Picked to Click 2013: #5. Frankie Lee
Frankie Lee comes off a lot like a drifter and a wanderer in the mold of Woody Guthrie -- riding the rails with the clothes on his back and a guitar in hand. He sure looks the part, with his cowboy hat, scraggly blond beard, worn jean jacket, and work boots. But the truth is altogether different. For Lee and his music, it's all about finding a place in the world, one that's real and permanent.
#5. Frankie Lee: 49 points
"My first memories," says Lee, "are of being outside, and of farms." He grew up mostly in Stillwater but spent his earliest years on a dairy farm in Prescott, Wisconsin. "There was a big front porch and you had a beehive and the food was homemade," he recalls. "My mom still has a piano, and every time I go out there, we play music."
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Lee -- who performs under his middle name rather his last name, Peterson -- has spent most of his adult life working to rediscover, and keep connected with, those experiences. When he was 20, he moved to Austin, Texas, a place that reassured him such a life was still possible. "It was like going to music school for free -- or for five bucks a night," he says. "Everybody plays, everybody sings [there]. There's no separation between a mom at a piano and a band in a bar."
After spending seven years in Austin and another two in Los Angeles, playing mostly as a sideman, Lee returned to Minnesota in 2010. Last spring, when he released his first EP, a collection of weathered, country-tinged folk songs, he called it Middle West -- an ode to John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie. Even then, he was intent on playing music and living life at his own pace -- and on his own terms. Lee waited more than a year to release the songs after they'd been recorded. "The way those songs were played, and the way I'd written them, they seemed like songs that would last. I said, 'Let's live with it a little bit.'"
Indeed, there's a timeless quality to the songs that Lee writes, songs that aim to break through any given moment to hit at the heart of something that's both larger and more intimate in our lives. "Everything to me is a story. Wherever you're coming from, you're trying to connect that story to people," Lee insists, motioning with his hands as though pushing a toy train.
"Everybody knows what it's like to be lonely, everybody knows what it's like to be in love or to want to be in love," he adds. "I want to be a link in that chain, I don't want to be outside of it."
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