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Interview: Country singer Johnny Lee has been busy (Includes interview)

It’s been a few years now since Johnny Lee last released an album, but I believe country music lovers everywhere will be pleased to learn that the 69-year-old Texan, who still does close to 100 shows a year, is hard at work on the follow-up to his 2006 compilation Country Candy Store. I know I was.

Anyway, when I rang the resident of Branson, Missouri up for a bit of a chat he had just finished playing golf and was loading his clubs into the back of his truck. We began by discussing the gig he has coming up on Friday September 18 with old friend and fellow country singer Mickey Gilley at Club V in Longview, Texas.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to do quite a few shows with Gilley this past year and we sold every one of them out, except one in Arkansas… I love him like a brother and it’s always great to work with a good friend.”

The show on Friday is to celebrate 35 years since the release of Urban Cowboy, a classic western with a country music theme starring John Travolta and Debra Winger.

Not only did Johnny and Mickey have several songs on the soundtrack (including the aforementioned “Looking for Love”), the pair also appeared in what has become one of the best loved films of its type. How important was it for Johnny’s career?

“It made my career,” he laughs. “I mean I’d had a few charted songs before, but when Urban Cowboy came out, hell, I got my first gold record, my first gold album, got a triple platinum album, a platinum album… It catapulted my career to what it has been for the last 35 years.”

“Hell no,” exclaims the successful singer/songwriter, when asked if he ever tires of singing his signature hit. “I’m so lucky and thankful that I have that song to sing – there are kids that weren’t even born then who know it.

“I got a seven-year-old kid up on stage with me the other night and he knew every word to that song. Some people go their whole career without ever having a song anywhere near that big… When I first heard it I couldn’t believe I didn’t write the lyrics myself because it’s the story of my life.”

I wondered which other tunes from Mr. Lee’s extensive back catalogue (that includes five number one singles) are particularly well received when ‘wheeled out’ at his live shows. “‘Pickin’ Up Strangers,'” he replies, ‘Cherokee Fiddle,’ ‘Hey Bartender,’ ‘Yellow Rose of Texas,’ ‘One in a Million‘…”

Like most country acts, the vast majority of Johnny’s gigs take place in the US of A (he says he would love to tour Australia), although about 15 years ago, the star did perform in Chihuahua, Mexico at a mammoth outdoor event, supported by top Mexican country band 8 Segundos.

“Yeah, it was like Elvis Presley rose from the dead there – it was crazy,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any idea that I was a big star in Chihuahua, Mexico… It was so crazy we couldn’t even go sign autographs at the end. They said, ‘No no no, you’ll get trampled to death.’

“I said, ‘Oh, bulls**t.’ I went out there and we did almost get trampled to death. We couldn’t sign autographs because it was too crazy… It was some kind of outdoor festival they had and I bet there were about 50 or 60 thousand people there.”

We moved onto the subject of the new album. “Well I’m not sure about a release date – hopefully by the middle of fall,” says the father of up and coming country starlet Cherish Lee, “This is the most country album I’ve ever recorded, as far as hardcore country goes.

“I’ve done some Western Swing, I’ve done three or four songs that I wrote and I’ve got an old Bob Wills song on there called ‘Deep Water.’ People can expect a good CD release, some great Johnny Lee songs.”

Johnny Lee

Johnny Lee
Johnie Helms

Finally, I have heard there’s a bit of a traditional country revival going on at the moment and wanted to hear the Texas Country Music Hall of Famer’s thoughts on the issue.

“I think yes, I do believe that. It’s needed,” he muses, before going on to cite Mo Pitney and Teea Goans as two names for fans of the older sound to watch out for.

“I hope some of these new young rock ‘n’ roll country guys enjoy themselves… I’m not trying to knock them, but if some of that’s country music, then I’m a Chinaman.”

For more information on Johnny Lee, visit his official website.

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