Eric Lee is a master at many instruments but it was his fiddle playing that first brought him to my attention. I was one of a handful of lucky music fans to witness his first musical collaborations with The Strangelings (Pete and Maura Kennedy, Chris and Meredith Thompson, Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall) on the hillside at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. I’ll never forget this young man making his way into the tight circle of musicians playing an afternoon campsite gig prior to appearing on the main stage that weekend. Everyone’s jaws dropped. Everyone was amazed. It was no big surprise when he was asked to join the band and to play on the main stage that weekend. I’ve been following his career ever since and continue to be amazed and am delighted that he’s now sharing his own songs as a singer-songwriter.
Learn more about Eric on his website.
Here’s a video of Eric playing with Jim Henry.
And here’s a peak at his virtuoso fiddle playing.
What kind of music did you gravitate toward as a child? Was your family musically inclined?
There were artists that I grew up listening too that I’ve always loved: John Gorka, Jim Croce, Eric Andersen, and Jackson Browne to name a few. When I first started discovering music that wasn’t around the house, I really became obsessed with Irish music. Eileen Ivers, Martin Hayes, the Bothy Band; all amazing stuff. And then around 14, I heard Jimi Hendrix for the first time… and I’ve never been the same since! Musical ability does run in my family; my mother was an exceptional pianist and played organ at her church in Iowa, and my sister also played piano and accordion with great skill. My great grandfather used to play fiddle, and I have a very vague memory of him showing it to me when I was very young, although his health prevented him from playing by then.
You began taking classical violin and traditional Irish fiddle at a young age. How would you describe what your experience was with both kinds of music?
Both were incredibly beneficial in completely different ways. I loved the strict principles of technique and regimented practice of classical training. I found it very meditative, as you have to turn off all thoughts of the self in order to best serve the piece, and constantly strive to find the richest and most perfect tone from the instrument. Sight reading was never one of my favorite activities, but it has been a great skill to have that has served me well. Irish music honed my ear, and developed my perception of emotion through ornament. I was never really taught the nuances of the genre by anyone in person, but I had accumulated a sizeable catalogue of Irish fiddle players (Eileen, Martin, Liz Carrol, Kevin Burke, and Alasdair Fraser, among others) and I had a machine that could record and slow down 20 seconds of a song at a time (the “Riff Master” was its name!) I studied the exact phrasing of those artists and learned so many tunes that way, and found the playing of that genre to be kind of like an improvisational game, where the object is to find the best ways to work in combinations of ornaments (triplets, trills, etc.) and harmony lines while still conveying the spirit of the tune.
What kind of performances did you play back then? Were you playing with adults or other kids or both?
Back then? Hmm… I’m trying to think back that far. When you get to be my age, it can be hard to sift through those long years (I’ll be turning 28 this week.) I played a lot of open mics, senior centers, and a few restaurants. Maybe a wedding or two. I usually played with my sister, but I met a few people through the open mics that would have me on their gigs (usually your typical 3-hour bar and grills). I really didn’t have any socialization growing up (I was a homeschooled kid with a father that had a distinct distrust in the outside world), so I never really played music with kids my own age, but I was lucky enough to be invited to sit in on some pretty amazing electric blues jams with guys that really knew their craft. I also did some studio tracking on local artists’ recordings and demos.
Tell us about your foray into psychedelic rock. What psychedelic songs were fun to play on fiddle?
Have you read “Be Here Now”? Psychedelic rock was an amazing outlet for finding my own voice through my instrument, and channeling my various influences into one avenue, on top of having the sonic extension of effects pedals. I played with a band called the Thungs (we once opened for the Electric Prunes in Northampton) that had influences as far reaching as the Beach Boys and the Kinks to the noise, punk, and experimental albums of second-hand store dollar bins. “Mrs. Pelican Head” was an original, and one of my favorite songs to play live. I would play the opening line, which had an almost carousel-like quality to it (set in 3/4 time, of course,) and run my fiddle through a delay and an old Ross Phase pedal from ’77, then snap into an upbeat two-step, with the fiddle changing roles into a second chunky rhythm: no effects but a crunchy distortion. The solo section kicked into high gear, with an increased tempo and a break going through my wah-wah pedal. Three-part harmonies on the chorus and a return to the 3/4 melody for the outro. It was around that time that I started developing my technique of natural distortion and harmonics. Those were the days!
How did you first get into bluegrass music?
I had heard bluegrass growing up; my teacher played in a traditional 5-piece band that did all the standards (“I Saw the Light,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” etc.) and I had always been obsessed with Vassar Clements’ fiddle playing (through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Old and In the Way’s self-titled release), but I never considered myself to be a bluegrass fiddle player… just a guy who could play fiddle on a bluegrass song. I think it was the speed that intimidated me. Fast forward to when I lived in New York City. I started getting calls to fill in on bluegrass gigs, and one night, a band I had started playing with regularly (the Birdhive Boys) opened for Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. I didn’t know Michael before the show, and I didn’t know anything but his virtuosity and powerhouse chops after that. I was floored by him, and realized it was time to stop being a guy playing bluegrass on a violin and instead be a fiddle player. I started shedding hard (with my guru the Riff Master coming out of retirement), and started the lifelong pursuit of unravelling the esoteric question of what it means to play bluegrass. Michael, Kenny Baker, Stuart Duncan, Vassar Clements, Bobby Hicks, Scotty Stoneman, Paul Warren, and Jason Carter were a few of the names of my new pantheon, and I quickly became a devout servant to the music.
I’d love to know about the band you’re in called the Gather Rounders. How long have you been playing together? Do you play original music and covers?
The band is made up of some of the most talented and respected musicians I’ve worked with since the Strangelings, and I’m honored to be in their fine company! Our banjo player, bassist, and guitarist (Ron Cody, Wendy Cody, and Lincoln Meyers, respectively) have been playing together for years, with various other members coming in and out of the band over that time. Our singer and songwriter, Caroline Cotter, and I have been the newest additions to the band, having joined them just over a year ago now. We do a mix of originals and covers, although the term “covers” is not really used too often in bluegrass circles. It’s a genre based in reverence of the music, and songs or tunes written by the musical forbearers (or that predate the authors’ credit) are usually referred to as “traditional” songs/tunes.
You’ve been playing some gigs as a singer-songwriter recently — playing guitar and singing — two things that people aren’t used to seeing. Does this experience feel as natural as your fiddle stagework?
If people aren’t used to seeing someone play guitar and sing, then all I have to say is “Get thee to a Folk Festival!” Oh wait, you mean people seeing me sing and play guitar? Yes, I guess that’s kind of a drastic shift for some people, but I get it. I had a hard time getting used to Luke Skywalker’s new green lightsaber in Return of the Jedi after his father’s cool blue one in Empire Strikes Back, but in time, I learned to like it! I’ve been playing guitar and singing just about as long as I’ve been playing violin (just not on as many big stages), so it’s all a very natural feeling. I find it actually more natural and rewarding to be sharing the songs I’ve written with audiences, since these words and melodies are born of my own experience. Playing fiddle or mandolin on someone else’s music is great, but it’s kind of like classical music, in the sense that you are channeling your own emotion through someone else’s lens. My songs are who I am, and I love having the time at my shows to bring people through a wide musical spectrum; singing, guitaring, and fiddling, kind of like what Sam Bush does. Basically I just want to be Sam Bush.
How would you describe your sound? Do you have any songwriting heroes?
The duality in life of the micro and macro are themes I bring to the forefront of my music. The universality of our joys and struggles as individuals and the roles and narratives of religion and myth through history are where I draw my inspiration. How does it sound? Probably something like what you’d hear if Orpheus and George Jones met up with Vassar Clements at a pub in Camden, London.
I have many songwriting heroes. John Gorka, Leonard Cohen, Lori McKenna, Chris Brashear, Jim Croce, Joziah Longo, Jackson Browne, Dan Navarro, Townes Van Zandt, Eric Andersen, Peter Rowan, Cliff Eberhardt and Brie Sullivan are just a few. Dave Carter holds a special place at the top of my list. The ease with which his profound lyrics speak to the subconscious and his awareness of melodic shapes are ever inspiring. His song “Tanglewood Tree” showed me the highest peak of mastery of the craft, and compelled me to begin the journey down the path of songwriting.
What are you plans for 2017?
I have a lot of new songs, and I want to have a full-length record out for next year. I’m keeping myself open to the idea of finding another instrumentalist/singer to collaborate with; I love vocal harmonies, and it would be great to be able to expand the sonic spectrum and allow for more abstract soloing on violin. (I’ve never been a fan of loop pedals or electronic backing). I’d also like to plan a tour around the northwest in the fall.