It’s impossible not to feel the towering affection and admiration that cellist Ben Sollee articulates for Kentucky and its fluent musical charms.
Surrounded by a cluster of smoothly assured musicians called Kentucky Native, Sollee and company flowingly mix their own brand of joy, heartache and elegance with the old-time sounds of the Bluegrass state’s predecessors.
“The broad things of Kentucky make it very interesting,” said Sollee. “The most pervasive is the landscape that’s both above and below the ground. We’ve got some old, old mountains in the eastern part of the state; tired, worn out, diverse, and they’ve got streams rolling in. You can’t see the beautiful rock formations from afar; you’ve got to be in it and be tactful and walk in, and there are hemlock trees, pines, and huge limestone walls, with rusty edges of iron deposits and stunning landscapes and underground caves.”
Sollee proudly points out that Mammoth Cave once equaled Niagara Falls as the top tourist attraction in the United States and stirred the imaginations of authors from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jules Verne.
“Jules Verne understood that Kentucky is a mysterious place,” continued Sollee. “Streams and springs disappear down the way, and there is something dynamic underfoot, and things are really weird there. I grew up close to the edge of where people were growing the city (of Lexington). I remember walking around the woods with a Walkman on my head, listening to Lauryn Hill, and the friction and the contrast of the sounds that were so urban and gritty as I walked around this place … this crazy, wondrous, mysterious state. Even in a city like Louisville (his current residence), there are still pieces of those quirks of being in Kentucky, and in 10 minutes you are out in the strange sights and the typography, and it’s all right there.”
Born in November 1983, from the beginning Sollee was cognizant of traditional music and its eternal language. Sollee’s grandfather, Elvis Henry Cornelius, was a fiddler, and Sollee studied classical music in the public schools of Lexington, enmeshed in an oddly Kentucky-esque blend of the cosmopolitan and rural. As a fourth-grader, he was magnetized by the strange, shrill sounds that could be made on the cello, at first goofing around with the instrument, noisily repeating inappropriate animal and human utterances.
While the cello began without obligation, tradition was always prized by Sollee as if a necessity. Tradition’s first taste appeared in constructs such as the fiddle tunes and folk songs of the Appalachian Plateau and Kentucky’s state song "My Old Kentucky Home," the work of America's first renowned composer, Stephen Foster.
“From an early age I was aware that it (bluegrass) typically wasn’t played that way (with the cello) and I think that for me or any other artist, you want to update traditional music. It is a compulsion, and there is a compulsion to leave your fingerprints on things. It’s my responsibility as a musician and composer to try to innovate and to include my interpretation of it and to express who I am in this place in time — consciously, rhythmically. I try to avoid straight-ahead bluegrass, in favor of more groove-oriented things, and I like to expand that world, and I like to follow where the vocal melody is heading instead of squeezing it (unnaturally) into song form.”
Sollee's style of music thinks; not all style does. His style articulates a story; not all style does. Sometimes the songwriter’s views are of specific places and moments, and sometimes they are of imaginary locations invented by the artist, but songs are always based on interpretations of reality.
“I love a good story, whether it’s a story in a good book, a song, a podcast,” said Sollee. “I hope to create songs that are personal, yet which leave room for you to live in and grapple with. Whether it be a song about strip mining like 'The Wires' or even another folk song, all these songs are about specific events in my life or other peoples’ lives, and there is a perspective or a shift or a focal point of the song that puts them (the listener) behind the camera. It’s a lot like I’m the archivist and you can sit in the seat of that perspective, which is exposing nerves and tissues of life we are experiencing.”
The more we look through Sollee’s window, the more we enjoy new experiences created by him. Indeed, on a recent night in Durango, Colorado, Sollee and Kentucky Native mesmerized the crowd with sounds that were at once identifiable and totally imaginary. His original compositions such as “Pieces of You” invigorated and caressed the emotions and several re-arrangements produced the atmosphere of something freshly fascinating.
