Amos Lee remembers his first trip to Nashville. It was in 2004 and he had just been selected to open Norah Jones‘ tour, with the Grand Ole Opry House being the first stop. Plucked from the club scene around his native Philadelphia, Lee’s debut album hadn’t even been released yet. And for his first date on that tour, he was booked to stay at the gigantic Opryland Hotel complex, home to nine acres of gardens, waterfalls, restaurants, gift shops and a mere 2,800 guest rooms.
“I remember flying in, renting a car and going to Opryland. I was so tired and ready to go to bed,” he says. “I got my key and it took me 45 minutes to find my room. I got lost in the jungle, then I wound up in the desert, then I was in a snowstorm. … I didn’t know what was going on.”
Fortunately, times have changed for the friendly, folk-inspired singer-songwriter. Lee joined the Zac Brown Band on “Colder Weather” at the CMT Artists of the Year special in late 2010. And earlier this month, he swung back through Nashville for a sold-out headlining show at the Ryman Auditorium. Along the way, he’s opened shows for Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Patty Griffin, Merle Haggard, the Dave Matthews Band, John Prine, Paul Simon and Lucinda Williams, among many others. Later this year, he’ll travel through the United Kingdom with Adele.
Arriving in Nashville a day early for the Ryman gig — and staying in a much more navigable hotel — Lee dropped by the CMT offices to talk about his connection to country music, the soul in his singing and the vibrations in the venues.
CMT: What role does country music play in your musical spectrum?
Lee: I love country music. Some of the first stuff I ever listened to was country music. I remember listening to country music in my stepdad’s car. I felt this deep connection to it, even though people tell you that when you’re from Philadelphia, you’re not supposed to listen to country music. You’re supposed to listen to this, that and the other. But I’ve never been affected by what people expect anyway. And the music to me is always about the song and the performance and the spirit that lies within all those things. Genre, to me, is not all that important, and it never has been. It’s about artistry and craft. Those are the things I like.
What does Willie Nelson bring to the vibe of “El Camino,” one of the tracks on your Mission Bell album?
I think Willie brings it to an epic place. Just to hear him sing and hear him play, he’s an American treasure. There will never be another artist like him. To be involved with somebody like that and listening to him sing the words you’ve written, it’s an honor, for sure.
How did you discover artists like Gillian Welch and John Prine?
Gillian Welch, the first time I heard her, was on Sessions on West 54th [a TV series]. And Prine’s music was always around the house. My stepfather was a huge fan of his and had the Great Days anthology. I never stopped listening to it. I mean, it’s going to be a forever thing for me. I’ve gone back and gotten all of the other records, too, and I love them, but there’s something about that collection that’s really special.
What is it about his songwriting that has kept you interested all these years?
The humor gets me. You know, it’s the dynamic of the relationship that happens in the song. You can be super-down and super-up or laughing at your own situation. That’s kind of cool.
How would you describe that experience of meeting your musical heroes?
It’s been cool, obviously. It’s been overwhelming sometimes. I really try not to get personal with stuff. I try to let the music speak. If they want to talk to me, they’ll find me. I don’t want to be some dude coming up and talking about everything I know about them and asking them about their process and everything like that. The art is enough for me.
How did you go about teaching yourself to play guitar?
I’m still teaching myself to play guitar. It was a lot of hurting my fingers and stretching them and trying to figure out new voicings and chords. I developed a thing where I’ve taken players I like and adapted it to my playing. I don’t know if I have a really unique guitar style, but if you break it down, it’s pretty particular to what I’m doing, complementing my vocals. I’m still learning, though. I’ve got a lot to learn. I don’t know anything about music theory at all. Zero. But I don’t really need to. There are times when you can find one little chord — you can go to a B minor — and the song flies wide open to you. That’s just a lucky mistake for me.
Where does the soul in your voice come from?
Probably my mom. I imagine so. When I think about people who have impacted me, in the way I approach the world, she’s definitely the most important person. It’s the way she approaches the world. She’s got a big heart. She’ll strike you down if she needs to, but she approaches every beginning with a lot of love.
I think there’s a spiritual aspect to this album. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
When it comes to music, I do. For sure. There’s nothing but spirit in music. That’s all it is. Yeah, there’s a lot of intellectual elements to it, but no matter how you approach it, it’s all spirit. You take a written piece of music and put it on a piano stand and have someone who’s classically trained play that music, it’s an abstract notion. This written thing can be incorporated so that other people can feel it. That’s all spirit! Nothing but spirit! When I figure out what the rest of the world means, then maybe I can go further. But for right now, it’s just music.
What is your favorite part of playing live?
The relationship, obviously, between the people in the crowd and the songs and myself — when they can all exist together. I wonder what the relationship is between the vibration I’m putting out and the vibration that you’re putting out. Is it like plant and people? Is it like that? Are we extracting and bringing different elements to this vibrational pull? Those are the times in my life as a musician that have been surreal — in a good way. You’re just not there anymore. You’re vapor on stage.