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One to Watch: AJ Lee & Blue Summit

Feb 9, 2024

One to Watch: AJ Lee & Blue Summit

With citrusy melodies full of zest and spark, AJ Lee & Blue Summit demonstrate that California bluegrass is alive and well. Based in the Bay Area, they first took to the stage in 2015. Though the group has morphed in shape and size over time, they have delivered musical excellence for nearly a decade.

Currently, the band is composed of four tremendous musicians – AJ Lee (vocals and mandolin), Scott Gates (guitar and vocals), Sullivan Tuttle (guitar and vocals), and Jan Purat (fiddle) with a couple of rotating bassists. AJ’s velvety vocals blend seamlessly atop the many textures and tones this uncommon instrumental lineup can accomplish.

With their third studio album set to be released sometime this year, AJ Lee & Blue Summit set sail for their tour across North America earlier this month. Their emotive, erudite songwriting is brought to life by the band’s natural compatibility.

What is the nature of your musical chemistry? How would you describe it?

Scott Gates: Well, we all grew up going to California bluegrass festivals, and that gives us kind of a through-line. We all grew up with similar mentors and similar principles, so we all have similar ideas of what bluegrass is and what it isn’t, and how to bend those boundaries.

What do you think makes the bluegrass scene in the Bay Area distinct from other bluegrass scenes?

SG: Yeah, I think that there’s more homogeneity in a lot of other bluegrass associations across the country. You know, Tennessee is known for its singers. North Carolina is known for its banjo players, and they turn out some serious musicians. But something I’ve noticed with a lot of Tennessee singers is that many of them sound the same. And it allows for incredible blend and unity in sound, but California tends to reward individual individuality. When somebody has a really unique voice, they’re exalted.

Jan Purat: In the Bay Area scene, there’s a surprisingly large interest in bluegrass that dates back a long time. There’s this really thriving jam scene with lots going on. People in California as a whole tend to really nerd out on bluegrass from from the mid ’40s to the ’60s, that era of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and such. A lot of reverence for traditional sound and energy, I think, is a big part of why people really gravitate towards it. And in California, trying to channel that kind of fiery energy that you find in the more traditional stuff is definitely part of the sound, as opposed to more of the second gen and third gen newgrass circuit.

A pretty cool aspect of the California scene has been discovering that amazing lexicon of music, especially as the one band member that got into bluegrass a little bit later. I came into it during my college years, but the rest of these guys all grew up together. I met Scott busking when he was like 19, and I met AJ and Sully shortly after I first started going up to Grass Valley, around when I was 22. I started out with second-generation exposure to bluegrass, like John Hartford and similar acts, but going to the festivals and getting turned onto all this amazing music from earlier definitely feels like a big part of why I fell in love with the California bluegrass scene.

So you all share similar roots – on the flip side, what would you say the biggest difference in your respective musicianship is?

AJ Lee: Well, we all like to listen to different things, even though we’re in the same band and we unify on bluegrass. I listen to a lot of indie punk on Spotify, and I know Sully listens to some dark metal. Jan is a little bit more cultured, and Scott likes hip hop. So, there are a lot of bases covered, but we also can all appreciate what the others listen to, which is also unifying in a way.

JP: Yeah, although we love bluegrass, after a certain point we play it so much, but we don’t always listen to it that much.

AJ: I don’t think I’ve actually had a listening session of bluegrass for maybe five years.

Fair enough! What is your collaboration process like with songwriting and figuring out arrangements?

AJ: Since the early days, I’ve been the primary songwriter. I do a lot of my own original material, but since Scott’s joined, he’s brought a lot of his original material to the table as well. And I think nowadays, the songwriting process is more like a collective band arrangement. I’ll bring an unfinished song to the band and someone will say something like, “There’s a part here that I’m not really too sure about. I think it needs this,” and then together we’ll come up with something. Unlike before, when we would mostly just play all of my finished songs, now it’s more of a collective Blue Summit songwriting style.

SG: And we’ve got to give credit to the original guitar player, Jesse Fichman, who definitely helped arrange and put together some serious parts for AJ’s earlier originals.

AJ: Yeah, for a while Jesse was really the only one that I would ever write with. So he had a lot of hand in the first album.

So the first two albums are pretty different in style and tone. Can you talk about what we should expect for your third?

Sullivan Tuttle: Well, the first one had a lot of electric and a lot of drums, basically on half of the songs. And then the second one was all acoustic, all the way through. This one’s maybe somewhere in between. It’s mostly acoustic, but with a little pinch of other things.

