Ten years ago Kentucky native Ben Sollee came to prominence singing Sam Cooke while playing the cello. The NPR sensation was not a backwoods novelty. Sollee’s spare, exultant interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” announced the arrival of a relentlessly curious musical soul for whom change constantly comes.
In the decade following Sollee has recorded roughly an album a year (and nearly that many EPs), in a daunting variety of settings. He has played with trance bluesman Otis Taylor, with banjo virtuosos Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck (in the Sparrow Quartet, with Casey Driessen), and collaborated with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, with DJs, acoustic musicians, visual artists, software specialists and environmentalists. He has composed ballets and music for films and for stage. He has helped raise his son and support his family with an ambitious tour schedule. He has cycled 5,000 miles by bike, towing his cello “Kay” behind him as part of the “Ditch The Van” tours.
He has relentlessly made and studied and thought about art and the environment. And life, and how to make the world around him better.
Sollee describes his newest release, Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native (the name describing both the ensemble and the album) as a bluegrass record, fully aware that his is not the traditional view. “Bluegrass music is immigrant music,” he says, offering his expansive definition across the kitchen table. “It’s the music of Irish and Scottish musicians bringing their fiddle tunes; it is gospel music; it is African music; it is gypsy jazz; it is rock ‘n’ roll. It is all these things. What makes it unique and of Kentucky is that it was distilled by the people who lived here in Kentucky, and turned into something else.”
Turned into songs that ache and sing and soar.
Sollee convened his new ensemble in a cabin deep within the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest, south of Louisville. “We cooked for each other and we drank bourbon with each other and we wrote this music together. So it’s kind of in and of a place.”
The band once again includes Sollee’s long-time friend and collaborator (see: their 2016 release, Infowars) Jordon Ellis on percussion. “He’s playing the quietest percussion you could ever imagine,” Sollee says, “but it still sounds really tight and huge. That was kind of inspired by the Tinariwen records.”
The rest of the Kentucky Natives are new to Sollee. Violin and fiddle are courtesy Julian Pinelli, a recent Berkeley graduate. (“Gosh, he’s a big old tall lanky feller, and real quiet, but he plays the fiddle just crazy slinky and beautiful. He can also perk up and rock that classical technique as well.”) Banjo is handled by Bennett Sullivan, fresh off a stint on Broadway in Steve Martin’s “Bright Star.” (“In my opinion, he’s one of the great young banjo players, from the standpoint of his ability to play bebop jazz or slip into really classic Earl Scruggs-style picking.”) Bass duties were split between Jonathan Estes and Josh Hari, with Jona Smith on backing vocals.
“I wanted to make a record that was just humans, sitting in a room, playing instruments of wood and metal,” Sollee says. “That’s all it is. There’s no over-dubs. Sorry, that’s not true. I overdubbed a couple of my vocals. It is just what we played in the living room sitting around microphones. And oftentime we’d start in on an idea, and then before we could move to our microphones, the engineer, Alex [Krispin], would just place the mics around us. And that was part of his process, too. He really captured the spontaneity of creation.”
The songs on Kentucky Native also beautifully capture Sollee’s evolving approach to the issues which sometimes frame his work. “I used to be very message forward in my music,” he says. “Over time, you go out and play shows and talk to people from all different walks of life and you stay with them in their houses and you have food with them. After a while, if you’re listening, it’s hard to maintain any type of stringent devout belief that this is right and this is wrong. And so in that messiness I thought, hmm, maybe my message shouldn’t be about issues, it should be about people.”
“This new record focuses much more maybe simply. It focuses on the idea that humans are all trying to figure it out, and they’re all struggling in different ways. We have songs about working people, truck drivers travelling around trying to figure out the pace of life and how fix the future. Realizing that there is no fixing the future, it’s just a path that we’re all on. And you’ve got songs about tugboats and their operators, songs about well-worn men and two-tone gals. I think it’s much more compelling to focus in on a human, this two-tone gal, who is struggling with the disease that is addiction and taking a little John Priney humor and sprinkling it over the top.”
The second track, “Presence,” is as close to political as Kentucky Nativegets. “It opens with me laying at the bottom of a pool, which is one of my favorite things to do because, as a musician, quiet is something that I rarely come by,” Sollee says. “That’s a really relaxing place to be, because you can’t control anything, and it’s quiet. But you can’t hold your breath all the time. You just can’t stay there. Then [the song] launches out into the world and eventually we meet this character — the future — who you look to for answers. But then you realize, shit, they’re blind. So all you’ve got is the presence of where you are.”
At the center of Kentucky Native rests the exquisitely simple “Pieces of You,” an homage to Lexington artist Louis Bickett, who has spent his adult life collecting and tagging the ephemera of existence. The work is called, simply, “The Archive.” “It is a collection of objects — things,” Sollee explains. “Books, teddy bears, dirt from places he’s visited, jars of water and trash from different places, the underwear of old lovers, everything. And it’s all carefully cataloged and displayed in his home. It’s really overwhelming to go visit, because it’s basically all these touchpoints of living on earth.”
Bickett was diagnosed with ALS during the summer of 2016, which led Sollee to return to “this little kernel of a song that I had sketched out on the road, this ‘Pieces of You’ song, that I had sketched out at the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin, Texas.”
The insatiable curiosity of an inveterate wanderer, of a close observer. Take the new song, “Mechanical Advantage,” built from simply watching a young woman cross the street. Only the song itself is rather more complex. “It’s just super-duper fun to sing because it’s in this Mexican huapango groove,” Sollee says, singing a bit by way of explanation, “this music of Central Mexico that I love so much. It’s very different, groove-wise, than anything that we play in America, even though it feels very fiddly, and very Appalachian to me. And it should. It’s kind of mountain string music.”
And then he talks about Lauryn Hill, Paul Simon, and Nina Simone, “this continual path to try to get to where some of my favorite artists are.”
Which is why Ben Sollee is serious about his interpretation of bluegrass. “What does bluegrass music sound like today if we continue to include cultures that live here? I’m trying to continue the actual act of what bluegrass music was and is, rather than maintaining a tradition. Adding a node to the tradition.”