Following years of gigs in nightclubs where "I would play for 15 of my friends I begged to come see me play," Lee has released a critically acclaimed major commercial release, Stillhouse Road, with backup vocals by Alison Krauss and Vince Gill, and has opened for Krauss at Nashville's famed Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Lee visits Colorado Springs this weekend for a songwriting workshop and concert at North Star Studios.
Working as an art gallery clerk by day and a sculptor by night, in the late '90s Lee found precious studio space in a downtown Nashville Presbyterian church, where she recorded and practiced on Sunday nights in exchange for volunteer work on Tuesdays at the church's lunch for the homeless.
"I was trying to find my own way, kind of rebelling against the studio idea, getting in there and singing the same line over and over until it was perfect," said Lee in a recent telephone interview. "I hated that because, well, if you were in my house right now, you'd see that everything in my life is chipped and broken, old and used. And that's what I love about music -- that you can bring your life to it."
Lee recorded Many Waters in the church's chapel, a high-domed room with "amazing natural reverb." And though her music was flourishing, her career was not. She decided to leave Nashville for Belfast, Northern Ireland, to work with college students for a year.
The week before she was to leave, her manager introduced her to Beth, a good friend of Nashville superstar Alison Krauss. Beth asked Lee for a copy of her CD to play for Krauss.
"It was my last day of work, before leaving for Ireland. We had an opening, were cleaning up, working with the caterers, getting set up, and I decided to check my messages," said Lee. "Beth's message said, 'Somebody would like to meet you, and she'd like to have dinner with you before you go.'"
That somebody was Krauss, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Krauss optioned several of Lee's songs, encouraged her to follow through with her plans in Ireland, to "go off and write a bunch of depressing songs," and to contact her when she returned. Lee did and the Ryman gig ensued. Since then, Lee has released Stillhouse Road to rave reviews that compare her clear soprano delivery and eloquent songwriting with the work of Nanci Griffith, Gillian Welch and Iris DeMent.
Lee says she owes a lot to Krauss and to her manager, who convinced her to take a risk by letting one of her idols listen to her work.
"It was a real moment of look what happens when you put your eggs in the basket of what you're supposed to be doing in life," said Lee. "Look what happens when you risk looking like a complete fool."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Julie Lee songwriting workshop and concert
North Star Studios, 3617 Betty Drive (south of Austin Bluffs off North Academy Boulevard)
Saturday, May 14: Workshop, 2 p.m.; concert, 8 p.m., with meet-the-artist reception at 7 p.m.
$30 workshop; $30 concert
For reservations, call Doug Zinn at 392-6182. For directions and more information, visit www.northstarstudios.us.