Phil Lee: You should have known him then

PhilLeeXMASI’ll never forget the first time I interviewed Phil Lee. It was late 1991, the year I’d moved to Raleigh, and it took place in a trailer park just off Interstate 85 in Durham. Phil was living there in a small silver Airstream that looked like a toaster from the outside, a place that had inspired a shit-hot rocker called “A Night in the Box.” Check out the video, with a spoken-word preface by Phil in full-on Mighty King Of Love mode. Pay attention to the bass player, too. That’s Danny Kurtz, later of the Backsliders and (yes) Whiskeytown.

Some 21 years later, Saturday night found me standing in a parking lot looking over Phil’s shoulder as he scrolled through the pictures on his mobile phone to find this album cover — packaging for an opus coming out in 2013. It was the sort of night that connected straight back to the Whiskeytown era. Phil moved on from Raleigh years ago but never cut his ties, and he was back in town to play a Christmas party at a joint called The Office Tavern. Opening the show was Chip Robinson, last heard from in this space a week ago. The aforementioned Danny Kurtz was back on bass. And the crowd included lots of folks I used to rub elbows with at alternative-country shows around Raleigh back in the day.

I’ve interviewed Phil a good bit over the years, including this 2000 piece (one of my favorites from the No Depression era). Saturday night, Phil was his usual hilarious mix of impishness, swagger and self-deprecation. As always, he was On The Verge. He mentioned a well-known band that was supposed to have played on his new album, which fell through when their frontman called them back to duty; an upcoming movie he’s in, as himself; a live DVD, shot at the fabled North Beach nightspot The Purple Onion — all while holding court with passersby and keeping up a steady line of chatter about stuff like one of his odder recent hobbies. As we talked and he hunted for pictures on his mobile device, a car alarm started going off nearby and we all looked up. Except for Phil. Without missing a beat, he cracked, “Don’t ask,” and we all snickered.

I told Phil he needs to hurry up and get famous, either by lucking into a hit or committing some sordid deed, so that I can write the book. But he just laughed and I did, too. I think we both knew that when the time comes, he’ll write that book himself. Meantime, when he fired up “A Night in the Box” Saturday night, it still rocked pretty formidably two decades on.

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