Learning to Bend
Singer-songwriter-cellist Ben Sollee, 24, is at the beginning of what promises to be a very interesting American roots music career. Yes, you read that right—“cellist” and “roots music” in the same sentence. You hear “cello” and you think chamber music? Well, this young Kentuckian wants to change that—and more.
Sollee performs his original tunes seated, astride what his grandfather’s friends used to call “that swollen fiddle.” He plucks the cello as if finger picking a guitar, keeps the rhythm going with percussive bow chops, and takes off on emotional solo flights that are more like blues guitar than string quartet. And Sollee’s soulful tenor voice is an apt vehicle for his melodies, many of which are plainly derived from mountain music and Memphis soul.
This all makes sense considering that Sollee was issued a cello for his elementary school orchestra but learned his first tunes from his father, a rhythm-and-blues guitarist who showed him Motown bass lines. Then there were those jams in the barn with his fiddling grandfather. Eventually Sollee got a classical training, too, but his voice, instrumentally and vocally, is anchored in that family history.
On Learning to Bend Sollee also lays claim to soul tradition by rewriting Sam Cooke’s secular hymn “A Change is Gonna Come” with lyrics adapted to his own life and the country’s situation (such as topical references to the Iraq War). Another tune, “A Few Honest Word ” lays down an election-year challenge to anyone “who wants to lead my country.”
So you see, Ben Sollee doesn’t just want to change the image of the cello; in his own quiet way he wants to change the world, too. He may get both his wishes. As this is written, Sollee has a remix of “A Few Honest Words” on his MySpace page, featuring interspersed excerpts from the speeches of Barack Obama.