SIMON: Amos Lee's third album is out. It's called "Last Days at the Lodge," and it's already on the Billboard 200. Mr. Lee was a schoolteacher in Philadelphia before pursuing a full-time career in music. He received the big assist from Norah Jones, who just heard his music and liked it and began to tour as the opening act for the likes of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Paul Simon. His new release seems to emphasize his grounding in folk and soul. Let's listen to a bit from the CD. This song is "Truth."
(Soundbite of song "Truth")
Mr. AMOS LEE (Singer): (Singing)
Well he showed up down at the ballroom Walking slow and acting strong Well I said my friend I'll give you one last chance To admit that you done me wrong You better tell me the truth son, yeah.
SIMON: People magazine has written that Amos Lee has, quote, "perfected the art of rootsy, rainy day music soaking in blues, folk, country and gospel, as well as in Bill Withers style R&B." Amos Lee joins us in Studio 4A with his guitar. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. LEE: A pleasure to be here.
SIMON: I have to ask you about this all-star lineup that you have here. Doyle Bramhall Jr., who - known for playing with Eric Clapton. Spooner Oldham is on the keyboards. He plays with Neil Young and Aretha Franklin. Pino Palladino playing the base, he's with The Who, and then James Gadson, with Bill Withers on the drums. How did you enlist all this company of big talents?
Mr. LEE: All those guys are just people I met sort of along the way except for Doyle. I had seen Doyle play in Los Angeles while I was staying out there before I've made the record, and he really knocked me out with the way he played and the way he sang. Spooner I met at Willie Nelson's birthday party. He...
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: I don't talk to a lot of people who say, I met at Willie Nelson's birthday party.
Mr. LEE: Yeah. Willie does this thing where he puts on a concert, and we played at the share and the Drive-By Truckers played it. Spooner was playing with the Drive-By Truckers. So we kind of hung out and spoke for a bunch and when I needed a keyboard player for the record, I just wanted to work with him because I knew that he had been on so many records and I knew he had a lot of wisdom to add. All those guys have so much wisdom musically and otherwise, it just made the recording process easy for me.
SIMON: But they also must be busy.
Mr. LEE: They are very busy, yeah. I could never get them for anything else than that one week that we got them for. But all the stars lined up for us that week.
SIMON: Don't want to keep people in suspense any longer because we're here to listen to your music, not just talk.
Mr. LEE: Sure.
SIMON: Could we ask you to play the song that opens this new CD? It's called "Listen."
(Soundbite of song "Listen")
Mr. LEE: (Singing)
Listen Listen to them church bells ringing Listen Listen You can hear them hounds calling off in the distance If you listen You can hear them engines stalling You can hear them angels falling
And travel You find men and women all have trouble If you travel You will that the poor are victims of the gun or gavel If you travel But be careful now Be careful of all them folks out there who surround you Be careful Well, some of them really only want to ground you They only want control Tear you down to that hole So be careful Yeah
They only want control Tear you down to that hole So be careful Yeah
Well, listen Listen to them church bells ringing Listen Well, listen You can hear them hounds calling off in the distance If you listen You can hear them engines stalling You can hear them angels falling Listen. You can hear them engines stalling And all the angels falling
Yeah, yeah, yeah...
SIMON: Thank you, Mr. Lee.
Mr. LEE: Thank you.
SIMON: When did you first discover that you could sing?
Mr. LEE: I started going to these open mics after I quit my job teaching, and I think it was on the car rise(ph)...
SIMON: I meant before that.
Mr. LEE: Oh, before that. I didn't think I did before that. I think that was when it happened.
SIMON: So like, you were - I'm making a story up now, but by way of illustration. So you weren't the kid in the third grade who discovered that he had a voice that could carry above the room or anything.
Mr. LEE: No, man. I always wanted to play drums when I was younger. But I never really pursued music when I was young. I played basketball and that was about it. After I quit teaching, I was writing songs for a while but I never really sang them. I never sang out. I never went to open mics, never did gigs. I played bass in a rock band but that was about it. I would drive out to these open mics.
