Somewhere in the world there is a conservative country music fan ruing the day that the words ‘punk’ and ‘country’ were ever used in the same context. They’re listening to their collection of long-players safe in the knowledge that the world is just as it should be, that nothing has changed and that those rebellious punk kids haven’t managed to manhandle their beloved old-timey music in a new direction.
God forbid that they ever stumble across the progressive politics of new country artists such as Kacey Musgraves then, or indeed the outlaw-strewn songs of Maryland maverick Stephen Lee.
Lee’s most recent release, The First Three, collects together the singer and songwriter’s first three EPs as a solo artist, material that he recorded after his three year stint fronting DC-area country-punks Who Are The Southern Baptists?
As Lee’s history might suggest, the album is a stripped down, punked-up affair, his smoky rasp of a voice accompanied by minimal arrangements of guitar, banjo and occasional percussion, giving his down-to-earth observations of life’s trials and tribulations room to breathe and space to hit home.
But before you set off running at full-pelt in the wrong direction, no, this doesn’t sound liked The Damned have picked up a banjo and caught the bluegrass bug, but these songs full of heartbreak, ambition and plenty of humour do come tooled-up with a welcome rebellious edge.
“My Sacrifice” is a great example of just such a piece, the slow-burn start building in tension until three-quarters of the way through Lee is thrashing at his guitar like a man possessed, the angst and energy having finally taken hold and erupted in explosive fashion. It’s immediately followed up by the aptly titled and vigorously up-tempo “No Country Song”, in which Lee name-checks his iconoclastic heroes such as the equally insurrectionary Johnny Cash.
Indeed Lee is known for his Springsteen-esque 4-hour plus gigs, during which he delivers not only his delightfully dissident original material, but covers of outlaw classics from the likes of The Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson, Credence Clearwater Rival, George Jones, Neil Young, and other staples from the Great American Song Book.
It’s not all country with a middle finger raised, however. Lee also does a fine line in sublime observational story songs, steeped in heartbreak and pathos. Closing track “Homesick Blues” does exactly what it says on the tin, but in such a way as to make you well up listening to Lee’s full-throated Waitsian ruminations. Fellow musician and Skin Back Alley favourite Matt Woods summed it up beautifully when he said recently of Lee’s work: “Steve has a down to earth and honest way of capturing those moments we all go through and turning them into songs that are destined to stick in your head and rattle around like a ricocheting bullet.”
Eking out a living “loaded up and broken down in a different town each week”, Lee makes no bones about the fact that for all its romanticised mythology, building a career as a troubadour is no easy thing. Fortunately for us hard work and passion win the day, Lee concluding simply in “It Goes All Night”, “…but its all, well it’s all alright.”
Fortunately for us too, Lee’s music is very much more than that.
Stephen Lee is embarking on a series of US tour dates throughout July. You can catch him at the following solo shows and festival events:
02nd Jul: Shepherdstown, WV – Devonshire Arms Café and Pub, 9pm
03rd Jul: Columbus, OH (July Fest Day 3) – Bernie’s Bagels and Deli, 9pm
04th Jul: Chicago, IL (House Party)
07th Jul: Muncie, IN – The Acoustic Room, 8pm
09th Jul: Wynadotte, MI – The Rockery w/ Robert “Fireball” Mitchell, 9pm
10th Jul: Grand Rapids, MI – Tip Top Deluxe w/ Brother Dege Legg, 8pm
14th Jul: Pittsburgh, PA – Howler’s Café, 8pm
16th Jul: Charleston, WV – The Empty Glass, 10pm
19th Jul: Untitled Music Festival, New Castle, VA