There may come a time in the very near or slightly far future when Nashville no longer has Phil Lee. The Mighty King of Love has been here 15 years, he says, and fate is luring him to Northern California. On a laptop in his home studio, he calls forth the magic of Google. Its crystal ball produces a GPS-coordinated shot of shimmering waves, a crab scuttling faintly in silhouette and a distant fishing dock. This will be Phil Lee's view when he leaves Nashville.
But where does that leave us? Music City has always relied on scufflers and characters who toil just below the radar to keep us honest. We can crow all we want about our showing on the Grammys or our travel-section smooch jobs, but what keeps our heads from swelling is somebody like Phil Lee — a roadhouse rounder who for many years supplemented his meager gigging by making meat runs to Tampa, while cutting one of the very best singer-songwriter albums ever recorded here: 2001's You Should Have Known Me Then. Lee has just recorded another, The Fall & Further Decline of the Mighty King of Love. So why pick now to split? Is he the latest talent to have his dreams flattened? Oddly, he says not.
"Nashville is full of opportunities," Lee says, sipping coffee while surrounded by toaster-sized ZT amps, guitars, a wicked-looking tribal ax. "If you look at my quality of life, how things worked out, I'm not mad or anything." He insists that he'll always return to work with his favored recording team: producer Richard Bennett and engineer George Bradfute, guitar aces both, joined here by drummer Ken Coomer and bassist Dave Roe.
The Fall was initially planned with two-thirds of Neil Young's primo garage band Crazy Horse, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. Tracks from their sessions pack a fabulous sludgy wallop, and one hopes they'll see daylight (under "Phil Lee and the Horse He Rode In On"). But when the scheduling didn't work out, Lee eventually came back to Nashville and recut songs with Bennett, Bradfute and friends including Dave Olney, Peter Cooper, Tom Mason and Joy Lynn White.
It's a slow burner of a record, starting with a grungy lament, "I Hated to See You Go," whose first line typifies Lee's wit at its most brusque: "When you left, I said, 'At last' / I gave you 20 bucks for gas." The grinding rockers yield to the galloping kiss-off "Every Time," a series of cut-downs that escalate with eviscerating hilarity: "Every time I see you nude / I wanna give your number to another dude."
The record peaks in a one-two punch of pure ribald joy: an irresistible rave-up called "I Like Everything," powered by cooing call-and-response vocals and Jen Gunderman's dizzy Farfisa organ, which begs for go-go dancers doing the Hully Gully; and a delightfully slithery rumba, "She Don't Let Love Get in the Way," which showcases Bennett's light-fingered cantina-band licks. In a perfect world, they'd earn Lee the breakthrough he's deserved since his early days in 1970s Los Angeles.
Lee has a supporting role and several songs in an upcoming indie feature, The One Who Loves You, shot last year in Denver. (In a major stretch, he says, he plays a grizzled old singer.) Sharp-eyed viewers can also catch him often in ABC's Nashville — in a poster behind singers at the show's replica Bluebird. In the meantime, he's embarking solo on what he calls the Never-Ending Tour.
"In Nashville, it's like, how do you get a musician to complain? You hire 'em," Lee says, riffing with mock spleen. "The minute you say, 'OK, I'm the bandleader,' then you're the enemy — then it's, 'The Whiny Feetdraggers tonight featuring Phil Lee.' You always end up owing somebody an apology." More seriously, he says money's behind his frequent road dates.
"As much as I need the 25 bucks [playing here], I could go to Springville, Ala., and make 300 bucks," Lee says. "And that's just me and the Resonator and the trusty Martin there. I mean, there's a whole shift that's happened where nobody seems to be doing as well as they were doing. I'm doing better. But I see a lot of the arena guys doing theaters, theater guys doing clubs."
Soon, though, that won't matter. He'll be hanging on the beach in Cali, threatening to lower the quality of life by wearing his wetsuit. He'll have the El Gran Amigo taco stand nearby. He'll have Ralph Molina as his neighbor. Life sounds sweet. When he leaves, is there anything Phil Lee will miss about Nashville?
"Yeah," he says, smiling wistfully. "Everything."
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