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Phil Lee & The Horse He Rode In On
In this day of calculated some-assembly-required Americana nimrods strutting around in Civil War outfits, rodeo garb, and ripped jeans declaring themselves outlaws and poets, Phil Lee stands out like a Krugerand in a pile of tarnished pesos. A former truck driver with a penchant for throwing knives to keep his head in the right place, Lee managed to escape Durham, North Carolina with his drum kit and guitars before the authorities felt the need to restrain his activities. After further adventures and misadventures, Lee eventually fell in with Neil Young’s organization where, with that CDL of his, he drove the Rust Never Sleeps props around, performed as Young’s party band on a few special occasions, and became part and parcel of the whole organism that is Crazy Horse.
On his latest album, Lee teams up with old Crazy Horse pals and California neighbours Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) -- “the horse he rode in on,” get it? The core threesome is augmented by legendary keyboard wiz Barry Goldberg (Electric Flag, Steve Miller Band) and guitar slinger Jan King. Add-ons include long time cohort and guitar maestro Richard Bennett (Neil Diamond, Mark Knofler), twang guru Bill Kirchen, Bill Lloyd of Foster and Lloyd fame, slide guitarist David Weeks, keyboardist and another long time associate Jack Irwin, guitarists Dorian Michael and George Bradfute, and singers Molly Pasutti and Taryn Engel. Molina, Talbot, and Lee laid the basic tracks at Painted Sky Studio in Cambria, CA, then let the cast fill in a few holes. Jake Berger and Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam) add their guitars to one track. Lee says the biggest problem with the creative process was getting people “to stop fixing it.”
Lee has been at this long enough -- his first Shanachie album Mighty King of Love dropped in 1999 -- to subscribe to Vince Bell’s adage, “The first time it’s art, the second time it’s show biz.” His view on fixing everything? “It’s Crazy Horse, not Tidy Horse, for Christsakes.” He uses “Bad For Me” as an example.
“This is my personal favourite. It’s a personal song anyway but I dig how we played as if we were all buying into it and all mad as hell by the end. And heartbroken. Wild and mercurial and nowhere near perfect, it starts out low key and confidential but because we cut it live and can hear each other and feel the emotion, the song was gradually able to build to a seething, guitar-smashing crescendo. Also, because we hadn’t really talked about how to end it, we just ran out of steam at the end. We could’ve faded it easy, but I’m glad we didn’t. It would have been wrong. It’s this soul-deep empathy that keeps Big Daddy Neil coming back for more. They feel it like you feel it, they aren’t phoning it in. It’s not about the paycheck.”
Indeed one of the album’s greatest charms is its ragged, dangerous, we-could-be-in-jail-soon feel. But as always, Lee brings the words that make us pay attention and climb deep into the all-to-familiar, all-to-common scenarios of friendship and love, of the attainment and the loss. And the damage. A master of sly-dog observation and telling regional colloquialisms, Lee throws out lines none of today’s Americana wannabes could. “I was kickin’ down some doors / I was in my party drawers / Where were you when all of that was going on?” Lee even remakes the title track from his first album, “The Mighty King of Love” and the newer version finds him in a reflective, 4 a.m. frame of mind, the impish smart-ass persona of the original replaced by a man who’s seen the damage love can do and is still feeling the aftershocks. Some of Lee’s characters are survivors, but there’s accompanying wreckage that can’t be put entirely out of mind. Both “Turn to Stone” and “Wake Up Crying” work this ever fertile psychic turf.
And about this Americana thing: Phil Lee isn’t a guy who would run that flag up, but he is as Americana as Jim Lauderdale or Buddy Miller. Why? Because Lee mines the great American musical traditions. The Carter Family or Johnny Cash could cover most of these tunes, but so could Otis Redding or Jerry Lee Lewis. While Lee’s musical veneer may be country-folk in the main, there’s a deep underlying soulful elemental core that gives the music power and gravity. Put on your headphones and run a needle through “Bad For Me” and tell me Otis Redding wouldn’t smile. And, anyway, you don’t fly your Americana flag by running through the opening riff of “My Generation” before sliding into a cool country lope like Lee manages on “Wake Up Crying,” which sounds like what happened when hillbillies discovered the Yardbirds.
And another thing: Phil may mostly do acoustic gigs these days but the boy still has the rock and roll bone. On “My Man Is Gone,” Goldberg throws boogie sparks from his piano while guitarists Bradfute and King turn it to 11 and reach for the heavens. Two songs that old fans will gravitate towards are polar opposites, the George Jones-ish lament “I Don’t Forget Like I Used To” (which Lee describes as perfect for those who prefer their country music to sound “like that honky tonk strip joint band from The Seventh Veil on Sunset Boulevard and it was, let’s say, 1966”) and one of those anthems that goes to the human bedrock, “Rebel In My Heart.” Written by Brendan Earley of the San Francisco Mutants, the song gets to our deepest internal conflicts and how we function. King makes dangerous runs on her guitar while Molina, Talbot, and Goldberg propel the track along with the deliberate but unstoppable force that recalls another dark Lee masterpiece, “Babylon.”
Phil has been teasing me (and I assume others) for years with photos of him and various outlaws posing outside studio doors in some sunny California parking lot, always with the proviso that “I’m working on a record with the guys from Crazy Horse.” Well, here it is. Enjoy.
The Mighty King of Love is back.
William Michael Smith
Our own Rob Ellen caught up with Phil recently at his Cayucos home in Morrow Bay California.
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