Three by Tim Lee (and the Tim Lee 3)

I’ve got this road trip in my head, rolling east to see our nation’s hidden wonders. First stop, Memphis, to see John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives. Full of barbecue and rootsy rock, onward I’d roll to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to catch Glossary. Then, plunge into the hollows of east Tennessee bound for Knoxville, to see the Tim Lee 3. Last, clear the Blue Ridge and head for Baltimore to hear Arty Hill and the Long Gone Daddys.

Hell, sorry Arty, but I might not make it out of Knoxville, not after hearing Raucous Americanus by the Tim Lee 3. Lee’s been around a long time, starting with the jangle-popping Windbreakers in the early ’80s, but this 21-song record from 2010 is the kind of thing that gives you faith in growing old. It shows a singer, writer and guitarist who’s assimilated a world of rock far wider than the Byrdsy Southern pop of the Windbreakers – and he and buddy Bobby Sutliff were damn good doing that alone.

I first heard the Windbreakers in the late ’80s or early ’90s, when I scared up a couple of their LPs from cutout bins in South Carolina. I liked those records but pretty much set them aside until getting separate review CDs from Lee and Sutliff back in 2003. Sold on those CDs, I dug into the stacks and pulled out the Windbreakers again. Enough backstory, as it’s just a long way of saying Tim Lee and his catalog are well worth seeking out. Here are three places to start.

THE WINDBREAKERs, Time Machine (Paisley Pop, 2003) — Loads of electric and acoustic guitar, jangling and cutting , drive the Windbreakers’ addictive pop melodies. Singing along are Bobby Sutliff, he with the higher, lighter voice, and Tim Lee, he with the more straight-ahead rock voice.

Contemporaries of the R.E.M. and Let’s Active, it’s Southern more by location than by anything that makes you go “these boys must be from Mississippi” (they were). It’s timeless pop – harmonies, songs about girls, ringing guitars – that brings to mind the Beatles filtered through a particularly American upbringing. Looking for something to group this with, think Alex Chilton, Tommy Keene, the DBs, Rain Parade or, for Midwest obscurists, the Leatherwoods and Kansan Todd Newman. This collection draws from some half-dozen Windbreakers’ albums, adds two songs from in 2002, and is as fine an introduction as you’ll find (the originals are out of print).

It’s hard to pick favorites but here goes. From the voice of Lee come “You Never Give Up,” a vaguely gospelish cover of Television’s “Glory,” “I’ll be Back” and its squiggly, psychedelicized guitar part, and the fast-paced, fittingly named “Run.” From Sutliff are “New Red Shoes” and its pulsing guitar and plinking piano, “Stupid Idea” and the pretty but sad “On the Wire,” with its sweetly sung kissoff of “for all I care, you can go straight to hell.” Best of all is Sutliff’s “Visa Cards and Antique Mirrors”(“Hanging on your wall, they’re the only thing you ever cared about at all.”). Opening the song and recurring throughout is a big, echoing descending guitar riff, it might be the ’Breakers’ best song and, like the rest, is ear candy of the highest order.

TIM LEE, Under the House (Paisley Pop, 2003) —  Tim Lee always seemed like the more rootsy half of the Windbreakers, but even after adding a few years and subtracting partner Bobby Sutliff, the sound on this record surprised me some. Sparer, darker, more acoustic, more rocking, more country, with vocals that dig straight in.

Released after a several-year recording break and a move to Knoxville, Tenn., from Mississippi, it’s the sound of Lee I’ve come to know and love. It’s more outward-looking – far fewer songs about girls (Still think about them, still look at them, but sing about them all the time? That can get creepy as you get older…). It opens with the quiet and somber “All That Much,” then kicks it up a bit with “Laura” before taking a rocking ride down “Highway 49.”

Lee’s guitar work – a bit Neil Young, a bit John Fogerty swamp, rocking, pulsing, echoing – drives these songs, which seem more Southern, tales of people and place, more straightforward, more adult. “Skating Rink,” for example, is a small-town tale of a young woman’s dissatisfaction – “all the boys she knows just want to play. She’s looking for one that wants to run away. “

Lee’s vocals are direct, plaintive, weary, accepting of life, as he declares he doesn’t want “Any Part of This,” that it’s “Just Another Day” or that he’s been “Everywhere But Here” and that he wants to “break out of here and into the light.” Closing out the record is fitting, statement of purpose “Keep it True;” a listen to Under the House shows Lee’s found the way to do that.

TIM LEE 3, Raucous Americanus (Cool Dog Sound, 2010) — Sometimes I’ll hear an album that just needs an editor. Chop four or five songs, bring it down to 45 minutes instead of stuffing 79 minutes and 58 seconds onto a CD because you can.

Raucous Americanus inspires no such thoughts. This is that rare recording worthy of double-album status. Twenty-one songs, right at 80 minutes and worth every bit of time you spend with it. It’s got a ton of variety: Stonesy rockers like “Salty Tears”; choogling boogie like “1,000 Miles,” “Kerosene/Matches” and “Dig it Up”; bluesy country like “Broken Line Fever”; the jangling “Bigger” and “Hit the Ground.”

That it works so well for so long is largely due to something Tim Lee added to his music a couple years ago: his wife, Susan Bauer Lee, on bass, vocals and songwriting. More than two decades into their marriage, she picked up the bass and joined the band. It’s brought an added dimension and texture to Lee’s music, which already had plenty. The trio rocks hard, and her vocals complement his, whether in a backup role and the many times here she steps out front and takes the lead (often, it seems, freeing him to fire away on guitar).

The result is music, of art, that is – like any good marriage – greater than the sum of its parts. “What I Have Not Got” starts off this record with its declaration of “I want so much more for you and me, babe, but I do not want what I have not got.” I don’t know if Tim Lee’s writing about himself there, but he sure as hell could be. And, though making music sure hasn’t made him rich, it’s made anyone who’s heard a whole lot richer.

Hear the Tim Lee 3 at www.myspace.com/timleemusic

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