Greta Lee – Girl from the south country
“I call my music country music,” says Greta Lee. It’s a simple statement that could seem a tad ironic or patently obvious, depending on your point of view.
For Lee, it’s more like a hard-won fact of life. Listening to the lissome singer-songwriter’s self-released debut disc, This Ain’t Over Yet, you’re first struck by the easy lilt of her voice and her distinctive phrasing, which has caused more than one reviewer to compare her to Natalie Merchant. Certainly, in back of the weepy steel and swinging guitar licks, there’s a solid pop sensibility at work. Its source, though, is a little twisted.
“When I was 12 years old, I was listening to Merle Haggard and Waylon and Willie,” Lee explains. “That’s who I grew up trying to sing like.” Coming of age in the ’70s, in an upper-middle-class family in tiny Hartsville, South Carolina, Lee had to fight her parents to let her listen to country music. Her adolescent rebellion became a steady streak of country-related acting-out, including sneaking into many a Hank Jr. show, sitting on Waylon’s lap at the back of his tour bus when she was 14, and pasting a big poster of Bocephus up on her wall at boarding school. It was seeing Haggard for the first time, when she was 13, that caused her to come home one night and declare, “I want to be a country singer.”
Some 15 years after her fateful Haggard-induced utterance, Lee is sipping ice water in the Little Vinyl Lounge, a giddy hell of a saloon situated below Atlanta’s Star Bar, where she’s doing a show. Coaxed by Jon Byrd, a veteran of the local scene who has become her producer, guitarist and guiding light, Lee is trying her best to decipher the changes she’s been through.
“I had such a clear vision of what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to be a country singer, and I wanted to have a country band. I hadn’t been in any rock bands. I knew the kind of songs I wanted to sing, so when I started writing them, I guess it was easier for me.”
Like the character in her song “Silly Me”, though, she admits there’s been a load of compromising, and lots of 9-to-5 (not to mention a stint in L.A. and a broken heart) on the way to her first band and recording project.
“Somebody called me,” remembers Byrd, “and they said, ‘There’s this girl trying to cut a demo — she has a pretty good voice, and she needs somebody to come in and play guitar.’ And I asked, ‘Does she write the songs?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ Then I asked, ‘Does she play the guitar?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well that’s a lot better.’ But then they said, ‘She’s an aerobics instructor and she’s a blonde.’ And I went, ‘Oh no.'”
But when he got into the studio, Byrd was pleasantly surprised by what he heard, and soon decided Lee had enough good material to make a full-length CD. The two began playing out together, building a live repertoire that runs the gamut from Jimmie Rodgers to a Gram Parsons “mini-tribute” they performed on this night in honor of the anniversary of Parsons’ death.
All razzing aside, it does seem Lee’s day job serves her well, as she gyrates on the Star Bar stage, egging on the dancers down front, as Byrd tears into a bottle-bouncing rendition of “Wine Me Up.” Both Lee and Byrd say their principal aim is to have fun.
“The only other goal we have is to save country music as it has been known,” says Byrd. “But besides than that, it’s pretty humble. We’d like to acquaint everyone with Charlie Louvin at some point.”