AJ Lee: A Flower Blooms in the California Bluegrass
When I reached out to Betsy Riger-Lee and asked her to give me a rough idea of how many views her daughter AJ Lee has had on YouTube, she came back to me in three hours and wrote: “As of this moment, it’s 3,358,333.” That right there tells you she’s one proud mama. It’s a simple fact that there are many musicians who have been working on the road and putting out albums for decades who have yet to hit that particular milestone, so a few months ago when I came across this young woman from Northern California singing the Gram Parson classic “Hickory Wind” with The Tuttles, a family of stellar musicians, I took notice.
That clip, which accounts for about ten percent of that huge number mentioned above, was uploaded six years ago, when AJ was only 13. She gives credit to Jack Tuttle, who wisely invited her to join up with him and his kids in their band, for introducing her to that song and many others. And when they uploaded that song, AJ had already been performing in front of audiences for nine years. Not a misprint.
“The initial event to my introduction to bluegrass happened one night at an open mic at a pizzeria. I was 4 years old, my mom held me up to the mic, and I sang the song ‘Angel Band.’ There was a man named Frank Solivan in the audience who happened to be the director of a program called Kids On Bluegrass for the California Bluegrass Association (CBA). I stuck with the program every year for several years after that. That’s also how I got into other bluegrass events — through the CBA. Throughout this whole process, I was never forced to play music, but always encouraged and inspired. It helped immensely being around kids my own age, and to this day I am great friends with a lot of the kids who came out of the CBA kids programs. Having a sense of community and belonging through music is something greater than anything I could have asked for.”
Want to know what this 9-year-old girl sounded like onstage in Nashville back in 2007?
I’m going to let mom tell this part of AJ’s story:
“AJ was invited to be part of the first Kids on Bluegrass Fanfest in Nashville, where International Bluegrass Music Association’s ‘World of Bluegrass’ was taking place annually at that time. It was a pilot program that originally began in California, that has now become the standard for talented bluegrass children to meet up each year. AJ shared that stage with Molly Cherryholmes, Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Angelica Grim Doerfel, and a host of many other gifted young female artists. She did that for several more years, and during that run, she was asked to be part of the revision of the ‘Discover Bluegrass’ video that the IBMA created for educational purposes, their intent being to spread the word of this genre of music.”
Author’s prerogative and detour: When Angelica Grim married TJ Doerfel in June of 2008, AJ and Betsy sang a duet of this Richard Thompson song y’all probably know at the wedding. It’s just basically a home video, but one that’s been watched watched over 65,000 times. And while I’m not exactly sure why, I keep coming back to this one over and over. Here’s a secret … somewhere about two minutes into it I can’t keep from crying.
AJ grew up in Tracy, an agricultural town that is being suburbanized as the Bay Area population looks for affordable housing in an area with a “Mediterranean climate.” AJ describes herself as preferring the rural lifestyle: “I grew up with horses, chickens, dogs, cats, rats, opossums, lizards, birds, snakes, frogs, quails, sheep … and a turkey. I’ve taken many trips to cities, but the country is where my heart will always stay.”
The family enjoyed the camping lifestyle, especially around the regional bluegrass festivals. It seems that it was the Riger side of the family from whose tree the music fell: AJ’s siblings and other relatives are accomplished players of various degrees and styles. Betsy is an excellent singer, guitarist, and dancer, and taught AJ how to find pitch and use basic techniques for singing. Rodney Lee doesn’t share in this talent pool … or, as AJ puts it: ‘My dad is NOT musical… haha. I’ve been trying to teach him how to play one song on the mandolin for years. I’m sure when pigs fly, my dad will learn how to play ‘Angelina Baker.’”
