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Rambling singer/songwriter's wild, hard-living youth finally finds home in newer songs

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Outlaws never die " they just get wise ... or incarcerated.

So it is for musical tumbleweed Phil Lee, who's blown from one coast to another for nearly 40 years in pursuit of music.

EARLY DYLAN
ON THE ROAD

Or maybe it's pursued him. Lee had a band in New York with actress Beverly D'Angelo and Bob Dylan sideman Rob Stoner, and recorded in Los Angeles with Jack Nitzsche for the 1980 Al Pacino vehicle "Cruising," but something has always stood in his way.

Perhaps it was the colorful life he recounts in his music that kept him from making it a career sooner.

"I loved my life of crime / I'd have slit your throat for a fucking dime," he sings, recalling running drugs and guns for Hells Angels, on the title track from 2001's "You Should've Known Me Then." "You should've known me, when I had all my teeth / I was bugging everyone, I would give them no relief / They were dying to notify my next of kin / You should've known me then."

EARLY DYLAN
These days, his weathered croon suggests early Dylan, skipping over harmonica and lightly strummed country-folk like a flat rock across the water. Lee's supporting his third album, titled "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" after the Woody Guthrie song, on a tour he's dubbed "I Saw Him Before He Died" " a reference to a label exec's comment that his albums would sell better if Lee were dead.

Old Phil Lee gets no respect, it seems, and even fans give him grief.

"They'll come up and say, 'Your bio sounds like you should've spent some time in prison," he said. "They seem all disappointed. Don't I get something for not getting caught?"

But perseverance has its rewards, and after 30 years, Lee scored a record deal in 2000 for "The Mighty King of Love." Another record followed a year later, and he spent some time trying to write for other artists, although his rough-hewn characters didn't suit any of Nashville, Tenn.'s straight-laced stars that well. Lee assembles songs from personal experience, and confessed the stories are mostly true, while a few have yet to be written, as "the statute of limitations hasn't run out."

A fan of artists like Ray Stevens, Don Bowman and Shel Silverstein, there's often a comic edge or comeuppance in his songs, like "Where a Rat's Lips Have Touched," about an unfaithful lover, or the wry, reflective immigration ode "25 Mexicans." But the new album leans heavy toward introspection and folk influences " a move that was unintentional, but advantageous.

"It was a more sober, folk-oriented approach but that has really paid off in a way that we didn't expect. It's introduced old Phil Lee to a different audience," he said with a laugh. "A lot of people told me point-blank, 'We thought you were some sort of nut who would come in our house and break stuff and molest the children.'"

ON THE ROAD
Lee is currently on the road, backed only by Tom Mason, a singer/songwriter in his own right, and it suits Lee well.

"It's working better than traveling with a band of lunatics. We're able to do these songs off the new record, and we've figured out how to play the songs off the old records the same way," he said. "We're pretty happy with how things are going."

Lee has evolved from his colorful youth, but old habits die hard. A recent article dubbed the singer "the world's most cautious thrill seeker," which he gladly accepts, for all the good it does him. Some people simply attract action, and for Lee, it's just fuel for the fire.

"I do everything I can to avoid trouble," he said. "But even with all the caution, things constantly happen."

Phil Lee performs at 9 p.m. Friday at The Blue Door, 2805 N. McKinley. "Chris Parker

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