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Lee: Have banjo, will travel

By Staff | Mar 30, 2011

From a young age, Will Lee knew he wanted to be a performer. Growing up with musicians on both sides of his family, it was a natural progression for Lee to follow in their footsteps.

His father, Rickey Lee, was a well-known guitarist with the Bluegrass Tarheels, special proteges of Bill Monroe and later, lead guitarist for the Stanley Brothers. On his mom’s side, Grandpa Clark was a fine ragtime pianist whose two sons both play guitar.

Lee’s choice of instrument, the banjo, was passed down from his grandfather and namesake, William Penmon Lee, a respected clawhammer banjo player in Alabama and Mississippi.

After high school, young Will Lee began playing festivals and caught up with 19-year-old Larry Keel, a flat-picking phenom. The duo were soon joined by Danny Knicely and John Flower on mandolin and bass and Magraw Gap was born.

Now Lee is joining Keel once again to bring his two loves together — pickin’ and fishin’.

Graffiti: How and when did you know being a musician was what you wanted to do with your life?

Lee: I was 8-years-old and played harmonica in a 4-H talent show called “Share the Fun” – I won first place overall entertainer two years in a row – I knew then that entertaining people was something I liked to do.

Graffiti: I read that you spent some time at Ralph Stanley’s farm in Virginia when you were younger. What was that like? Were there just all kinds of musicians there all the time?

Lee: We moved from North Carolina to Dickerson County, Virginia, where we lived at the Stanley Brothers homeplace in the early ’70s, when my daddy was on the road with Ralph Stanley. The homeplace is also where Ralph Stanley holds his annual festival, the stage was about 1/4-mile from our house, and I remember Bob Goodman would do the sound and when my daddy was on the stage we could hear his guitar thundering across the hills and we’d go running down to the stage. And, yeah, I got to spend some time with the great musicians because they would all come to play the festival. I got to play at Ralph’s festival and then Ralph took me to Lavonia, Georgia to Jimmy Martin’s festival so he could take me on stage with him to play harmonica.

Graffiti: Who have been some of your biggest influences over the years, either musical or otherwise?

Lee: Obviously, my dad Rickey Lee … Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and Earl Scruggs were my first banjo influences. Then in my late teens I met young musicians who were more advanced and contemporary and that changed my outlook on music. Bill Dance is my favorite fisherman.

Graffiti: Do you play primarily bluegrass or do you dabble in other genres?

Lee: Up until the time I met Larry Keel, Danny Knicely and Rex Mcgee, I was primarily a bluegrass banjo picker. And although I still hold down the bluegrass end in the band, I like doing the reggae and rock covers that we do. I like getting spacey, too.

Graffiti: What is it about “mountain music” that inspires you to keep going out and doing what you do?

Lee: It is basically the roots of many mainstream musics and I’m a third generation musician who respects where it all came from.

Graffiti: Tell me how you got hooked up with Larry Keel.

Lee: I met Larry Keel at Galax Fiddlers Convention and he was 16 and I was a couple years older – haha – I saw him in a jam session playing the fastest, hottest Tony Rice licks I’d ever heard. So I convinced him to come hang out with me and my brother and we’ve been pickin’ ever since.

Graffiti: What’s the deal with Trout and Tunes? Why combine these two things and what, specifically, will you be doing at the event?

Lee: At Trout and Tunes we are going to be hanging out doing some music workshops, having some jam sessions and fishing in some great West Virginia trout waters -both of which are two of my passions. I will be doing banjo workshops to hopefully help some folks that are just beginning and want to learn some new licks or some of my style of banjo or just to pick some tunes. And I plan on trying to catch some trout on the fly rod.