Ben Sollee

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Ben Sollee
Ben Sollee Live 2012.jpg
Ben Sollee performing live
Background information
Birth name Benjamin Croft Sollee
Origin Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Occupation(s) Musician, singer, songwriter, composer
Instruments Cello
Years active 2000–present
Labels Tin Ear Records, Sub Pop, SonaBLAST! Records
Associated acts Sparrow Quartet
Vienna Teng

Ben Sollee (born November 28, 1983) is an American cellist, singer-songwriter, and composer known for his political activism. His music incorporates banjo, guitar, and mandolin along with percussion and unusual cello techniques. His songs exhibit a mix of folk, bluegrass, jazz, and R&B elements. Sollee has also composed longer instrumental pieces for dance ensembles and for film.

Early life and education[edit]

Ben Sollee was raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and attended public schools where he was introduced to the cello in the fourth grade.[1] Yates Elementary School orchestra teacher Ellen Dennison brought a collection of musical instruments to her class and demonstrated them for students. Sollee was quickly charmed by what he called the "growly" sound of the cello and chose it as the instrument to learn to play and he eventually became the only cello player in his school orchestra.[1] In addition to studying classical music in school, Sollee was exposed to other kinds of music at home and in his extended family. His father, Robert, was an R&B guitar player and his mother, Myra, was a singer. Most especially, his maternal grandfather, Elvis Henry Cornelius was an Appalachian fiddler. Music around the home featured recordings of such artists as Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Phoebe Snow, and Otis Redding. As he was growing up, Sollee spent many hours in the company of his fiddler grandfather at jam sessions and gatherings in the barns and hollers of rural Kentucky, picking out as best he could on his cello the fiddle tunes and folk songs of the Appalachian Plateau. His growth as a musician, and eventually as a songwriter, straddled two non-overlapping worlds—that of classical music during his days in the school program, and the distinctly non academic music of his rustic family forebears in the evenings and on weekends.

At the age of 17, Sollee became a member of the house band, known as the "Folk Boy Orchestra," on the syndicated weekly radio show, WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour , hosted by Michael Johnathon. Through this participation, Sollee was exposed to a wide range of professional musicians and performers who appeared as featured guests on the show. He played regularly as the house cellist until the summer of 2006 - after more than 200 shows. Sollee was also a guest performer on the WoodSongs program while still in high school, on 29 October 2001. He eventually performed as a guest on several occasions: As a solo artist on 10 September 2007; as a member of the Sparrow Quartet on 19 May 2008; with colleague Daniel Martin Moore on 11 January 2010; and again as a solo artist on 29 April 2013.

Solle graduated from the School for Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School in 2002.[citation needed] He was admitted to the University of Louisville's School of Music on a full-tuition scholarship to study cello with Paul York. This began a four-year saga that hugely expanded Sollee's technical mastery of his instrument, while being marked by a constant struggle with his teacher over their different musical interests and objectives.[1] In this context, Sollee collided with the firmly established tradition of the cello as a fundamentally, if not exclusively, classical instrument. He now found that his participation in two disparate worlds of music had become a struggle within himself as well as a source of frustration with his formal training.[1] In resisting the conventional orthodoxy, Sollee disputed the classical tradition as the way to play the cello, insisting that was just one way to play it.[1]

Early career and Learning to Bend[edit]

While in college, Sollee performed and soloed in his school's classical ensembles but continued to participate in the Woodsongs programs and took part in the recording sessions of seasoned performers such as Otis Taylor and Abigail Washburn. Sollee toured off and on with Washburn as a duo from 2005 to 2008. He became a member of the Sparrow Quartet (which also included banjoist Bela Fleck and violinist Casey Driessen) when Washburn formed it in 2006, and that year the group issued an EP with five songs on the Nettwerk label.[2] The Sparrow Quartet made a trip to perform in China in 2007 and, under auspices of the US State Department, became the first American music ensemble of any kind to be permitted to enter Tibet, where it performed several shows.[3] The group then began working on what would be its signature studio album, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, which was released in May 2008. The group toured widely throughout the U.S. during the period of 2006-2008. On June 30, 2008 the quartet was featured in a broadcast on PBS station KPBS in San Diego.[4]