In 2011, when she was 13, Mother Jones published an interview with AJ titled “Could This Kid Be The Next Alison Krauss?” In addition to the mandolin as her main instrument, AJ plays fiddle, guitar, ukulele, and banjo, and her incredible vocals have earned her the Female Vocalist award for six years from the Northern California Bluegrass Society (NCBS). As the years rolled by she attended a number of music camps through the CBA and NCBS — “great organizations that are very supportive regarding kids and music,’…” she says — and she was playing in a number of band configurations, including The Tuttles with AJ Lee.
In the world of California bluegrass, Jack Tuttle is a legend. For over 30 years he’s taught fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar, developed a solid curriculum, written a dozen instruction books, and put a band together with his daughter Molly and sons Sully and Michael. AJ joined the group in 2008, when she was about 10, and they released their first album two years later. I should note that Molly is making a lot of noise down in Nashville now, where she settled after attending Berklee College of Music, having won the first Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship from the Foundation For Bluegrass Music.
By the time AJ was 16, which is when the above clip was shot, you can see how she had developed not only strong musical skillsets, but was poised and polished onstage. She also began writing her own music and released her first EP, titled A Song for Noah, and was invited into the studio for The Prava Sessions, a series where “there are no overdubs, there is no Auto-Tune, the sounds aren’t pitch or time corrected with a computer. It’s all real, it’s all live and it only happens once.” As you’ll see, she began to drift away from the traditional bluegrass format.
The past couple of years, AJ has been playing locally throughout the Bay Area, and since graduating high school she’s taken some college classes, and is “off and running, away from home, working in the real world of service and people, busking and gigging to help pay rent, as honest and real living goes,” according to Betsy. “If she can handle all that life throws at her, she will probably stay the course with music as a career.”
AJ speaks about following the route Molly Tuttle is taking down in Nashville, but with the logic and reasoning of someone much older than their years, she’s quick to add that “those thoughts are still developing and I’m still trying to figure out what the best path for me to take is. At least in this time in my life.”
That’s AJ’s latest band, Blue Summit, with Molly joining in on banjo. The lineup includes Sam Kemiji on fiddle, Jesse Fichman and Sully Tuttle on guitar, and Isaac Cornelius on the standup bass. I’ve been told that AJ has helped engineer some tracks and is in the process of having it mixed and mastered.
Which brings me to the recently released self-titled EP, where AJ plays her smokin’ mandolin and a 1954 Martin acoustic guitar, handed down through the years from the Riger family, and she does covers from Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Herb Pedersen, and another updated version of “Hickory Wind.” This is the second time around with producer Jon Abrams, and the Shady Mountain Band features the pedal steel of Dave Zirbel (Phil Lesh, Dave Alvin), Hammond organ from Marc Doten (Stew, Shelby Lynne), and the Telecaster and drums of the cosmic country brothers Paul and Anthony Lacques (I See Hawks in L.A.). Here’s a sampler, and you’ll find the complete set on her own site, Spotify, and Apple Music.
There’s a reason I’ve become fascinated with AJ’s musical journey, especially at this particular time in America. She grew up with the opportunity to learn and play music in the world of bluegrass, one that has always worked hard to pass the baton down from generation to generation. In this particular political climate we have a new administration that doesn’t seem to give a damn not only about music, but any of the arts. Last April in an open letter to Donald Trump and Congress, the IBMA spoke directly to that point:
“The United States of America cannot afford to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (“NEA”) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (“NEH”). These two government agencies carry out three highly beneficial missions across our country: preserving and promoting the arts, educating and inspiring children, and expanding commerce through the grants provided by these public endowments.
An important principle of our nation has been to protect and promote our rich artistic and cultural heritage. Bluegrass music, as a core genre of American roots music, was created on American soil as an extension of our country’s working class communities. It is this cultural history, along with exceptional musicianship, that makes this music loved throughout our country today. This is not simply entertainment; it is a vital part of our nation’s identity.”
You can follow me here at No Depression to get notified when I’ve added something new. Many of my past columns, articles and essays can be accessed at therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate and post daily on my Facebook page, The Real Easy Ed: Roots Music and Random Thoughts. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed.