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He's Passionate About Writing Songs for Adults

Pop Music: Americana singer-songwriter Phil Lee knows his sound isn't fashionable--he's even had to take second jobs.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Phil Lee says he never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.

The title song of his second album, "You Should Have Known Me Then," is one heck of a story. It's scary, comic, touching and--finally--pathetic.

It details in the first person the life of a man who reveled in crime and decadence, abused his family and satisfied his whims without regard for anyone else. He ends up a bum who looks so bad that people--unsolicited--give him money on the street.

It's quite an emotional load for one song to carry.

"I would beat the wife and kids, every single chance I got/In the morning, in the evening/If they needed it or not," Lee sings. "Yeah, you should have known me, when I had all of my teeth."

The song is based partly on a dark portion of his life. But Lee, 50, seems far too good-natured to have been the kind of fellow who would "slit your throat for a ... dime," as the song's narrator claims.

Perhaps it's a picture of what Lee fears he could have become. "I never beat the wife and kids," he said. "I've only got one kid. I tried to give her a spanking once. She kind of got me in an armlock and took my wallet, and I didn't see her for three weeks. So that was the last time I tried that stunt."

In a Britney Spears world of pop music, Lee writes songs for adults, and doesn't shy away from harsh ideas or language. It hasn't added much to his bank account.

Club bookings are so low-paying that he sometimes saves money by performing as a duo with one of the musicians from his band. He also does occasional fill-in jobs as a truck driver.

But he persists in the music business because he has a steadfast passion for his art. Critics have been supportive. "I've made two critically acclaimed records," Lee said. "Nobody's buying them, but everybody likes them. I mean those [critics] who get them free, like you.

"Every time I see a big truck going by, I think, 'There goes a guy making a real living.' And I know my wife is thinking the same thing. So I tell her, 'Read this review!'"

At one time, Lee's music would have been considered rock 'n' roll. Today, the label is Americana or alternative country.

Born in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Lee got his first taste of rock 'n' roll courtesy of his baby-sitters. He played drums and was featured on local television.

He tried his luck in New York City in the early 1970s, where he played drums in a band fronted by Beverly D'Angelo, who went on to an acting career. Then he moved to L.A. "I worked with [producer] Jack Nietzsche. I had a song on 'Cruising,' an Al Pacino movie. I did some sides for Casablanca Records," Lee said.

About five years ago, he decided to move to Nashville.

"It was a fairly frigid reception, let me tell you," he said. But before long, producer Richard Bennett became interested.

In 1999, Shanachie Records released Lee's first album, "The Mighty King of Love." It received raves from several critics and did well enough to lead to a second album. He's got three more in the planning stages.

Meanwhile, Lee works other jobs to help pay the bills.

"I put in an application Thursday for a temporary trucking gig because Christmas is coming," he said. "But I'm playing this weekend, and I won't let any moneymaking endeavor interfere with playing music."

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