While Sollee had been touring commercially since his last teens with artists such as Otis Taylor and Abigail Washburn, during his senior year he began performing his first solo gigs in Louisville area, playing his own music. By this time he has already self- produced three CD albums, the most recent of which, Turn on the Moon, was released in March 2006. After graduating from the University of Louisville in May 2006 with a degree in cello performance, and while still touring with the Sparrow Quartet, Sollee began work on a new solo album, also self-produced, entitled Learning to Bend, which was released in an initial premium "collector's" version (1000 numbered copies) in November 2007. By December 28, 2007 on the strength of that record, NPR's Morning Edition had identified Sollee as one of the "Top Ten Unknown [undiscovered] Artists of the Year." [5] Sollee was invited to perform on NPR's World Cafe (radio program) program on May 19, 2008, again on July 29, 2008 and on other occasions since.

A commercial version of Learning to Bend, issued on the SonaBLAST! Records label, was released in June 2008. On July 5, 2008, NPR's All Things Considered aired a feature on Sollee, describing his record as "an inspired collection of acoustic, folk, and jazz-flavored songs, filled with hope and the earnest belief that the world is good."[6] No Depression (magazine) ranked Sollee's record among its top five for 2008. Paste Magazine's September 2008 issue listed Sollee among "The Best of What's Next; Twenty-Six Emerging Artists You Must Know." [7]

Ben Sollee was featured on the PBS series On Canvas, broadcast by Philadelphia station WHYY on October 8, 2008, which was recorded before a performance at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.[8] On December 20, 2008, Public Radio International's "The World" program, co-produced by the BBC World Service and WBGH Boston, declared Learning to Bend one of the nine best "Global Hits" of 2008. The top nine contained only three artists from the U.S.[9]

Kanye West episode[edit]

The 2008 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival was marked by controversy surrounding a performance by Kanye West. West's set was scheduled for 2:45 a.m. on 8 June, the last night of the festival. The previous act had left the stage late and the time taken to remove its staging and install West's elaborate set, including a pyro and light show, delayed the show's start until 4:25 a.m. Audience members grew impatient and rebellious and some left before the show finally began.[10] Spectators threw detritus onto the stage. The production and choreography of the show was compromised, West was outraged, and many in the audience became hostile. The resulting debacle resonated for days afterward, fanned by an angry Kanye West on his blog site.[11]

Sollee also had performed in the 2008 Festival, as a member of the Sparrow Quartet, and so was a witness to the Kanye West episode. The next day Sollee wrote a song about it titled "Dear Kanye," framed as an "open letter" to West, which he recorded on his laptop. It was done on a whim, he later stated, for circulation among his management team. "For better or worse, they passed it along to blogs and radio" he said, and the result was "wildfire" and unexpected and unwanted attention on the national level.[12] The song, circulated widely, acknowledged West as a major and influential artist in the rap genre and chided him for his infantile and unbecoming behavior and commercialism. Not comfortable with the resulting notoriety, Sollee withdrew the song after one local performance. He posted a statement on his website[12] explaining his actions and reaffirming his respect for "underground Hip-Hop, [whose] genuine nature can be gritty, graceful, jaded, or joyful." There is no indication that West ever took notice of, or responded to, Sollee's song.

Touring 2008-2010 and Dear Companion[edit]

Sollee toured throughout 2008 as part of the Sparrow Quartet and on his own. On 27 September, the group performed a set at the Austin City Limits Festival. On 8 February 2009 the Sparrow Quartet performed its final show, before going into a hiatus, at Sollee's Alma Mater, the University of Louisville, where it played for a capacity crowd in Comstock Hall. Thereafter Sollee concentrated on his solo career. On 24 February 2009 he made his national television debut in a performance on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live program.[13] On 18–19 March 2009 he performed for the first time as a solo artist in the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.[14]

