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Truck driver becomes the "Mighty King of Love"

By Brian Steinberg, March 2000

Phil Lee just had one of those quintessential Nashville moments. He heard one of his songs on the radio.

"It's the same station that's playing John Prine, Tom Waits and a lot of Indigo Girls," he crows over the phone. "I'm going, `Whoa!' It's got a lot of good stuff. I was surprised when they picked it up. It's a thrill. It's a big thrill. Someone was talking to me on the phone, and I said, 'You gotta shut up. I'm about to have a stroke here.'"

You've just met the irrepressible Phil Lee, the former truck driver (well, okay, he still hauls a rig on occasion), who is hoping to take a musical stand.

Hell, even Lucinda Williams is singing his praises.

Why not stay for a while? With a new album on the indie label Shanachie, "The Mighty King Of Love," out in record store racks, it may be time to pull up a chair.

A basic, rootsy affair, "King" was produced by Richard Bennett, the man who had a hand in the early Steve Earle success, "Guitar Town." Lee doesn't sound like he carries Earle's demons around, however.

He recalls the initial album sessions as pretty freewheeling: "We just started making it, without any real end in mind, other than to make a pretty cool record," Lee says. "Richard popped in. Before you guys hurt yourselves, let me get involved here."

Even with a professional at the board, Lee and cohorts were pretty free to pursue their own ends. In fact, Lee attributes the album's looseness to the fact that he and his band "didn't have any kind of a record company breathing down our neck."

And the open road still called. "I was driving a big truck then," he says. "I had to stop and make a living every three or four days, but we got the thing done."

Initial response to his work was somewhat lackluster, he says. "We went around to see who would put it out, and nobody would," he says. "The question: Was it a rock and roll record, or was it a country record? And I always gave them the wrong answer."

Well, the answer depends on who you are and what era of rock and country you recall. "The Mighty King Of Love" sports playful tunes like "I'm The Why She's Gone," or the straight-barreling "A Night In The Box." How about the Duane Eddyesque rumble of "Blueprint For Disaster"? Or the heartbreak tone of the title track?

Lee specializes in twangy rave-ups, but never loses the yearning sound good country songs always conjure. Hey, it's got a beat and a twang. If that makes music uncategorizable, then maybe it's time to get a new category.

It's not like Lee is new to the ups and downs of the record business. He was born in 1951, and just took to music as quickly as he could. "I got a full blast of Elvis and Buddy Holly and Rosemary Clooney," he says.

From there, it was on to playing in a bunch of what he describes as "kid bands," one of which ended up with a longstanding stint on a program called "Homer Briarhopper and the Daybreak Gang. Lee and cohorts opened up for the daily farm report, doing country songs and a handful of hymns. The group would also play on weekends, he recalls, doing mobile home openings and the like.

New York beckoned, and Lee had "a pretty good career" playing in a band that included actors Beverly D'Angelo and Hank DeVito. He left the Big Apple for the Left Coast, ending up working with Jack Nietzche, the famous producer of Neil Young. Lee also says he did a few things with the legendary and mercurial singer-songwriter. "I was always playing music," he says. California kept him occupied for about 9 or 10 years.

Now he's set to tour behind the new disc - "anything I can get my hands on at this point," he says. He recently completed a stint playing in Europe. He was "a real American in a cowboy hat in a cool suit," he recounts. "It definitely worked in my favor."

And it can definitely offer more rewards than playing in Nashville, he says, where everyone seems to have a guitar and a song. "When David Olney wants to spend some quality time alone," Lee says, referring to the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, "he books a gig in Nashville."

For the near future, Lee expects to keep the music flowing. "It's all coming up petunias at this point. The songwriting thing has taken off," he says. "I don't know who it is buying this record, but at least they're playing it on the radio."