In 2010, Amos Lee, about to release Mission Bell, which would top the Billboard 200 in its first week, was invited to play one of Levon Helm’s famed Midnight Rambles in the Band legend’s Woodstock barn. His encounter with Helm, who was in poor health, was fleeting, but Lee remembers it vividly — he turned the experience into the title track of last year’s Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song.
“Levon’s the best, man,” Lee says, four years later. “I didn’t really know him, but his music’s always meant a lot to me. And then playing the Ramble with him, seeing the energy he put into playing, that really inspired me, man.”
Helm forms the foundation of the title track of Lee’s most recent record, but the singer’s roots as a musician were planted in Columbia.
Lee, born Ryan Massaro in Philadelphia (he took Amos Lee as a stage name because it “sounded funky,”), attended the University of South Carolina; he graduated with an English degree in 1999. While in Columbia, he hosted a world-music show on WUSC. (“Well, not really,” he concedes. “I mostly just played whatever I wanted.”) He got his first guitar here, too, given to him by his stepfather during his first semester.
He’d put together his first songs while learning to play, though he didn’t step too far out into the local music scene as a solo performer.
“I really only played in public two times in Columbia as myself,” Lee remembers. “At the Village Idiot open mic.” Seems he was pretty good at it, though; he says Ryan Monroe once told him that he beat Captain Easy, Monroe’s old locally popular jam band, which also featured Josh Roberts, in one of those open-mic competitions.
What: Amos Lee
Where: Township Auditorium, 1703 Taylor St.
When: Friday, April 11, 8:30 p.m.
With: Rayland Baxter
More Info: thetownship.org
But rather than pursue his own music, he joined the now-extinct alt-rock band Hot Lava Monster on bass and put in practice hours down in the Sumter Street storage sheds. He still remembers his first gig, at the long-gone Elbow Room. He’d just bought a bass from a pawn shop on Bull Street — or maybe it was Gervais Street; he doesn’t really remember.
“I was amped up,” he says. “I hit the first note, and my bass fell off. I played the first [song] from the ground because I didn’t have enough time to pick it up.”
Lee would play with Hot Lava Monster for a little while, even opening up a few shows under his given name. But it wasn’t the music scene that made the biggest impression on Lee during his time in Columbia. It was his work at a renowned Five Points record store.
“Papa Jazz, man,” he chuckles. “That place shaped me, man. I haven’t been the same since.”
Lee worked at Papa Jazz for about two and a half years, and he still visits the shop whenever he comes through town. During his tenure, he’d discover one of his biggest inspirations, John Prine, and delve deeper into the catalogs of some of his others — Otis Redding, Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers. He’d meet touring musicians who visited the shop, vividly recalling one visit by mercurial singer Mike Patton.
“He bought this record of Indian prostitutes singing traditional Indian songs,” Lee laughs. “That’s the kind of weird stuff that we had, and that’s what he bought.”
Papa Jazz is also where he’d get into the stable of the record label he’d eventually call home — vaunted jazz vanguard Blue Note.
“I had an incredible amount of respect for Blue Note and their legacy,” Lee says. “Of course, it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song, a heartfelt lyrical country collection, is about as far away as you can get from Blue Note’s downtown roots. Lee recorded it in Nashville with Jay Joyce, who’s helmed similar-leaning records for Emmylou Harris and The Wallflowers. Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin sing on the record — the former lending an ethereal presence to the poignant “Chill in the Air,” the latter providing goose-pimple harmonies on the title track. Top-flight bluegrass instrumentalists like Jerry Douglas and Mickey Raphael also appear.
Its roots are distinctly Southern — bluegrass, deep country, swampy blues — but there are still some winnowing hallmarks of the neo-soul that marked Lee’s first few LPs, like the groovy and thumping “Loretta” or “The Man Who Wants You,” redolent of late-era Motown or really early Prince.
That soul is classic Philly, and Lee hightailed it back there after graduating from Carolina, and, after a few years teaching elementary school and tending bar, it’s where his career really took off. It’s not fair to claim Lee as a local talent, but Columbia’s nonetheless where the seeds of his success were sown. And when he comes back this week, he’ll swing by Papa Jazz, like he always does.
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