Songwriters being mistaken for the people they sing about is an occupational hazard. In Phil Lee’s case, the “hazard” part is not an abstraction — thanks to songs such as “I’m The Why She’s Gone”, in which the first-person narrator drops an astoundingly cold-blooded bombshell: “You say you couldn’t feel no worse, there I’d say you’re wrong/She left because I asked her to, I’m the why she’s gone.”
“That song about got my butt kicked,” Lee admits. “My roommate at the time heard it and got just mad as hell: ‘You little so and so, I didn’t think you even knew her!’ ‘Hey, I don’t!’ Man, if I ever hear that one on the radio, I’m gonna just leap off the first insurance building I come to. I listened to it again for the first time in a while the other day, and good God, I hope that never happens to me. Phil Lee, you bastard! Somebody oughta do somethin’ about that guy!”
Phil Lee quotes himself a lot. But you would, too, if you wrote songs such as “Somebody Oughta Do Something About That Guy”, one of the baker’s dozen tales of debauchery and woe on Lee’s stellar debut The Mighty King Of Love (Shanachie Records). The album chronicles the sordid misadventures of the most colorful bunch of trailer park misfits this side of the Bottle Rockets, accompanied by savvy bar-band roots-rock.
The Mighty King Of Love has been a long time coming, given that Lee is pushing 50 and is only now putting out his first real record. His career goes back to the early ’60s, when at age 12, Lee played drums for Homer Briarhopper & the Daybreak Gang in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“We’d open for the farm news with Vern Strickland at 6 a.m.,” Lee recalls. “We’d play some country tunes with guest artists and so forth, then Vern would come on with the hog futures, then we’d play some more. All for 65 bucks a week. The highlight of my career — fan mail, the whole deal. It’s been all downhill ever since.”
In the ensuing decades, Lee says he’s played “every honky-tonk from here to Cuba.” Between stints on both coasts and Nashville, Lee crossed paths with Neil Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers and even Saul “Slash” Hudson (this was before Guns N’ Roses). “Yeah, I let the kid sit in with my band as a favor to his dad,” Lee says. “Now if he’d only seriously consider loaning me some money…”
By the mid-’80s, Lee was back in North Carolina, where much of The Mighty King Of Love took shape before he picked up and moved to Nashville in the early ’90s. Some of the album’s songs go back decades. The Tom Petty-ish stomp-along rocker “A Night In The Box”, for example, has been around long enough that the lyrical reference to “hot plate” has been updated to “microwave.”
But Lee isn’t coasting, because the newer songs are the ones that really register. The aforementioned “I’m The Why She’s Gone” is both funny and horrifying, while “One Day When Nobody’s Watching” offers a more gentlemanly version of a similar scenario. And the album’s title track is simply amazing, an eerily precise evocation of early Bob Dylan that sounds more like channeling than imitation.
“I was sitting around mad at somebody and just ripped that one off,” Lee says. “You know, ‘Come with us back to 1962.’ It was pretty shameless. I played it at home that way, recorded on a cassette, and had no idea it would actually get onto this record. We kept trying to do it better in the studio, and it was only getting worse. And [producer Richard Bennett] finally said, ‘What the hell are we doing? Let’s just put it on there the way it is.’”
For the time being, the biggest problem Lee is likely to have is people wondering just how many of the exploits in these songs are true. They have verisimilitude and just a slight edge of danger, in part because of the messenger’s physical presence. Onstage, the slight-statured Lee carries himself with a swagger that is simultaneously cool, self-deprecating and hilarious.
“The hard part is to knock off being ‘Phil Lee,’” he says. “It’s a character, a creation, and that Phil Lee guy has gotten Phillip Pearson into a world of trouble — although not so much since I quit drinkin’, even though there are still times I sit back and go, ‘What the hell was I thinkin?’ But being Phil Lee sort of gets me off the hook. Part of my job is to cause trouble everywhere I go.”
There are also, Lee confesses, times when both his personas do merge.
“From girlfriends, I get a lot of, ‘Who’s that one about?’” he says. “Er, it’s about nobody, something I saw on TV. Or a lot of times, when songs are about real people, they’re maybe about a situation I wish would happen, but I don’t have the nerve. I’d leave town first. In fact…well, I did leave town. People ask why I came to Nashville; because I had to leave the town I was in. That was a little touch and go.
“But let’s leave that part out, okay?”