SIMON: This is in Philadelphia?
Mr. LEE: Yeah, like in the suburbs of Philly. It was about an hour outside, this one. And I would drive there by myself and I didn't really know anybody so I will just go up by myself every week back and forth and I'd listen to songs in "The Key of Life" and Donny Hathaway "Live." And just by listening to those two records, singing alone with them, I just kind of picked up a lot of stuff.
SIMON: That's kind of late to begin a career in music, isn't it?
Mr. LEE: It's late, but I think, you know, as most careers, if you find the right thing, it's just about always the right time, you know?
SIMON: So you didn't sing to your students when you were a teacher?
Mr. LEE: No. God, man, I could barely even teach them, let alone sing to them. I was just trying to hold the thing together.
SIMON: How old were they?
Mr. LEE: Probably between seven and nine. It was second grade.
SIMON: Oh, that's a tough grade, isn't it?
Mr. LEE: It's tough. Yeah, it was tough for me. There was a lot of teachers who knew what they were doing real well. I think if I will still doing it now, I'd be better at it.
SIMON: Is there anything about teaching that creeps into your music?
Mr. LEE: Perspective, I think, would be the most obvious thing for me. Just being around these kids who had such hard lives everyday and just the struggle to get up. And just to realize what the education system means and what a safe place is for a kid to learn and what learning is in our society. And at this school, it was more of an inner city school that didn't have a whole lot of funding. So a lot of perspective I gained through working there.
SIMON: Could we hear "Street Corner Preacher"?
Mr. LEE: Sure, man.
(Soundbite of song "Street Corner Preacher")
Mr. LEE: (Singing)
He got a new mercy A new grace Street corner preacher With the angry face He got two years off For good behavior Back in the neighborhood Working for the city There's two old ladies And a junkie, now now He can see for sure That his work is cut out Though he walks through the shadows He won't fear his neighbor Back in the neighborhood Working for the savior
Well he understands The need for livin' large But it's hard to get a job With a felony charge Now he's working in a hospital Washing dishes Walking through the fields Of the lost inhibitions
Every step every breath A new benediction To save the living from a waking death His conviction In the house of man He seeks no favor Back in the neighborhood Working for the savior.
But there's a whole lot of trouble all around. Every night the same old siren sound There's a whole lot of trouble all around Well, children soldiers in this battleground
Well a new sun And a second chance He unbolts the door And hops ever the fence Young woman with a baby That her daddy gave her Back in the neighborhood Working for the savior
But all around The war rages on Burnt out houses With the front door gone Well his faith is his fountain And his love is his labor Back in the neighborhood Working for the savior
Whoa oh oh oh, oh Yeah, ahhh
Well, he's got a new mercy A new grace Street corner preacher With the angry face He got two years off For good behavior Back in the neighborhood Working for the savior
SIMON: That's a hell of a song, Mr. Lee. Is that something that you've actually seen?
Mr. LEE: Yeah, got lost last year. I was at a festival in Camden, New Jersey, and I was driving back to Philly and I got lost, and Camden could be a rough place, a real rough place. It was a Saturday or a Sunday and I saw this guy on the street who's just talking to these two old women with little a speaker and I was thinking like, wow. The way I kind of put this character out is, he's not really looking to be, you know, the evangelist on the television with the whole big thing. He just wants to do small deeds. And for me, those are the people that are real inspiration.
SIMON: What kind of time distance passed between when you saw that man on the street in Camden, New Jersey, and when it became a song?
Mr. LEE: Probably about 20 seconds. Yeah, I wrote it immediately. I was driving back, yeah, I was driving, and I got lost and just got round and round. And I just got my little tape recorder and I just went through it. Then when I got home, I went on my computer. I just kind of put a little stomp and a clap and that's how the song was. I didn't really have any chords to it. It was just that melody and that sort of rhythm. And a lot of times for me, writing, especially when it's not with a guitar, is just a rhythm. Rhythm of words.
