty of feathers to put in those caps. With only a couple of self-released EPs under his belt, his career got a big boost in 2003 when Bob Dylan invited him to be an opening act for his tour with Merle Haggard. Lee never ended up getting to meet the vaunted icon, but watching him perform every night proved to be very educational.
"There wasn't a whole lot of that going on," Lee says of spending time with Dylan. "People are always interested in being around charismatic people, so I just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible.
"Most of the direction I got from that experience," he adds, "was from listening to the music every night. It's pretty incredible that somebody who's been playing music on a pretty high level for forty years is still committed to playing as many shows as he does every year — committed to putting the best band together and renewing everything all the time. It's incredible the amount of energy you have to expend to do that. It's a learning experience to be around people who have mastered their art. I didn't powwow so much with anybody as much as I just listened to the shows and tried to learn as much as I could about the overall feeling from the people who were on the tour."
The studying paid off for the former schoolteacher, who subsequently developed a commanding stage presence of his own — something that would see him through later tours warming up for Van Morrison and Norah Jones. Although his mesh of classic soul, acoustic folk, breezy jazz-tinged inflections and plaintive voice seems mellow and laid-back — even more so when performing solo — Lee's words and ease of delivery command attention.
"You can't expect to create a frenzy like a rock show would or something that would have dynamic power, with light shows or something, but you can connect with people," says Lee. "If people are listening to you, even if there are only 100 people out of 10,000 that listen, it's still a really cool thing. You get to touch those people with your music. I don't come out trying to destroy any audiences; I just come out trying to connect with people."
Lee began making connections long before he was a musician. A Philadelphia native who studied English literature at the University of South Carolina, he learned early on just how powerful words can be in terms of pulling people together, generating action and reaction and making folks think. Although Lee put many of his own thoughts to paper at that time, writing songs never occurred to him. Back then, he wasn't a musician. In fact, he had never even picked up an instrument.
Eventually, though, he scored a cheap guitar and began composing, taking inspiration from Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, John Prine, Dave Van Ronk and Neil Young — as well as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, artists he'd been exposed to while working at a record store during college. Soon, some of his poems became songs. Practicing at home, Lee slowly gained enough confidence to test the waters at a local open-mike night. The response he received was favorable enough to encourage him to keep pursuing his newfound love.
"I was always drawn to music," he notes, "but I wouldn't say I was from a family of artists playing banjos around the house or anything. I listened to the radio, like everyone else. But I hit a turning point when I started playing guitar. I don't know what it was, but I really fell in love with music."
Even so, it took some time before Lee was ready to take a position at the front of the stage, preferring instead to continue standing at the front of the classroom, teaching second-graders back in Philadelphia. But all the while, when he wasn't waiting tables or tending bar to supplement his income, he honed his playing, cultivating his craft with frequent open-mike appearances. "I just paid my rent, waited tables and did my thing," he recalls. "I played my music; that's all I really wanted to do." After three years, the pull of the music won out, and Lee quit teaching to become a full-time musician.
"I feel education is an important building block in self-betterment and getting yourself out of a situation that might not be easy," he declares. "I wanted to be a part of the solution to help that. And I wasn't as much of a helper as I thought. It's a lifetime commitment to get it. You can't teach for a year and make any decisions. I made a decision, and it was that music took over my life. That's where my heart was. That's why I stopped teaching."
Lee's still molding impressionable minds, even though he's not in the classroom anymore. Like any musician with a folk bent, he strives to invoke change and elevate awareness with his music, writing songs that generally reflect a world of unrest: Cities crumble with tension; people walk around with clenched fists, boozing away their troubles, dealing with broken faith and suffering though fear, loneliness and hopelessness.
"Desperation is a feeling you can either let control you or you control it," he says. "I struggle. Who doesn't struggle? Look at everybody around you. Taxicab drivers, schoolteachers, mothers, soldiers or whomever. Everybody is struggling.... I'm only going off what I see around me today.
"My mother's worked since she was sixteen years old," he adds. "I've been raised with certain values, and the value I hold most dear is compassion for other people. I don't always fulfill that, but I'm just trying to keep my eyes open to a lot of what other people are going through. I feel a responsibility as a citizen of this country to have compassion for those who have been less fortunate, because I have been gifted with so much around me. All that desperation and all that isolation [in my songs] is not necessarily caused by my yearning for connection with people, per se, but it's a yearning for myself and other people around me to be a little more aware of others who are less fortunate."
While fans and industry types rave about his smooth vocals and catchy rhythms, Lee is hopeful that the ideals behind his music have lasting and positive effects on listeners.
"I'm just trying to put music out there in an honest way that lets people decide for themselves what is best," he concludes. "I leave it at that."
Hats off to that.