From the instant Adam Lee’s voice sneaks up through a happy Ben Folds-style piano vamp and sultry, jazzy horns on “Son of a Gun,” it’s clear his move to Chicago made some changes. Lee’s rockabilly hairstyle and unmistakably country voice are definitely still there, but Sincerely, Me is a new type of record.
Lee was a fixture in Kansas City for years, and really, he still is — he held his CD release party at Davey’s Uptown, which gets a shout-out in the liner notes as Lee’s “favorite bar in the world.” When he’s with the Dead Horse Sound Company (his KC incarnation for years), Lee plays straight-forward honky-tonk and his baritone drives songs dripping with whiskey and neon.
That voice (and Lee’s country proficiency) didn’t go unnoticed. In 2013, producers recruited him to play Johnny Cash in The Million Dollar Quartet, a musical based around that lightning-in-a-bottle moment in 1956 when Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins got together at Sun Studios to sing a few songs. (Lawrence native and BR-549 co-founder Chuck Mead happened to be the musical director for that production.)
The show brought Lee to Chicago, which ultimately led to Sincerely, Me. Lee’s voice, still filled with Cash’s gravel, is a constant. But this is a storyteller’s album, part Tom T. Hall and part Randy Newman and filled with momentous tales of people generally unnoticed — including himself.
The album kicks off with “Good Days,” a loping meditation on the struggles of being a songwriter these days — especially one who’s trying to stay sober. Losing his ability to stay true to his art (“It was always instinct/but it’s calculated now”), the narrator knows he’s slipping into something unsustainable. (One line — “I gotta get drunk to sleep” — staggers in from outside the melody like a footnote.) The chorus’s first line, “I know good days are gonna come,” lasts less than another line before decaying to “I hope good days are gonna come.”
Many of these songs open sudden and unexpected black holes of sadness. “Patrick” is an Irish fiddle-driven tale of a son whose mother, broken after her other son's death, unfailing calls him by his dead brother's name. It requires at least a travel-pack of Kleenex. “When She Danced,” the story of an exotic dancer’s search for redemption at the back of a Baptist congregation, packs the knife-twisting details and bottomless regret of a Flannery O’Connor story.
The nostalgic “Sing With Me” is a Mekons-style pub anthem of punk-rock pasts and suburban presents, with Lee reminiscing about “starting bands before we knew how to play.” It's a plea to formerly touring friend who’s “traded all those couches for a nice two-bedroom home”: Won’t the guy please just sing with him? When Tennessee songwriter Matt Woods actually joins in, quietly at first then with gusto, it’s one of the most touching moments on the album.
And right about now, who doesn’t need a come-together pub-style anthem?
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.