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Glema Center Graced by Traveling, Genre-Bending, Cellist Ben Sollee

Ben SolleeCellist Ben Sollee, performed at Glema Mahr Center for the Arts, March 22. (Photo Amber Averitt/SurfKY News reporter)MADISONVILLE, Ky. (3/24/14) — If you missed Saturday night's Coffee House Series at the Glema Mahr Center for the Arts, then you missed out on genre-bending cellist Ben Sollee’s live acoustic performance.

Sollee, born and raised in Kentucky, fell in love with the cello when he was in third grade.

“I was 9 years old when I first learned about the cello,” said Sollee. “It was one of those situations where the teacher came in and demonstrated all the instruments to you. She then played the cello, and I was sold. I went to my mom and dad and said ‘there is this instrument that makes these crazy sound. Can I play it?’”

Although he learned various classical techniques and music in school, Sollee also had other influences from his father and grandfather.

“It was beautiful music, and I appreciated what it was,” said Sollee. “But, it had very little to do with me as a 9-year-old in Kentucky. So, I would take my cello home, and my dad was a pretty mighty R & B guitar player and taught me old R & B tunes. Some weekends, I would go and stay with my grandfather and he was a fiddler and taught me fiddle tunes on the cello. It was super fun, I loved to just jam like that.”

Sollee is known for his thrilling cello playing. His style incorporates newer techniques that combine bluegrass, jazz, folk and R&B. His vocals are rough and smoky with the ability to unite complex arrangements.

“I lived two very distinct different lives as a cellist,” said Sollee. “There was the institutional life, where I played what was written, and then there was the more social life of sitting on front porches, playing and making up things by listening to different sounds. For the longest time, I wanted to bring both my worlds together, and so I went on and started touring with bands."

"It wasn’t until the day I decided to write my own song for the cello, that the light bulb clicked, and then I wrote, ‘Bury me with my Car.’ " – Ben Sollee

Sollee's music gained attention with his 2008 debut album, “Learning to Bend.” NPR’s Morning Edition called him one of the “Top Ten Great Unknown Artists” of the year.

Sollee uses his everyday influences to compose songs such as “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain.”

“The one thing I have a hard time describing to people, who aren’t from Kentucky, are the mountains,” said Sollee. “It’s amazing how much art has been stimulated from the nooks and crannies of the mountains — like cookbooks, stories, fiddle tunes, which inspired one of my songs. Well, actually, a girl inspired the song, I’ll be honest.”

Sollee shared his short story.

He followed a freckle-faced, green-eyed girl to California. Her hair was a brilliant reddish-orange. But she broke his heart, and he headed back to Kentucky. On his way home, he was inspired to write a song.

“She was from Somerset,” said Sollee. “I chased her out to California where she was going to do some school work and it was supposed to be a magical place… but not for us. So, I moved back to Kentucky with a broken heart. While I was traveling (through) eastern Kentucky, I saw a hillside that was green, except for this one tree that was exactly the color of this girl’s hair. I took it as some sort of sign; I was able to get a good song out of it.”

Sollee has toured the world with Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet, alongside Grammy nominee Casey Driessen and multi Grammy winner Bela Flack. He also caught the attention of "My Morning Jacket" frontman Jim James, who produced Sollee’s second full-length album in collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore.

Between his touring and releasing an album, Sollee has held workshops in a number of Kentucky schools, performed in San Diego, composed and recorded performances for two feature-length films and two original ballet pieces.

Sollee wrote his first original film score for the documentary "Maidentrip," which won the Audience Award for Vision at SXSW Film 2013.

He was also the featured solo cellist in the score of the “Killing Season,” starring Robert DiNero and John Travolta.

“I got this call from a Hollywood director, who was making a movie and the main characters were Robert DeNiro and John Travolta,” said Sollee. “So, I was asked to write a song for the end of the movie, called ‘Letting Go,’ which tied the whole movie together.”

Next week, Sollee will perform live in front of one of his greatest influences, Paul Simon.

“I will be playing in front of one of my favorite singers, songwriters and narrators, Paul Simon, next week in New York at Carnegie Hall,” said Sollee.

Sollee describes the life of a cellist both rewarding and hard.

“So, as much enjoyment I have had being a cellist,” said Sollee, “there really isn’t a clear path through the woods for a music singing cellist. It’s sometimes confusing, but a joyous thing to have the privilege of doing, and it’s also really hard. But, it has its advantages.”

For more information, visit Ben Sollee online and 'like' him on Facebook.

Amber Averitt
SurfKY News Reporter

© Copyright 2014 SurfKY News Group, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, or rewritten without permission. SurfKY News encourages you to share this story by using one of the social media links below.

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