The last track on fiddler Cady Finlayson's album of traditional Irish music, Harp and Shamrock, is called "Madness in His MethodFor Hunter Lee," a striking and haunting poem written by Elkin Brown, an English instructor at Volunteer State Community College. Brown is a member of The Rogues, a collective of musicians who gather biweekly at Sherlock Holmes Pub to play Irish music, and Hunter Lee was a frequent guest.
At the time of his death in the fall of 2003, Lee, who was 32, had been a fixture on Nashville's Irish music scene for the better part of a decade. He played many instruments well, but was known most for his work on uilleann (pronounced "illin") pipes, an instrument similar to the more common Highland bagpipes, but played with a bellows that is attached to the elbow and squeezed, instead of with the mouth.
Friends and colleagues describe Lee with a reverent intensity: he was elusive, immediate, charming, menacing, brilliant and bewitching, often all at once. As Brown recites the first stanzaover the sound of Lee playing "This Old Hammer" on his pipes (an outtake from an earlier recording project)a portrait emerges, not so much human as spectral, a will-o'-the-wisp here briefly to stir a few souls:
Just when you start to think
he's here, nopeover there,
and when you think he's there, you're wrong,
"I'm way beyond," says he, and
when you're sure he's long gone, don't
look now, he's at your doorstep
such is the madness in his method.
Hunter Lee had impressive credentials. In addition to his work with Irish music groups Ceili Rain and Secret Commonwealth, he recorded with Wynonna Judd, Rodney Crowell, Michael W. Smith, Phil Keaggy and Willy DeVille. He even had the dubious honor of doing a world tour in John Tesh's band, though Lee's outlandish behavior brought that job to an early end.
Successful or not, Lee had an unyielding self-destructive streak, exacerbated by a head injury suffered in a fall from a scaffolding while rigging lights for a concert in the late 1990s. Periodic seizures followed, and Lee's hard-living and hand-to-mouth existence weren't always conducive to taking his anti-seizure medication. The injury, along with the death of his mother, took its toll, and Lee wound up homeless, usually staying in Centennial Park.
Multi-instrumentalist Roy "Futureman" Wooten first came across Hunter Lee while looking for a bagpipe player for a recording project. Wooten was so bowled over by Lee, musically and personally, that the album, Seamless Script, became a sort of tribute to him and featured him prominently. "He was tortured, but brilliant," Wooten recalls fondly, "kind of like a comet, coming at earth's atmosphere too fast and at too sharp an angle."
Filmmaker Jeff Wilson takes on an almost manic tone when reminiscing about Leepicture Dennis Hopper's Apocalypse Now character discussing Col. Kurtz. Wilson shot quite a bit of film of Lee, in hopes of making a documentary. "Before I met him, I used to see him on Elliston Place, always in his sleeveless British flag T-shirt. He could be a bit intimidating. He reminded me of Vincent van Gogh, reborn as a modern-day musician."
And when you think he dreams
in white, guess what? It's black-on-black.
Gazes into skies of blue, well
no they're grayish purple, or
into deep-orange sunset? Sorry, no,
it's just piss-yellow
such are the colors in his rainbow.
Wilson's footage captures Lee in his element: on the streets, at Sherlock Holmes, recording in a friend's living room. At various times he comes across as a madman, an oracle, a concerned friend, a rambling drunk. He's a cross between John Malkovich and an Irish biker, at times looking like he's about to either hug you or kill you. Eccentricities aside, when he plays his pipes, it is spellbinding: mysterious yet immediate, mournful yet uplifting, defiant yet vulnerablelike Lee himself.
Percussionist and producer Jim Roberts befriended Lee after they worked on a few sessions together. "He would leave his pipes and whistles with me," Roberts recalls, "because he was afraid they'd be stolen out on the streets. He always spoke with a thick Irish accent, so I assumed he was from Ireland. After he died, I found out he was actually from Mississippi."
"That accent was no affectation," explains Bill Verdier, a member of The Rogues. "The music and the culture meant so much to him, he just became that. He drew things out of those pipes I'd never heard anyone play."
Lee moved to New Orleans some time in 2002. Details on his final months are sketchy, though apparently his pipes and whistles were stolen shortly before his death, which was the result of a seizure. Several friends cited the theft of his instruments as the death knell.
Brown expresses regret over never getting the opportunity to show Lee the poem. "I actually wrote it in 2001," Brown says, "while he was still alivejust after the last time I saw him. He seemed like he was in better shape, and I wrote it thinking, 'Don't die, dammit!' " The last two stanzas read almost as an incantation against an inevitable conclusion.
And when you start concluding he's
a stone no one can budge, or
pull a magic sword from, or
roll up a hill, and
when you're case-closed certain
the ghost has given up on him, and you're
just about to holler
"He's a stiff! Tag and bag him!"
he jumps up, full-moon-eyed,
to rant, to rave, to cry,
ancient prayers in every breath
(two-times strong as any death)
such is the fire down in the deep-freeze.
At one point in Wilson's footage, Lee looks at the camera. "You may not miss me now," he says impishly, "but you will when I'm gone."
Cady Finlayson's Harp and Shamrock is available at cdbaby.com.
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