“Pieces of You,” a consolingly beautiful track off of “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native,” (2017) derives fragments of inspiration from several different sources, most prominently the life of Louis Zoellar Bickett II, who was a notable artist in the Lexington-area. Bickett transformed his home into a studio of 3-D collage, stocking and neatly arranging objects from photographs, dinner receipts and dog brushes, to jars, containers and binders.
“With 'Pieces of You,' the song is broadly about a character who has collected all of these things and who is happy to trace all of them to a person whom he has lost,” said Sollee. “It’s about all of these items that have memories attached to them and about what gives them (the memories) value. What looks like a pile of junk that is not worth anything at all, they don’t know that it’s pieces of you. It’s like putting the person (the listener) behind the camera, and they can identify with those things we hold on to, a grandfather’s old name tag he wore as a postman, or the last greeting card received from a boyfriend before his deployment overseas … 'Pieces of You' actually stems from Louis Zoellar Bickett and also that idea of collecting trophies and souvenirs which was inspired from the Cathedral of Junk," he said, referring to a folk art site in Austin, Texas.
Sollee said that he draws much of his artistic inspiration from such “outsider art,” a genre commonly classified as art produced outside the mainstream or modern establishment by self-taught visionaries or spiritualists, eccentrics, recluses, and others existing beyond the forced margins of society.
“Musical inspiration sometimes comes after reading something or walking through the woods and (the website) Atlas Obscura is the best songwriting prop engine I’ve known. I love touring the weird personal museums and seeing the sideshow things.”
Since the release of his debut record, “Learning to Bend,” Sollee and his cello have haunted audiences with a blend of beauty infused with all of the finest ingredients of the instrument’s unique character.
“Writing with the cello usually yields certain types of rhythmic ideas and melodies,” said Sollee. “I’ve learned how to write within the boundaries of the instrument. The cello makes for big, open chords, all-fifths tuning, with chords spread out, whereas the guitar has more dense clusters.”
Music to Sollee is the necessary completion of the creative deed and the opportunity to animate the world with his music and words. He respects his own process and creative imperatives, pushing through the self-doubts that all artists experience. His widest goal is to unearth, adapt and advance the treasures of bluegrass music, which, he swiftly reminds us is a curious amalgamation of “immigrant sound and music,” including Irish, Scottish and African. Sollee’s modern bluegrass hums with the languages of a number of countries, including Mexico in the song “Mechanical Advantage.”
“Bluegrass was distilled by the people who lived in Kentucky, who turned it into something of its own. I’d like to continue to expand my own cultural and musical vocabulary and inclusivity. Bluegrass has gotten a bit protectionist, though it is based on immigrant music from Gypsy jazz to Irish fiddlers. Different people brought their identities with them, and the mixing between rural and urban and fiddle gatherings over time, just like the great blues tunes, it all organically steeped together. (Father of bluegrass) Bill Monroe would probably be jamming with musicians coming up from Mexico and refugees from all parts of the world. I’m playing what I describe as an inclusive and contemporary take of Kentucky, a fresh approach to the music that’s coming out of Kentucky.”
Sollee’s style does not hedge; it does not pander. It morphs from one thing to another. It unifies like some beautiful place or bright sunlight, like the vitality that comes with the use of the palette knife. One minute it is Appalachian rural backwater and another it’s rich and bluesy, and then in a flash it’s a thwacking bass fiddle solo or Bach cello set.
A night with Sollee and his skilled young brethren is an affecting and emotional call to a musical power, an indicator of precisely how much learnedness and progress can be achieved in a short amount of time.
“While it’s sometimes difficult in mainstream music to find a sense of place or sense where music is coming from,” said Sollee, “I love that contemporary music is so inclusive and worldly. It’s really cool for an artist to have a global reach and to be a citizen of the world. Music mixes and mingles and cross-pollinates, and, knowing the music of other places, it is part of my voice. Music is the interface to interpret ideas, from Brazilian to Bach, it’s intentional and intuitive, and it’s always happening.”