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Greta Lee is present, now she hopes she wins

By Joel Bernstein, September 2001

Not everyone who gets tossed into the big "alternative country" tent wants to be there. Some people just want to be alternative, while others just want to be country.

Put Greta Lee into that latter category. As this traditionally oriented country singer self-released her second album, "You Must Be Present To Win," she also made the big move. Lee decided to abandon her status as a big fish in Atlanta's small country pond and move to Nashville to go swimming with the sharks.

"They don't even have a country category in the Atlanta Music Awards," she says just a few days before the scheduled move.

Although Lee's brand of country music seems out of step with Nashville's, Lee says, "I'm going to hope for the best. I personally feel Nashville is changing. I've been there three times a month recently. As a singer and songwriter, I've made some headway. I really think things are turning around. I like Nashville. There are great musicians there. What I'm shooting for is to make a living playing the kind of music I want to."

The reason for the move is right there in the new album's title. Her previous album, 1998's "This Ain't Over Yet," was recorded in Atlanta, produced by her guitar player Jon Byrd, who will make the move with her.

The new one was recorded in Nashville, co-produced by Byrd and Nashville musician Pat Severs.

As they were recording the album and discussing how Lee might succeed among the thousands of performers who try to make it in Nashville, Lee recalls "Pat told me, ŒYou need Tennessee plates on your car, Greta. You must be present to win.'"

In other words, to have any chance of success in Nashville, you have to commit to the city by moving there.

Lee's traditionalism is in view on the cover of her latest album, on which she is decked out in a gaudy Nudie suit. And not just any Nudie suit - this is one that was previously worn by country legend Hank Snow.

"I saw it in a vintage clothing store, and I loved it. It was too expensive to buy, but I rented it for the photo shoot."

Lee, who grew up in South Carolina, got to Atlanta by way of Los Angeles. She got to country music by way of - well, she's not sure how but she knows she was young.

"I don't have any reason why I got country music at an early age. I just loved it. It wasn't like it was playing at my house. One of my best friends was the only other person I knew who loved it. I don't know why I understood all those things they were singing about when I was only 13." (As quaint as the idea might seem today, mainstream country music in the mid 1980's was still adult music.)

It's easier to make headway as a songwriter, and except for a couple of classic country tunes, Lee has written every song on her albums. Lee didn't write songs when she was young, but "I was always a writer. "When there was a class I had to write a paper for I just breezed. In college, I started writing poems. A guy I knew, I would sing a melody to him, and he would come up with the music. Eight years ago, I taught myself to play guitar so I wouldn't have to be dependent on anyone."

Lee drifted to Los Angeles after college. "I knew a guy out there who was producing records, so I went there and put together a demo. It just didn't work because neither one of us knew how to go about getting it to anyone."

Her attitude towards music didn't go over well in L.A. "I wanted to play music and get better. It wasn't going to happen out there. People expected to be paid just to practice."

Lee went to Atlanta because her mother had moved there. "I had a place to stay, but I only planned to stay six months. I'd put a demo together and move to Nashville."

"The guy who was putting my demo together brought Jon Byrd in to play on it. He was with a band called Slim Chance & The Convicts, but I had never heard him play. He plays great honky tonk guitar. I thought ŒWhoa, this guy gets what I'm doing.' "

Having a producer who understood her music was especially important on the album recorded in Atlanta. "We had to struggle to keep it from being pop because the musicians only knew pop and rock."

Lee is happier with the new album "We've been on the road playing these songs. It's who I am. It's a clean record."

Some ears hear a few Kelly Willis inflections in her vocals. Lee says, "Some people compare me to her. I think it's because I'm doing a real roots kind of record. I like her, but I'm not influenced by her. I don't think I resemble anyone, which is kind of the problem."

Lee may have a more basic problem fitting in with modern Nashville. "Some people think I can't write a happy song. I can. I just don't sound happy when I'm singing them."

But as Lee says in lamenting that her idol Merle Haggard can't get on the radio anymore, "Good music is good music." And if things do change in Nashville, Lee intends to be in on it.