Tim Lee and his wife, Susan Bauer Lee, moved to Knoxville in 2000 from Murphy, N.C. They didn't really know anybody in town, and Tim—who had been half of the cult '80s Mississippi power-pop band the Windbreakers and an on-and-off solo performer in Oxford, Miss., during the '90s—had no immediate plans to play music. Then he met John T. Baker of the French Broads and Econopop, and pretty soon he was a regular on the local music scene.
"John and I were on a Swiss compilation together," Tim says. "I saw he was from Knoxville, too, and his e-mail address was right there. Then I found out John had a studio in his house. When I find out about a studio, I have to make a record."
That first record was Under the House, a low-key 2003 collection that bridged Windbreakers power pop with rootsy alt-country twang. That was followed in 2004 by No Discretion, recorded live in studios across the South, including Todd Steed's Apeville, the French Broads' Jim Rivers' home studio, and Don Coffey Jr.'s old Studio 613 in Knoxville; and Concrete Dog in 2006. Lee played with a rotating supporting cast—Baker, Rivers, Steed, Coffey, Greg Horne—on those three discs but was slowly working toward the line-up that's been solidified for his latest disc, good2b3.
During the recording of Under the House—and after 20 years of marriage to a working musician—Susan had decided to take up bass. "We had been here for a couple of years before I started playing at all," she says. "I woke up one Saturday morning and decided I wanted to play bass. It was like lightning struck me."
Tim bought a bass from a pawn shop that afternoon, and Susan played on No Discretion and Concrete Dog. For the last couple of years, the couple has been playing with Knoxville veteran Rodney Cash (the Gone Dogs, 30 Amp Fuse) as the Tim Lee 3.
"It's a happening little rock 'n' roll unit," Tim says. "I think it's a comfortable band. I never liked the three-piece thing. For years, I never did it. But Susan and Rodney are a really good rhythm section.... I've played with a lot of great drummers—a lot of my best friends are drummers—but Rodney and Susan hear everything the same way, which makes everything easy for me. The other thing is that Rodney likes a lot of the same music I like, Mott the Hoople, the Faces, New York Dolls, the Stooges, stuff that's not incredibly precise. It's hard to find a drummer who's not hung up on Stewart Copeland and Neil Peart, who just wants to play rock 'n' roll. Any kind of groove that's going on, it's them."
There are plenty of grooves on good2b3, recorded at Chris Schultz and Craig Shumacher's Wave Lab studio in Tucson during two week-long sessions in 2007. The razor-sharp opening track, "'Til the Roof Caves In," reflects the Lees' friendship with former Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn and the kind of souped-up psychedelic R&B he's performed with the Miracle 3 the last few years. "The End of the Road" is a blistering, apocalyptic barroom blues. The spaced-out anthem "Chuck Berry in Space" welds the Windbreakers' jangle-pop with a supple rhythmic undercurrent and a brief lead guitar workout, all topped by Susan's ethereal backing vocals. It might be the culmination of nearly a decade of songwriting and arranging for Tim. And enough to finally make him feel like a local.
"For the longest time I had a complex," he says. "I figured I'd work harder than everybody else, but because I'm not from here I'd never really be accepted. But I've gotten over that. Knoxville's been great to us. I'm not good at a lot of things, and at the top of that list is sitting on the sidelines. If I do something, I have to be in it up to my neck."