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After 30 years of struggle, singer/songwriter Phil Lee finally found the key to his kingdom



Phil Lee
9 p.m. Friday
the Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley

Phil Lee doesn't take life too seriously. The Nashville, Tenn., singer/songwriter blew through plenty of opportunity and spent more than 30 years pursuing fortune and fame before getting his first record deal in 2000.

"I'm like the man time forgot," Lee said.

He was on the verge of bigger things once.

"You couldn't get any verge-ier," he said, and by the early '70s, he'd jammed with Richard Thompson of English folk act Fairport Convention, started a friendship with Neil Young, and collaborated with arranger Jack Nitzsche (Rolling Stones, Phil Spector) on a score for the 1980 Al Pacino film, "Cruising." Lee even signed a record deal, although nothing came of it.

"I didn't have the talent to measure up to the 'They'll take what I give 'em' attitude. I certainly don't have that now," he said. "It's more like I'm selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door: 'I'd just love to come in your house, and play you some songs. I know you'll like them. If you buy a record, I'll give you this T-shirt and a hat.'"   

Lee finally gave up the dream in the '90s, and went to truck-driving school. He said he swore off all musicians, but no sooner had Lee graduated than Flying Burrito Brother "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow called.

Next thing you know, Lee was on a flight to Los Angeles. Although the pair recorded a batch of songs, they went unreleased. Yet it convinced Lee he wasn't quite ready to give up the musical ghost.

Getting some money together, he and some friends began recording some of the songs he'd collected over the years " tunes based on his wild youth and outrageous experiences.

When the money ran out, producer/guitarist Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris) gave him the money to finish what would become 2000's "The Mighty King of Love," featuring Lee's wry humor and nimble tenor.

For a long time, he struggled to be somebody. Once he stopped caring, he found a lot of peace.

"Once you get past the point where you know you aren't going to make it ... for some people, it's like a devastating thing, but for me, it was like being let out of prison," he said. "I keep getting advice from all these rock-star buddies: 'You could make a million dollars if you only ...' I said, 'Losing is the cornerstone of my success.' I don't want to do anything that's going to fuck that up."

Indeed, his songs, which veer from country to folk and rock, is rife with a sense of the lovable loser that Lee's become. You can hear it on the title track of 2001's "You Should've Known Me Then," where he croons, "I was always bugging everyone / I'd give 'em no relief / They were dying to notify my next of kin / You should've known me then." It was the kind of behavior that led Waylon Jennings to remark, "That guy needs to switch to decaf."

Two years ago, Lee released his third album, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," full of slower, folkier fare. Taking it on the road, he found a whole new batch of fans. Never content with a good thing, he's collected a handful of more rock-oriented songs for his forthcoming album.

He's even secured a commitment from a big-name musician to work with him. When he told his friend Jerry Lee Lewis who it was, Lee said The Killer told him, "This might really work. Not just critical acclaim " you might make some money."

Still, Lee's a bit too superstitious to spill the beans.

"They've agreed to do it. They'll remain unnamed until it actually happens," he said. "We've already played together. But it's like those guys agree to a lot of things. They'll record when they see the color of my money. Until then, all bets are off." "Chris Parker

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