SIMON: Your record label, Blue Note, is known as a jazz label. Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Al Green. You feel that's where you belong, on a jazz label?
Mr. LEE: First of all, I worked in a jazz record shop for like twoand a half years. So my introduction to Blue Note was just all those original pressings. So when I signed with them, I didn't really have much of a grand idea of anything other than when I spoke to them, they were people that liked the same kind of music that I did.
SIMON: Do you have musical influences for all the famous folks that you play with?
Mr. LEE: Yeah, my first real influence other than like a lot of the hip-hop and R&B that I listen to, which comes out in my songs, into my live performances a lot more. Luther Vandross, John Prine, Boogie Down Productions, Bill Withers, Joni Mitchell. It's a pretty wide bunch of people. I mean, I really love to listen to music all the time and I feel like there is so much more music that is readily available.
I mean, I miss the record shop. I miss working there because I got to take home records every single night. We could take home whatever we wanted. So I was really introduced to everything from Ali Akbar Khan to John Coltrane to Steve Goodman. Yeah, man, I was really blessed to get that job.
SIMON: Are you always writing songs or is that something you turn off and on depending on the time of day?
Mr. LEE: No, I don't turn it off. I mean, if I turn it off, I really lose out on an opportunity. I'm not at much of a jotter. I don't jot things down all day, but if something comes to me, I find a way to make it happen.
SIMON: You know, there's a crowd that's - look at that.
Mr. LEE: Hello, everybody.
SIMON: There are people outside the window of studio 4A here. Is this a tour group?
Mr. LEE: Nice to see you all out there.
SIMON: I have an idea. Could we bring a couple of people in? Why not have them all come in? OK, let's just try this. This is a tour group, I'm told, of people from 35 different countries.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: They all look pretty young, don't they? Come on in. Nice to meet you. Well, where is everybody from? Tell us about the group?
Unidentified Woman #1: I am from Kosovo.
SIMON: You're from Kosovo? Good to meet you. Where are you from?
Unidentified Woman #2: From Romania.
SIMON: From Romania, nice to see you. This is Amos. Anybody have question for Mr. Lee?
Unidentified Man: Can you play a song?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEE: Yeah, you want to hear a song? I'll a play a song. Let me play you something. This is a song I played in a lot of countries. It's called, "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight."
(Soundbite of song "Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight")
Mr. LEE: (Singing)
Well I walked over the bridge Into the city where I live Saw my old landlord Well we both said hello There was nowhere else to go 'Cause his rent I couldn't afford
Well relationships change Though I think it's kinda strange How money makes a man grow Now some people they claim If you get enough fame You live over the rainbow Over the rainbow
But the people on the street Out on buses out on feet We all got the same blood flow Well, in society Every dollar got a deed We all need a place where we can go And feel over the rainbow
But sometimes We forget what we got Who we are Whoa who we are not I think we got a chance To make it right To keep it loose And keep it tight Well, keep it tight
I'm in love with a girl Who's in love with the world And I can't help but follow Though I know some day She is bound to fly away And stay over the rainbow Gotta learn how to let her go Over the rainbow
But sometimes we forget who we got Who they are Well, and who they are not There is so much more in love Than black and white Gotta keep it loose my child Gotta keep it tight Keep it loose my child Oh, and keep it tight
Well, Keep it tight Lord, Keep it tight Yeah...
(Soundbite of crowd applause)
Mr. LEE: Thank you.
SIMON: Amos Lee's new CD is called "Last Days at The Lodge." He joined us here in Studio 4A, where you can never tell who's going to walk in and where they're from. And he's currently touring the United States. You can hear more of his music on our Web site, npr.org. And in fact, you can see a special video version that he's recorded of the song from the new CD called "Truth." Thanks very much, Mr. Lee.
Mr. LEE: Thank you, sir.
SIMON: This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.