While performing at Cumberland, Md.'s DelFest (named for bluegrass legend Del McCoury), The Lee Boys let a fan jam with them. "He was just feeling it and asked his manager if he could get up on stage," Alvin Lee, the band's leader and guitarist, recalls. "I didn't know who he was, but I could tell by his hair he must be Del's son."
That impromptu pairing led to a more formal alliance between sacred steel act the Lee Boys — a Miami-based group made up of brothers Alvin, Derrick and Keith Lee with nephews Roosevelt Collier, Alvin Cordy Jr. and Earl Walker — and The Travelin' McCourys — a bluegrass band with Del McCoury's sons Ronnie and Robbie joined by Jason Carter and Alan Bartram.
If bluegrass and sacred steel (a style of gospel music that developed in House of God churches in the 1930s after brothers Troman and Willie Eason replaced organ with pedal-steel guitar — usually associated with Hawaiian music — in worship services) seem strange bedmates, Lee isn't bothered. "Our chemistry just jelled," he recalls. "We call our collaboration 'Sacred Grass.'" According to Lee, due to the family connection, his band and the McCourys share more commonalities than many of the Southern-rock and jam bands with which the Lee Boys have previously worked.
As for what it's like to be in the tight-knit Lee Boys: "It's definitely difficult with decision-making, but because we are a family, it makes us better," says Lee. "At the end of the day, we love each other and try to work it out."
It was commitment to family that spawned the group — at least its public, touring, bar-and-festival-playing iteration — a decade ago. In 2000, Lee both his father, who was a pastor at the church in which the brothers grew up. The same year, Lee also lost his brother, steel guitarist Glenn, with whom he'd started the sacred-steel band. Those losses spurred Lee to recruit his nephew, steel guitarist Collier, and take the act on the road. It's not just about bringing sacred steel — a soulful, jammed-out, upbeat, gospel-infused, secular-approved brand of feel-good rock — to the masses; it's about remaining close to the dearly departed.
"At first we were church boys, and some of the older [parishioners] feel [the music] should have been kept within the four walls," Lee says of the transition from chapels to clubs. The Lee Boys' first festival was in Nova Scotia, performing to a crowd of about 7,000. "We were able to do like we'd done in church," Lee recalls. "When we're on stage, we still get spirit-filled."
And the band's sound spoke to its new, secular audience, landing the Lee Boys slots on Jam Cruise and a high-profile fan base including Victor Wooten, Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring. Not that those big names phased Lee.
"I didn't grow up listening to those guys," he points out. Thanks to his church upbringing, Lee and his brothers were fairly sheltered. In fact, he says, "We had a strict doctrine. We couldn't go to movies or clubs." Since he and his brother Glenn were the last born of eight children, the Lee parents had loosened the reigns enough for the youngest sons to join marching band and listen to Michael Jackson — influences that quickly found their way into the church performances. "Back in the 1980s, we were the real rebels," Lee laughs.
But when a certain icon-to-some guitarist, moved by the Lee Boys' music wanted to sit in, what was Lee's reaction? "Just let this guy on stage. I didn't know who he was. Turned out to be Bob Weir." Sometimes not knowing famous people eliminates the intimidation factor, though it seems a safe bet that Lee feels confident in himself no matter what. "I always keep what I do sacred steel," he says.
But that doesn't mean more boundary-pushing collaborations aren't on the horizon. Following their current tour with Hill Country Revue (a spinoff project of North Mississippi Allstars), the Lee Boys plan to go into the studio this summer to record a new album. Says Lee, "We want to collaborate with Oteil [Burnbridge], The Peacemakers, the Allman Brothers. Our minds are very open."
who: The Lee Boys (with headliner Hill Country Revue)
what: Sacred steel
where: The Garage at Biltmore
when: Thursday, April 8 (doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m., $15. thegarageatbiltmore.com)