Ben Sollee Blends Soul, Songwriting and Cycling to Gigs

Ben Sollee is in no danger of getting lost in the crowd of bicycle-touring, Appalachian ecology-discussing, cello-playing, Sam Cooke-influenced, folk, rock and jazz-riffing singer-songwriters. He’s the only one of his kind. And instead of searching out a ready-made script for what his career ought to look like, he’s gravitated toward equally adventurous collaborators.

Early on, Sollee accompanied postmodern folk-bluesman Otis Taylor. Then there was the unorthodox Sparrow Quartet, in which he played inventive rhythmic anchor to banjoists Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn and fiddler Casey Driessen. He also made an album with singer-songwriter Daniel Martin Moore that served as a modern folk elegy for a Kentucky landscape ravaged by mountaintop removal mining. Yim Yames (a.k.a. Jim James), leader of Southern indie rock outfit My Morning Jacket, produced it. Sollee’s contributed cello to that band’s recordings, too.

So far, he’s made three albums on his own — Learning to Bend, Inclusions and this year’s Half Made Mannone of them remotely predictable, yet all surprisingly accessible. As a singer, he’s equal parts soul crooner and intimate storyteller. As a player, he coaxes a striking range of percussive grooves and tones from his instrument. As a writer, he unfurls an engaged worldview in a way that feels very personal.

And did we mention he’s pedaled his way to a ton of shows, beginning with a 330 mile bike ride to the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., a few years back?

Sollee’s was more than up for talking with CMT Edge about how he arrived at the unique thing he does.

CMT Edge: You seem like the kind of artist who gives a lot of thought to how people respond to what you do.

Sollee: I don’t feel like it’s enough, or is even the only thing, for a musician to put out music anymore. It’s about the whole story these days. People can consume what you make so quickly that it’s now a matter of, “OK, the music’s great. What else does he do?” Instead of saying, “Gosh, people just don’t listen to music like they used to,” I say that’s an opportunity to be able to tell a broader story, you know, about the bicycles and about the communities that I [encounter] in Kentucky, about the organizations that I feel like are doing good work in the world. I feel like it’s a big opportunity to tell a broader story in the digital age.

That’s a lot different than generating interesting talking points for the sake of PR.

You’re dead on. What I’m trying to do as a whole is build and be a part of communities just ‘cause I feel like that’s our best shot at creating any type of lasting change.

What’s attractive about touring by bicycle, as opposed to riding in climate-controlled comfort? Is that something you’re continuing to do?

The bike tours were originally just to be a way out of the craziness of the road. We were flying back and forth across the country two and three times a week, and we were driving through the night in a tour van. It was a way to get out of that through the limitations of the bicycle. A lot of people thought it was about ditching the van or being green or sustainable. For us, it’s all about the limitation and what that limitation does for our shows and for all the people out there on the road. The bike tours are something we keep doing because we’re not trying to save the world. We’re trying to kinda save ourselves in some ways and be more alive on the road. …We try to do about a third of our touring each year that way. This year, I did the Climate Ride from New York down to D.C. and also did a Ditch the Van tour from Newport Folk Festival up to Portland, Maine.

Do you try and do it at certain times of the year?

Well, there’s so many limitations to what it takes to put on a bike tour and what is safe and healthy. Seasons make a big difference. Geography makes a huge difference, obviously. Markets being really close to each other. … And then it takes really special people to be on your tour with you. …You can get in a van and play shows 300 miles apart every day and be able to get that kind of money, versus what you can do on a bicycle. There’s no comparison. However, if the goal is not just economics but audience and community-building, then it’s the best use of your time. Because the people we encounter on the bike tours, they really become lifelong fans. They feel like they are a part of the story. They feel that way because they are. I mean, we were able to make that show happen on that bike tour because they put us up in their house.

You started learning to play in the standard classical setting — in school — but the experimentation entered the picture when you brought your cello home and played other styles with your family. It doesn’t seem like a given that a kid would decide to try out a cello in music that typically has no place for it. Why’d that come so naturally to you?

I’ve never been asked that from that perspective. I do know that it was a pretty organic process. … I’d bring the cello home and show my parents what I had. My dad was an R&B guitar player. He’d teach me the bass line to “Stand by Me.” My mom’s father — who had the coolest name: Elvis Henry Cornelius — was a wonderful fiddler. When I would take the cello with me out there to rural Kentucky for the weekend, he would teach me fiddle tunes, even though he called it a “long-haired instrument.” People that play cello have time to keep long hair, I guess. …

I admired the cello enough, and I had enough support to just bring it with me everywhere. There wasn’t necessarily a boundary on where I could take it. So I think that’s a big part of it. It was always interesting to bounce between the two lives that I had on the cello. There was my institutional life, which was really, really structured, very classical oriented. Then there was this social life, where I would sit and play tunes with my grandfather. I would play in people’s high school rock bands, you know? I just enjoyed the social aspect of playing music, and the cello happened to be my Swiss Army Knife that I carried around. I was also a huge MacGyver fan. So there’s that.

How did you get that early gig with Otis Taylor?

I actually met him because I was searching out other cellists in the world. I was just walking up and asking people at the [Folk Alliance] convention. They were like, “Oh yeah, there’s this one guy Rufus.” … When I found him, he was chatting with Otis, and Otis was trying to convince him to come jam with him at his showcase. The cellist was kinda like, “Yeah … sure … I’ll come.” I was introduced as another cellist, and Otis was like, “You should come, too.” So I showed up, and the other guy didn’t.

How old were you?

Gosh, when I met him, I was 17. … I remember I was playing electric cello at Buddy Guy’s blues club in Chicago, and the bouncers were really, really worried about me being underage. Whenever I would come off the stage, they would escort me up to the dressing room, where they’d removed all the alcohol. I was escorted back to the stage, and there was Buddy Guy onstage with Otis and me. So I played electric cello. He looked that thing up and down. He didn’t know what to think of it. And then after the show he was like, “That sounds pretty cool!” That’s just one example of how a lot of worlds were colliding when I was out with Otis.

People sometimes look at the musical melting pot approach as indicating a lack of distinct identity. You look at as something to be embraced. How’d you get there?

I come from that heritage in Kentucky. … It’s not that I thought to combine these things. It’s that they were just combining in my life. I think that’s why I feel it as a defining thing, to be a mix of lots of things, rather than something that diffuses a particular style.

Does it make a difference that you feel rooted in a place — Kentucky — and its musical traditions?

Yeah, I think that makes all the difference for me. Everybody’s different with this stuff. Sometimes people need to be redefined to be able to find where they’re from. For me, I very naturally understood that Kentucky was a special place in the world because of its geography and because of music. … Being able to define myself as part of the culture — and not just the stereotypical culture but rather the contemporary here-and-now kind of Kentucky I think was really important. Because I stayed. You know, I had a lot of teachers in my school that were wanting to know when my plane out to L.A. or New York was gonna be because they thought to have any kind of music career, which they knew I wanted to have, it needed to happen in those cities. … I always felt like the best shot I had at being unique was just being who I was from where I was.