Raising the Summit
by Emerald Butler
The 2019 IBMA Momentum Vocalist of the Year, AJ Lee is raising the bar, or it may be more fitting to say that she’s raising the “summit.” Still riding with the momentum from her band’s first album released last year, AJ Lee & Blue Summit are keeping music lovers entertained even throughout this year of quarantine and social distancing. As AJ puts it, the band is still “spreading the good word of Bluegrass.”
From the very beginning, Aissa Joelle Lee was immersed in Bluegrass. Growing up around the San Francisco Bay Area, AJ started performing at the early age of 5. Her mother Betsy Riger-Lee, an experienced performer and singer herself, introduced AJ to Bluegrass and Classic Country music by the time she could hear.
“Growing up my mom was very inventive trying to teach me to play music. She always kept it interesting,” AJ shared. Betsy started AJ out on a ukulele.
“My mom wanted to make it even easier for me, so she tuned a ukulele to a mandolin tuning since I was still so small.” Early on, AJ began performing in the Kids On Stage Bluegrass program and was later invited to join the Tuttle family in their family band. The Tuttles & AJ Lee must have been the firepit that fed the flames of the forward-moving torches. Though Molly Tuttle has made her waves in the industry, she’s not the only Tuttle that has kept playing.
“I’ve known Sulli (Tuttle) since we were kids,” AJ reminisces over Blue Summit’s beginnings.
“I grew up with Sulli, but I met Jesse (Fichman) at the California Father’s Day festival, and Jan (pr. Yahn) Purat at the Brown Barn festival, and we ran into Chad (Bowen) when the band was based out of Santa Cruz.”
The band came up with their name while trying to get booked at a festival. “We were trying to send in some demos to the Kate Wolf music festival and we didn’t have a CD yet. We did the recordings at our old bass players house and we were like ‘what should we call the band?’ and we figured Blue Summit was fitting for the demo name because it was bluegrass on the summit in Santa Cruz, so it stuck, and then we just added AJ Lee on the front of it just a few years ago.” The band seems to have a wide range of musical influences, but AJ shared that it can be a challenge to pinpoint her biggest influences. “I’ve listened to all different genres of music. Like any other middle schooler, I loved Maroon 5, so that was some pop influence. I know that Adam Levine listened to R&B early in his career because he had a rock band, and that’s how his band progressed, so I started to listen to that stuff too. I’ve kind of taken elements from all different artists and tried to blend them into one.”
That blending can be heard in the band’s album “Like I Used To.” The album is made entirely of a collection of AJ’s original songs. The sounds range from traditional bluegrass to blues, swing, country, Celtic, and even some pirate music.
“When we started the album, we rented an Airbnb here in Felton, CA, and we had our friend Parker Miller record it,” AJ explained. “We just moved all the furniture out of the living room, piled it into the next room, and Parker set up all his stuff. He set up microphones everywhere; there were chords all over the floor. It was great because this Airbnb was in the Felton hills and you could just look out the windows and see the trees and the mist. It was inspiring to record there. The second half we pretty much did the same process in my house, and we did a marathon
of a few days just recording that way. It was pretty fun. We stayed up really late at night just messing around with most of the tunes.”
AJ and the boys from Blue Summit have been full-time musicians for a couple of years now, and most of them live together in a home in the Bay Area. According to AJ, the biggest argument they get into is over who is supposed to take out the trash. Though many festivals and shows have been postponed or canceled this year, AJ and the band have been staying busy with live streams and jamming. AJ did share that they are working towards recording another album, but a release date has not been confirmed. Though the band has had a few live performances, show dates are currently ever-changing, but fans can follow the band on their Facebook page. AJ did share that she hopes folks “stay safe, stay healthy, and don’t forget to play some music.”