A year ago, Michael Lee was just a regular aspiring blues musician grinding away and paying his dues on the local circuit. The 31-year-old has been a routine fixture on stages in the Fort’s halls and clubs since he was 17, first as a guitar for hire, then eventually by fronting his own eponymous band. Then last spring, almost randomly, after some prodding from his new wife, he begrudgingly agreed to an audition for NBC’s The Voice during a trip to Houston just five days after their wedding. Lee made it onto the show and lasted through 15 episodes, peaking with a knockout round win against eventual runner-up Chris Kroeze, who was “saved by judge Blake Shelton.” Lee was eliminated in the live playoff round, when the show’s 24 contestants are cut down to just 12.
Now, as we speak over the phone while he again makes his way down to Houston, this time to board a tour bus, Lee is humble about his time on TV, admitting it was never really his goal to win.
“Man, my whole goal was to just go on TV and not suck,” he joked. “I hadn’t been singing all my life – I always wanted to be a guitar player – so I thought that show was not for me. I never expected to get a chair turn, much less to get as far as I did, but I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been really happy with what’s happened” since.
One major thing that’s happened as a result of his time on the show is that the tour bus he was on his way to catch is that of the B.B. King Blues Band. The eight-piece group that formerly backed the namesake legend has been touring since his death in 2015 with guest artists doing their best to fill the icon’s role in front of them. Last year, they were helmed by none other than Tito Jackson of The Jackson Five. This year, taking center stage will be Michael Lee, who said he was excited about the tour and for what all the dates in front of those world-class players might do for his own music.
“I don’t know what they think of The Voice in the blues world,” he said. “I really don’t, but I know that getting to play with B.B. King’s band has got to help,” he added with a laugh.
It was Lee’s performance of the King classic “The Thrill Is Gone” on The Voice that originally attracted the Blues Band’s attention. The group liked it so much they had him come down to Houston, where they are based, to cut a version of the song for their album The Soul of the King, which was released last month.
That’s not all the recording that Lee’s been up to lately. His own debut album dropped last Friday. German boutique blues label Ruf Records, home to big acts like Canned Heat and Jeff Healy, released the self-titled collection. Featuring Lee’s own darker, moodier version of “The Thrill Is Gone,” the album includes songs he’s written, some with the input of friend and mentor, Fort Worth singer-songwriter Jacob Furr.
“When I was really into guitar, I’d get tips from older players and other players around town,” Lee said. “I’m not the type of songwriter that’s just going to be great right away. It takes time to develop that skill, so when you need help with songwriting, you go ask Jacob Furr.”
Though Lee is dismissive of his natural singing ability, his straining full-throated rasp lifts songs like “Heart of Stone” and the album’s debut single, “Love Her,” out of the blues underground and into a realm in which those who perhaps haven’t dissected and obsessed over every second of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Live at the El Mocambo can feel comfortable. Despite the high bar set by Lee’s warm-coffee-and-cigarette vocal aesthetics, his guitar playing stands just as tall right beside them, infusing edgy tones and intriguing effects into his slinky torrid runs. As Lee explains, this is exactly the way he would prefer it.
“It had always been about the guitar,” he said. “I used to think that lyrics just got in the way of good guitar solos. Back when I was 17, the girl I was backing lost her voice. They needed someone to sing, so I got up there and yelled, and people started clapping, so I did it a little more, and they kept on clapping. So now I’ve just kept on doing it.”