In March 2009, Sollee began touring with the Vienna Teng Trio, led by pianist/singer-songwriter Vienna Teng, and The Paper Raincoats, a band from Brooklyn, New York. On 8 May 2009, Sollee played to a sold-out house at the Bomhard Theater in the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. In September 2009, he performed as a solo artist in the Austin City Limits Festival, and on 22 October he made a first appearance as a solo artist on NPR's Mountain Stage in West Virginia.[15] In November 2009, he toured with Cincinnati singer-songwriter Kim Taylor. Taylor and Sollee had done occasional shows together since 2007, but this tour found them playing both solo material and accompanying one another during each other's sets.[16]

In August, 2008, Sollee's song "How to See the Sun Rise" was featured in a Season 4, episode 8 of the Showtime television series Weeds.[17] During this period Sollee worked on a new recording project with two other Kentucky musicians, Daniel Martin Moore, from Cold Spring, and Louisville's Jim James of My Morning Jacket and The Monsters of Folk. The album, titled Dear Companion, was produced by James and featured Sollee and Moore singing original songs (with James providing vocal support on some). The record explored the three artists' ties to Appalachia and drew attention to the problem of mountaintop removal coal mining and its impact on the people and heritage of the central Appalachian region.[18] The album came out on 16 February 2010 on the SubPop label and debuted nationally at number 6 on iTunes.[19] In April 2010, at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, Sollee made a presentation on bike touring to the first TEDx Conference sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in that country.[20] In June 2010, he appeared as a solo artist in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He also served as a member of the faculty at the Mark O'Connor String Camp in Johnson City, Tennessee. From 22 July through 30 July, Sollee, Daniel Martin Moore, and Jim James performed together on what they called their "Appalachian Voices" tour, which included an appearance on West Virginia's Mountain Stage on 25 July 2010 and at the Newport Folk Festival on 1 August, featuring material from their album Dear Companion . From 29 November to 16 December 2010, Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore supported Billy Bragg for shows in London and other UK cities.

Musical career[edit]

Raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Sollee began playing the cello in elementary school. Besides classical music, his early musical influences included recordings his parents played of Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and Otis Redding, and later he discovered folk music.[21]

In 2005, Sollee joined with Abigail Washburn (banjo and vocals), Bela Fleck (banjo) and Casey Driessen (violin) to form The Sparrow Quartet.[22] The group's debut album, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, was released in May 2008. That same month, Sollee came out with his first EP If You're Gonna Lead My Country. A month later, in June 2008, he released his solo debut album Learning to Bend.

In 2007, NPR's Morning Edition named Sollee one of the "Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year".[23] Following the release of his album in 2008, the public radio network's All Things Considered aired a feature on Sollee, describing Learning to Bend as "an inspired collection of acoustic, folk and jazz-flavored songs, filled with hope and the earnest belief that the world is good."[21]

Sollee has also been featured on the PBS series On Canvas, recorded at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia; he was 17 years old when he started a weekly run as the cellist on the house band, the Folk Boy Orchestra, of the radio program WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.[24] Sollee's song "How to See the Sun Rise" was featured in a Season 4 episode of the Showtime television series Weeds.[25]

In March 2009, he began touring with the Vienna Teng Trio, which is led by pianist/singer-songwriter Vienna Teng, and The Paper Raincoat, a band from Brooklyn, New York.

In November 2009, Ben toured with his friend, Cincinnati singer-songwriter Kim Taylor. Taylor and Sollee had done occasional shows together since 2007, but this tour found them playing both solo material, and accompanying one another during each other's sets.[26]

Dear Companion, out February 16, 2010 on Sub Pop Records, is collaboration between three Kentucky musicians. The songs are written and performed by Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, and produced by and featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk. Recorded in the first half of 2009 in their home state, Dear Companion explores their ties to the place they love and aims to draw attention to the problem of mountaintop removal coal mining and its impact on the people and heritage of central Appalachia.[27] The album debuted at number 6 in the nation.

In June 2011, Ben Sollee performed at Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee both as an individual artist and with My Morning Jacket.

British artist Joe Simpson named his exhibition 'Everything Is Electrified' after Sollee's song. The show was exhibited in London in 2012.