JP: Yeah, Lech Wierzynski from the California Honeydrops produced it, so there’s definitely some of his influence. He brought in a cover for AJ to sing and it ended up being really successful and a really good choice. It’s a bluegrass instrumentation take on an old school soul song – some new territory that I haven’t really heard too many bands do. So it’s pretty exciting. And it’s just super nice working with a producer for the first time. He’s also an amazing hang, and one of the funniest people and a great buddy. It was awesome to work with him.

SG: I would say that variety is the main name of the game. When we craft a set list for a show, our goal is to bring as much to the table as possible, so that we don’t have songs that sound similar or the same over and over and we’re not fighting ear fatigue at all times. So we try to bring as many different sounds and approaches and genres together as possible. And I think this album reflects that, more so than any of the others.

Okay, here’s a silly question for you. If we were in an alternate universe, and you guys were all still a group of some sort, but it wasn’t a musical group – you’re connected by some other thing, premise interest, etc. – what would it be?

ST: Could see like a Scooby-Doo type of scenario where we all investigate things together. [AJ, Jan, and Scott emphatically agree.]

JT: We’ve got our next Halloween costume now! I know I have to be Shaggy, it’s fine.

[Laughs] I can definitely see it. I’ve heard that you have famously had to navigate some tricky traveling situations. What’s your favorite one to tell people about?

JT: Rockygrass is a good one to talk about, because it was the second time that we had to do an all-night drive from somewhere like New York City or Boston to an entirely different city like six hours away. Our Boston flight kept getting delayed, so we drove all the way to Philly overnight and got the last flight out. It was brutal. We did not sleep a wink and barely got to Rockygrass in time to play our set on the main stage. And it was our first time playing the main stage there. We were just so haggard, but apparently it was good! I had no perspective because I was so sleepy, but people liked it!

ST: I think that was my favorite, because we actually made it. Other ones didn’t have a happy ending.

Wow. You all must be really great traveling companions.

AJ: Well, we have the perfect travel attire that a lot of people tend to notice.

What is it??

AJ: I think Scott is gonna take the lead on this one. [Scott dons an incomprehensibly fashionable and utilitarian navy blue robe.]

SG: It’s a towel. It’s a blanket. It’s a robe. It’s a pillow. It’s everything that you might possibly need on the road. It keeps you warm. It keeps you dry. You can sleep at noon facing the sun.

AJ: We all have one. And everyone is always asking, hey did you guys come from a pajama party?

Okay, I feel like the Scooby-Doo thing is making more and more sense. You’re coordinating and you’re tackling obstacles!

So the two guitars situation – how did that come to be? And how do you go about arranging with two guitars?

ST: We just formed the band with two guitars – me and Jesse Fichman. When we started, I was already used to playing with two guitars because I played in the family band with my sister, [Molly Tuttle], and we usually had two guitars for that, other than when she played banjo. So it felt pretty natural, to me at least. And then when Jesse left, Scott joined, and we already had all the parts arranged for two guitars. We wanted to keep him on guitar even though he also plays mandolin. When one guitar solos you still have the rhythm guitar behind it. And as long as we’re not both just slamming away on rhythm the whole time, it works out.

It does! No complaints here. So do you guys hate banjos?

AJ: No, we actually really like banjo! Just not in our band.

SG: It’s kind of nice having it this way, because it means that when we’re at a festival, and we have a buddy that plays banjo, then we can just invite them up to play with us. There’s definitely a banjo slot for certain songs, and we can interchange that whenever we want.

AJ: I would also say that when seeing other bluegrass bands without banjo, it feels kind of refreshing to not have that sonic space filled. It gives the music opportunities to go other directions if you wanted to. And the banjo can scratch an itch, for sure, but you can’t scratch for too long or it’s going to make a rash!

So you’re our One to Watch, but who are you watching? Are there any artists, creatives, musicians, etc. that you’re appreciating especially right now?

AJ: Crying Uncle!

SG: Yeah, best band at IBMA. Hands down!

AJ: Yes, definitely the best thing I saw at IBMA. Also, another young band that’s great is Broken Compass Bluegrass. They’re up and coming as well.

JT: I like Viv & Riley – really great music. And their old time band, The Onlies, is great as well. I hope that project continues.

Photo Credit: Natia Cinco

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One to Watch: AJ Lee & Blue Summit
One to Watch: AJ Lee & Blue Summit