In 2013, Adam Lee was a Kansas City songwriter with a band called the Dead Horse Sound Company, playing music that honored traditional country sounds.
In March of that year, Lee heard from the Chicago producers of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical based on the 1956 recording sessions that included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. A cast member Lee had met on tour had recommended Lee for the role of Cash because of Lee’s deep bass voice.
“I was down at South by Southwest playing the MidCoast Takeover, and I got an email from people with the show asking me if I was interested,” Lee said. “I was kind of taken aback. But it seemed different enough. I thought it might be cool to check out.”
So he did. In April 2013 he auditioned. In August he got the part and moved to Chicago, and since then has been playing the role of one of country music’s greatest legends as many as eight times a week. (The touring “Million Dollar Quartet” company performs this weekend at Starlight Theater, but Lee is not part of that show.) He has also been sustaining his solo career, which he started in Kansas City.
Lee will be back in Kansas City on Saturday to perform at the Westport Roots Festival. From his home in Chicago on Monday, Lee talked to The Star about the acting, his upcoming album and the state of roots music:
Had you done any theater before “Million Dollar Quartet”?
No, unless you want to count my middle school’s production of “M*A*S*H.”
What has it taught you about performing?
Theater runs a bit different than a rock ’n’ roll show. More than anything, I’ve noticed, that the show does not stop. It doesn’t matter what goes wrong, the show is like a freight train barreling along, and everyone involved just tries to hold on and keep up. I’ve tried to take some of that attitude into what I do outside of the theater. Don’t just strap on your guitar and sing some songs. Give the audience the best, most seamless performance you can. Give them a show.
Do you still have the Dead Horse Sound Company or do you tour solo these days?
I do both, but I do a lot of solo shows, so I just go by Adam Lee. It’s less confusing.
It has been five years since you released an album. Are you recording now?
Yeah, the last record was a lot of honky-tonk and classic country, an homage to ’50s and ’60s country. It was lots of fun. The new stuff is different. It’s still roots and Americana but with some R&B, some down-tempo piano tunes. I took some time off from touring last summer to write songs. We started recording in October. I’ve been recording with Johnny Kenepaske, who’s got a studio in Independence. We’re hoping to get it out in August.
You’ll be in Kansas City on Saturday for the Westport Roots Festival. How often have you been able to get back here to perform?
I’ve been back only once, in January for a show at Davey’s Uptown, my favorite bar. So I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be playing with (former Kansas Citians) Ryan Land and Dave Bruchmann. I’ll also have Hanna Mathey on fiddle.
There seems to be a resurgence in roots music over the past few years: more bands, more labels, more venues. Have you noticed it?
I started noticing it my last year in Kansas City. Part of it I think is geographical. We’re in the middle of everything. So a lot of bands come through and keep coming through. I think it also has to do with how encouraging Kansas City is to the arts in general. I mean, look at Rural Grit (Happy Hour at The Brick). That’s been going on since the ’90s. It was part of the alt-country thing in Kansas City with bands like Sandoval and the Gaslights.
Having the Westport Saloon and Little Class Records really helps. They work real hard and bring in bands and make sure they’re taken care of and make sure people come out for the shows.
Adam Lee performs at 7:30 p.m. on the Riot Room patio as part of the Westport Roots Festival.