Political activism[edit]

Sollee's music frequently touches on social issues including poverty and environmental issues. As a native of Kentucky he is especially passionate about the issue of mountaintop removal in coal mining. This is one of the themes of his collaboration album Dear Companion. He frequently plays benefit concerts for the organizations Kentuckians For the Commonwealth and Oxfam America, and has made several tours of Kentucky on his bicycle, stopping in smaller towns between his headlining performances. Of specific note is the tour in the Summer of 2009 which was put on in conjunction with Oxfam America, in which he traveled 330 miles to the Bonnaroo festival with his supplies and cello strapped to his bicycle. He uses a special long-frame bicycle made by Xtracycle which weighs about 60 lbs when fully packed.[28]


  • If You're Gonna Lead My Country EP (2008)
  • Something Worth Keeping EP (2008)
  • Learning to Bend (sonaBLAST! Records, 2008)
  • Dear Companion (with Daniel Martin Moore) (2010)
  • Inclusions (2011)
  • Live at The Grocery On Home (sonaBLAST! Records, 2012)
  • Half Made Man (2012)
  • The Hollow Sessions (2013)
  • Steeples Part One (2015)
  • Steeples Part Two (2016)
  • Kentucky Spring (2016)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "On Tour". WHYY. October 8, 2008. Retrieved 2015-08-28. 
  2. ^ "Live From Folk Alley". Folk Alley. November 17, 2006. Retrieved 2015-09-24. 
  4. ^ "Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, Featuring Béla Fleck, Perform in Studio". KPBS. June 30, 2008. Retrieved 2015-10-22. 
  5. ^ "Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of 2007". NPR. December 28, 2007. Retrieved 2015-10-28. 
  6. ^ "Ben Sollee Learns To 'Bend'". National Public Radio. August 9, 2009. Retrieved 2015-10-28. 
  7. ^ "22 up-and-coming artists you ignore at your own peril!". Paste Magazine. August 9, 2008. Retrieved 2015-10-28. 
  8. ^ "ON TOUR Ben Sollee". WHYY. October 8, 2008. Retrieved 2015-10-28. 
  9. ^ "The Best of Global Hit". PRI. December 20, 2008. Retrieved 2015-10-28. 
  10. ^ "Kanye West Nearly Destroys Computer Blaming Bonnaroo, Pearl Jam For 4:30 A.M. Show". MTV. June 25, 2008. Retrieved 2015-11-18. 
  11. ^ "Kanye: Don't Blame Me, Blame Bonnaroo". Stereogum. June 25, 2008. Retrieved 2015-11-18. 
  12. ^ a b "Ben Sollee: An Open Letter". Backseat Sandbar. August 30, 2008. Retrieved 2015-11-18. 
  13. ^ "VIDEO: Ben Sollee On Jimmy Kimmel Live – 2/25". Backseat Sandbar. March 11, 2009. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  14. ^ "UP IN SMOKE AT SXSW". The Bluegrass Special. March 19, 2009. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  15. ^ "Ben Sollee on Mountain Stage". NPR. August 6, 2010. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  16. ^ "Kim Taylor Tells The Greatest Story". City Beat. October 3, 2008. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  17. ^ "Music from Weeds". Heard on TV. August 4, 2008. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  18. ^ ""DEAR COMPANION" AND ILOVEMOUNTAINS Teaming up to end mountaintop removal!". December 4, 2009. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  19. ^ "BEN SOLLEE AND DANIEL MARTIN MOORE DEAR COMPANION". ISub Pop. February 15, 2010. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  20. ^ "TEDxUSEmbassyStockholm". Alfa Bravo. April 22, 2010. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  21. ^ a b "All Things Considered". NPR. July 5, 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-23. 
  22. ^ Bio page
  23. ^ "Morning Edition". NPR. December 28, 2007. Retrieved 2009-04-23. 
  24. ^ "Listen: Ben Sollee". Consequence of Sound. July 23, 2008. Retrieved 2009-04-23. 
  25. ^ Weeds music
  26. ^ "Kim Taylor Tells The Greatest Story". Cincinnati City Beat. October 30, 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-30. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ [1]"Bonnaroo Goes Green: Rocker Ben Sollee Bikes to Mega Festival." Jeff Biggers, Huffington Post

External links[edit]