A couple of years ago, Ben Sollee played a show on WDVX and AC Entertainment's monthly Tennessee Shines show to a packed house ready for foot-stomping bluegrass. The lights went all the way down, and in a spotlight was a skinny young man with a cello. He played it with a style that would have surprised even people who came to hear cello, plucking, teasing, and provoking the instrument as if it were something alive. And then, unlike a cellist, suddenly he was singing, in a plaintive croon and howl that stunned 750 people into rapt silence.
With a voice sometimes like an Italian tenor, sometimes like a Motown star, he is the only cellist we know of who has been credibly compared to Sam Cooke. (Likely because of his affecting cover of "Change Is Gonna Come," the 1964 hit that's not typical in a cello repertoire.)
Some might have wondered what the management was up to, but after all, Ben Sollee was just another Kentucky boy, from a family of coal miners and old-time fiddlers. He began playing cello in public school when he was about 9, mainly the standard orchestral pieces, Bach and the usual cello stuff. But at home, he heard his parents' old R-and-B records. His dad had been a guitarist in a rock band, and his grandfather, a sometime farmer from Manchester, Ky., would challenge him to try old-time standards like "Back Up and Push."
"Those two worlds pounded and melded and ground out a very operatic texture of cello in me," he says. He adds that there's something regional about it: "The basis of Appalachian music is its inclusiveness. You start with a Scottish song, and then add people banging away on a banjo. There's this alchemy of people and music in my head." Sollee's a rare crucible.
Cellos once belonged to guys in tuxedos in symphony auditoriums, not bars. Until, somehow, recently. In Knoxville, at least, it seems as if orchestral instruments have been showing up in nightclub acts.
"I think people are just sort of playing what they love," says Sollee, who's now 26. "I'm feeling free to do that, for whatever reason."
He says new electronics is partly to thank. "We now have the technology to amplify properly," he says. He adds that he knows "people who play cello, French horn, upright bass who can't find jobs." For them, playing in clubs is "something to do until I find my orchestra gig."
You don't get the impression that's Sollee's dilemma. He goes his own way, and finds audiences. He's earned a stage at the last couple of Bonnaroos, where solo cellists are still rare. "It is what it is," he says of that festival. "You're trying to do your thing, and across the field Jurassic 5 is doing their thing." Bonnaroo calls for some set-shifting, but he says it's more of a challenge for audiences than for performers.
He's nationwide now. One of the weirdest scenes on YouTube shows Jimmy Kimmel, chatting with Don Rickles and Regis Philbin, introducing Ben Sollee—who then began plucking a staccatto instrumental opening, then singing, "It's not impossible for me to cry."
Sollee says he taped that appearance, and was never actually in the same room with those nocturnal swingers; what was shown on TV was video sleight-of-hand. "I would have liked to meet Don Rickles," he says, imitating Rickles' likely response: "What do you think you're doing with that cello!" However, he did meet hip-hop star Nelly, and sounds pretty tickled with his response. "He said, ‘Yo, man, that was tight!'"
As far as musicians go, he has earned no greater distinction than his acceptance as a member of Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet, whose most famous member is Béla Fleck. In performance, the banjo legend often appears to be backing Sollee's solos. "It's kind of amazing," Sollee says. "There can be no weak links."
He'll be in town on Sunday with guitarist and fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore; they've made a CD together, Dear Companion, with a strong regional and environmental theme. He's never seen himself as an activist, and his ethereal shows sound nothing like traditional protest music, but he's been motivated by the opposition to mountaintop removal. "I feel connected to it," he says, explaining that his great-grandfather died in a coal-mining accident. "Appalachia produces it because we as a nation have such an appetite for energy. But I don't see it worth sacrificing Appalachia and the people who live there for something as obtuse as coal."
After that first solo performance at Tennessee Shines, he played to a sold-out show at the Square Room, one of the first in that space. "I've got supportive audiences in Knoxville," he says. "It's like a second home." The last time he was here, late last summer, was dramatic. Some 250 tickets were sold for his outdoor show at the Knoxville Botanical Gardens. After one song, the standing-room-only audience was hit by a deluge so hard it collapsed umbrellas. As it got dark, they moved the show into a stone room on the grounds with a medieval hearth, and the crowd jammed in, standing on counters and stairways to listen. It could have been a disaster, organizers say, but the combination of Sollee and a Sollee audience made it memorable, and maybe perfect.
This time the hosts say they're better prepared.