“Kentucky is a real crossroads place. We get little pieces of lots of different cultures and stories and influences. And Kentucky in particular has always been really good about embodying that in our art that came out, whether it was quilting, dancing, storytelling, fiddle tunes, or the music we put out. ” —Ben Sollee
Ben Sollee wasn’t just fiddlin’ Dixie when he gave that quote to Slacker Radio in 2012. His career has been a vibrant showcase of the patchwork cultures, stories, and influences that make up Kentucky culture. Above and beyond his artistic temperament, Ben’s career has followed paths that are only trod by the true eclectic. Out of his great love for his homeland and a desire to maintain Kentucky’s beauty, Ben has found an innovative engagement with the tour schedule of a wandering minstrel and the activist traditions of the American folk singer.
Trained in classical cello, Ben’s signature instrument provides a unique centerpiece to his all-American songwriting style. The cello provides a multi-functional foundation for a musical group. As Ben himself has pointed out, he can provide rhythm, melody, harmony, or more subtle shading, all with a classic instrument that is both familiar to music lovers and a refreshing change of pace from the more common bass or guitar. With inspirations ranging from Wilson Pickett to Billie Holliday to his fiddling grandfather, Ben’s music takes bits and pieces from a plethora of American folk music traditions. You might get a real old-timey Appalachian knee-slapper, but you could just as easily find him collaborating with My Morning Jacket’s experimental take on rock and roll. As with many of his contemporaries, Ben’s superb technique enables him to fit just as well with renowned banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck as he would with the relatively avant-garde Andrew Bird.
But to talk about Ben Sollee solely as an instrumentalist would surely elide his gifts as a storyteller. Each of his songs, each of his albums, and each of his concerts pick elements from his life and, through his unique musical alchemy, create compelling narratives that connect with each audience member on a personal level. It is this gift, rarely bestowed and highly prized, that has led Ben to take up the mantle of American folk storytelling. Ben takes his inspiration a step beyond what most artists are willing or able to do, traveling in a style Shakespeare would find more familiar than Taylor Swift would.
Ben sometimes goes on modern music tours to reach his far-flung fans, but he has also become known for his bike tours. He sets out on a specially modified long-bike, with his best pal, his cello, safely nestled in the back. Ben enhances his intimate style by connecting directly with the people of every town along his route. He gets to make a direct connection with his audience and continually meet new neighbors and make new friends as he performs his heartfelt hymns. An artist’s dream come true! Not only does his travel allow him to connect with the people around him, it connects him directly to the land in a way that a plane or bus simply doesn’t. Perhaps it is this connection which has led Ben to advocate for living sustainable lives that take care of our communities, our culture, and our country.
Or maybe it’s just that growing up in Kentucky, you can’t help but fall in love with the wooded peaks of the Appalachians. These mountains’ purple majesty rises above the land, from Black Mountain to Yellow Rock, inspiring awe and wonder from generation to generation. But Ben sees a clear and present danger to these glorious ridges: Mountain Top Removal Strip Mining. This practice gets at coal a bit quicker and a bit cheaper than other forms of mining but may carry too high a price for the land itself. Ben has teamed with Oxfam America and Patagonia Clothing to combat this and other practices troubling to responsible stewards of the earth. American folk singers have often been the voice of the land, speaking out against violence and destruction, and Ben continues this tradition with great aplomb.
With such a widespread collection of inspirations, collaborators, passions, and causes, it’s no surprise that Ben Sollee has found himself right in the center of American folk. Eclectic styles can sometimes bring an artist to the edge of a genre, but there is something about this brand of Kentucky music that feels right at home taking a couple bars from Beethoven and a tune from a local mine’s favorite drinking song and mixing them together. Ben has been able to update some of music’s oldest customs while maintaining their universal appeal. Personal stories with innovative music based on a direct connection to the audience and the environment make Ben’s voice ring out from sea to sea.