If I close my eyes I can see Rick Lee with his keyboard set up in Philip’s living room. He could hush an audience quicker than any musician I knew. Within seconds, closing his own eyes, he took us to Scotland or England or his home town of Natick, Massachusetts. His voice was “warm enough to fry an egg” according to Folk World Magazine (Germany), January 2006.
I first met Rick Lee at the Ocracoke Music and Storytelling Festival a few years ago. I was drawn to him because of his appearance before I even heard him play or sing. His long white mustache came down on both sides of his face with no beard in the middle. Perhaps that was to be able to play instruments or sing in a microphone or maybe it just grew that way!
When he took the stage he accompanied my balladeer friend, Bob Zentz, in a group they called “Scuttlebutt.” One at a time the instruments were played on the stage for each song … banjo, guitar, piano, ukulele, jaw harp, concertina and others. The two men sang those Chantey songs as if they were aboard a long ago schooner and we were hoisting the sails.
It was after hours that I learned to love Rick Lee’s work. After each festival the musicians set up at Philip’s house on Ocracoke for the after-festival party. When Rick Lee was in attendance he always set up in the corner of the living room. Maybe that was where the keyboard fit best, or maybe he set up so he could watch the other musicians and the others, like me, who just came to listen or sing.
The first time I heard “Follow the Heron Home” was during one of those late-night parties. “Follow the Heron Home” is a song written by Scottish singer and songwriter Karine Polwart. As Rick Lee started the tune, I began to cry right away listening to him sing. With his eyes closed and his head back he sang with his heart, and it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard. I asked him to play it again, and he did. Every year, after that, he sang that song for me, or should I say, to me.
Rick Lee died this week. He did not even tell his friends he was ill, although Bob Zentz knew something was wrong as Rick began to miss festivals this summer. When the news came through the grapevine this week, everyone was stunned, including me.
Through my own tears of grief for this generous and talented man, I made calls and went on line trying to find out more about him. Rick Lee has a Facebook page with only 30 likes. There are a few photos and a few recordings of his work. There is a lovely piano recording of him performing in Scotland, one in California and a few videos of him playing at his kitchen table.
He played with artists such as Merle Haggard, Doc Watson and so many other folk musicians. He has CD recordings from his hometown of Natick, Massachusetts, and a few with Bob Zentz.
Rick Lee’s grandfather was born in the Tennessee mountains where his style of music was influenced by sitting on the front porch jamming with folks as the sun was setting. I can only imagine Rick Lee as a child sitting at his grandfather’s knee listening to mountain tunes or the Scots/Irish ballads that wove themselves into the Appalachian Mountains. I am sure there were never formal lessons; it was simply a matter of picking up the banjo and beginning to play.
I spent my day saying goodbye to Rick Lee. I watched his videos, called friends and even picked up my own guitar trying to pluck out a version of “Follow the Heron Home,” which was to no avail. I even liked his page on Facebook, which put it to 31. I imagine he didn’t try to get fans in any way as he certainly was not ostentatious. Perhaps that is why he chose to set up in the corner of the living room year after year. Maybe he was just playing the music for himself.
In one of the videos I found he was singing “Sing My Songs and I Will Hear You,” written by Steve Warner. Rick Lee, thank you for your songs, your walrus mustache and your love of music simply because you loved music. We will always hear you sing.
LOU ANN HOMAN-SAYLOR lives in Angola at the White Picket Gardens where you can find her gardening or writing late into the night under the light of her frayed scarlet lamp. She is a storyteller, teacher, writer, actress and a collector of front porch stories.