Ten years ago Kentucky native Ben Sollee came to prominence singing Sam Cooke while playing the cello. The NPR sensation was not a backwoods novelty. Sollee’s spare, exultant interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” announced the arrival of a relentlessly curious musical soul for whom change constantly comes.
In the decade following Sollee has recorded roughly an album a year (and nearly that many EPs), in a daunting variety of settings. He has played with trance bluesman Otis Taylor, with banjo virtuosos Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck (in the Sparrow Quartet, with Casey Driessen), and collaborated with Jim James of My Morning Jacket, with DJs, acoustic musicians, visual artists, software specialists and environmentalists. He has composed ballets and music for films and for stage. He has helped raise his son and support his family with an ambitious tour schedule. He has cycled 5,000 miles by bike, towing his cello “Kay” behind him as part of the “Ditch The Van” tours.
He has relentlessly made and studied and thought about art and the environment. And life, and how to make the world around him better.
Sollee describes his newest release, Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native (the name describing both the ensemble and the album) as a bluegrass record, fully aware that his is not the traditional view. “Bluegrass music is immigrant music,” he says, offering his expansive definition across the kitchen table. “It’s the music of Irish and Scottish musicians bringing their fiddle tunes; it is gospel music; it is African music; it is gypsy jazz; it is rock ‘n’ roll. It is all these things. What makes it unique and of Kentucky is that it was distilled by the people who lived here in Kentucky, and turned into something else.”