Ben Sollee may have preferred sunshine. But he was smiling and shivering in the rain Thursday afternoon on Old Frankfort Pike, moving slowly toward Franklin County.
The 25-year-old Lexington native who has played the cello since age 9 has done a lot of touring – taking his soulful voice and unique music through the U.S. and a lot of the world.
But Thursday was the first leg of his debut music tour on a bicycle.
And when he arrived at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café shortly after 4 p.m. – hauling his 1930s Kay cello on his extended-frame Xtracycle – he’d already set a personal record of traveling 28.3 miles on a bicycle.
The ride started at his Chevy Chase residence in Lexington.
When he leaves downtown Frankfort today he has seven more days of cycling the 300 miles to get to the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn., on Thursday.
That means six nights of cello performances before he takes the stage at Bonnaroo. Here’s his evening schedule:
>Tonight at the Danville Community Arts Center.
>Saturday at Berea Coffee & Tea.
>Sunday at Carnegie Arts Center in Somerset.
>Monday at Clinton County Public Library in Albany.
>Tuesday at Backdoor Playhouse at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
>Wednesday at Capalano’s in McMinnville, Tenn.
Then he’ll play four straight days at Bonnaroo.
It was a standing-room-only crowd Thursday evening in the downtown Kentucky Coffeetree Café when Sollee performed at 6:15, just after Frankfort’s popular teen-age musician Jeri Katherine Howell opened the show.
After Sollee’s performance, Sara Day Evans and the Jangling Sparrows took the stage, followed by Johnson’s Crossroad.
While he was on stage, California’s Katie Benson was selling Sollee’s “Learning to Bend” CDs and albums.
She met him about a month ago and now she and her brother, Marty Benson – an attorney, filmmaker and surfer in California – are cycling with Sollee on his entire journey.
Katie, who graduated from a law school in San Diego two weeks ago, said, “Ben is one of the most genuine people I’ve met.
“He genuinely loves music and loves Kentucky like no other. There was a sense of community in everything that I saw in him and now that I am here (in his home state), I really am appreciating it. He’s just an all-around nice guy and really true to what he believes in.”
After the show, Frankfort’s Reba Pierce, one of the founders of the Folk Club of Frankfort, said Sollee is “an amazing songwriter who does all of his own stuff. I personally have never heard a cello sound like that. I didn’t know it could. It’s totally unique.”
Joanna Hay, a Franklin County musician who plays the violin and mandolin, says Sollee comes from a classical background. “He studied through the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra in Lexington with private teachers and at the University of Louisville.
“What I think is so interesting is he took that classical training and then created totally his own pop, contemporary sound. He can write songs and lyrics that are really moving and apropos for today with a strong environmental and social conscience.”
Noted Kentucky author and musician Silas House has said, Sollee “brings the cello out of the realm of classical music and makes it a part of the people’s music…
“He plays it as funky, country, Appalachian, classical, bluesy and folksy – sometimes all in the same song, and it works every time.”
In 2007 he was named one of National Public Radio’s “Top 10 Unknown Artists of the Year.” He has performed with avant-garde bluesman Otis Taylor, The Sparrow Quartet featuring banjo-master Bela Fleck, and on the internationally known Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour.
After arriving in the rain Thursday and changing quickly into dry clothes at Completely Kentucky, next door to the Coffeetree Café, Sollee said, “Today was a real learning curve. It’s just a totally different riding experience with 60 pounds on the back of the bike.”
The cello travels in a sturdy waterproof case affixed to the bike with nylon straps.
He said he’d “always dreamt of doing some kind of bicycle tour.” But he had never thought about combining it with a music tour until he “saw an info clip about this company in San Francisco called Xtracycle (now one of his sponsors) that makes long-frame bicycles.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I can haul a cello on that. I should do a tour.’”
Sollee said he was tired of “running around doing the planes, trains and automobiles, jumping from one side of the coast to the other, running across the Canadian border. All that sort of wears on you.”
This is his fourth year attending Bonnaroo and his third year as a performer.
“This year I’m going to be very busy,” he said. “I will be doing a show every day, and then I’ll do workshops, talking about stuff relating to mountaintop removal issues."
He’ll also be promoting awareness for Oxfam America, a relief and development organization working to find lasting solutions to poverty, hunger and injustice.
Sollee said his parents were musicians, “and I grew up in a house full of R & B music.”
His grandfather was an Appalachian fiddle player, “who was on his way to Renfro Valley to play on the big radio show and get his big break (into the music world) when the car broke down,” Sollee said.
Sometimes when sunshine is expected, it rains. Sollee’s trip, like his CD suggests, will be another chapter in learning to bend and keeping an optimistic worldview. A slow, contemplative ride through the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee will weave its way into his songwriting and cello performances.