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Nomadic Americana ace Frankie Lee strums up national buzz

Frankie Lee

Frankie Lee

In order to follow Frankie Lee's musical progression, you might need a map.

The nomadic Americana singer-songwriter has traversed the country for more than a decade. And even as his buzzing debut album, July 8's American Dreamer, accelerates his career, he's not settling down.

Lee's story begins in Prescott, Wisconsin. Picture a farm house with a big circle driveway, goats, chickens, bees, gardens. The closest neighbor was two miles away. A tight-knit family. No babysitters. Lee describes his happy boyhood as "outside with no pants on, running down hills and hurting yourself, getting back up again, eating dirt."

Music was a shared family pleasure. Lee's mother played piano and accordion. His father performed with a rotating cast of musicians from the West Bank in Minneapolis.

"That was my first introduction to music, through family and friends," Lee, 34, remembers ahead of his concert Saturday at the Turf Club. "It was people sitting around a kitchen table or a fire at night."

The family eventually moved to Stillwater, Minnesota. Shortly after, Lee's father died in a motorcycle accident. Just 12 years old at the time, Lee was taken under the wings of Minnesota music greats Slim Dunlap and Curtiss A. The self-taught guitarist says his interest has always been in the craft, not "selfish, ego-driven" approaches to music.

Frankie Lee on the hog farm

Frankie Lee on the hog farm

"I had a lot of longing for community and a sense of place," he says. "And I found it through music."

Though Lee played in a band and made the varsity soccer team at Stillwater Area High School, as he approached young adulthood, something didn't quite click for him. At 20, Lee dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

"A lot of people are going into debt or trying to be somebody or trying to figure out your major or figure out who you're in love with or where you want to move — all that pressure that we all feel," he explains. "I just said, 'Fuck that.'"

Instead, Lee hit the open road. His only itinerary? Pilgrimages to the places that produced the records he loved. His first destination was Nashville.

"Unfortunately, I showed up on a Sunday, so there wasn't anything going on," he says. "Kind of a church town."

After a stop in Memphis, he continued on to Austin, Texas, where he ritually attended residencies of country-western and blues artists. He'd study them down to the minutia — whether they talked between songs, how they'd tweak guitar tuning, if they wore shorts onstage. Lee wasn't trying to form a band or break onto the scene as a solo artist. He was simply hungry to soak in the culture.

Lee found kindred spirits in the people who were "a little bit older and a little bit stranger" than himself.

"The people that I saw my age were getting wasted on Jägerbombs and Fireball," he remembers. "Even though they were saying they were going to college and had a future, that just didn't appeal to me at all."

To support himself, Lee delivered newspapers and worked at a diner. He even scored a cabinet-building gig from "J.T." Van Zandt, the son of Texas songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt.

"There was a lot of getting by and living very simply and affording yourself the time to explore," Lee says of the six-plus years he spent in Texas.

FRANKIE LEE - Where Do We Belong (Official Video) from Loose Music on Vimeo.

That exploration led him to Los Angeles around 2008, where the music scene was far from accessible.

"In L.A., I could go to shows and meet people," Lee says. "But I'd have to drive to it or I'd have to constantly seek it out."

Attending a Trampled by Turtles concert in 2010, however, proved fortuitous. While hanging out with the Minnesota bluegrass-folk stars after the show, he heard the members praising the Twin Cities music scene.

"It sounded like something I had been looking for," Lee says. "I was like, 'Oh! These are my people! I'll go where my people are.'"

And go he did, following TbT in his old pickup truck all the way back to Minnesota.

The Twin Cities music scene, where Lee says he could walk into a bar and run into 10 people he knew on any given night, was a fortifying place.

"As soon as I got home, I met some really important people in my life," he says, "musically and spiritually and friendship — all those hippie things."

In 2013, Lee put out his Middle West EP, which featured contributions from local talents like Erik Koskinen, Jake Hanson, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mike Lewis, and Haley Bonar.

"It was a really good place for me to start creating because I had a lot of songs and records and ideas, but never really had found people or a place to make it," he says. "[Minneapolis] felt right."

While working on a hog farm near Afton, Minnesota, Lee began assembling the songs that would compose his debut full-length, American Dreamer, a winsome homage to early mornings, back roads, rootlessness, and a search for belonging. Its authentic, timeless sound is already scoring heaps of praise from critics (Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, NPR) and fellow musicians alike.

"It took him a long time to come out with his own solo project — he played so much music with other people — and when he did, everybody was just blown away," Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett says. "I'm a huge fan of his songwriting — it's so honest and poetic."

American Dreamer found its home at London-based label Loose, a match Lee attributes to a shared emphasis on quality songwriting.

"Songs first. Image and all that other bullshit second," he says of music-biz priorities across the pond.

There's also an English fascination with Western tropes, Lee says, another reason the roaming Midwesterner appealed to his label.

"They love the idea of the American cowboy or a man against nature," he says.

Lee will celebrate his new album Saturday at the Turf Club. It's not a homecoming, exactly, given that he's moved back to Nashville, but it seems the humble wanderer has come full circle. Maybe he took the long way there, but one thing's for sure: American Dreamer was worth the wait. 

Frankie Lee
With: Harvey Benson.
When: 8 p.m. Sat., July 9.
Where: Turf Club. 
Tickets: $15; more info here.