Jess Lee set to tell the Legend of the Hag
Jess Lee is performing the Legend of the Hag at the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre in Camrose on Sept. 15. The show tells the story of country music legend Merle Haggard.Supplied
Jess Lee is trying to bring country music legend Merle Haggard back to life for at least one more night.
The former Canadian country music star is presenting The Legend of the Hag at the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre on Sept. 15, digging into the story of one of the genre’s all-time greats.
He has performed Legend of the Hag for a few years, including a stop in Camrose a few years ago. The show has taken on new meaning since Haggard died in 2016.
“It’s a great honour for me because I love the music so much,” said Lee, 64. “I grew up in the era with Hag when he came up in the 60s. As a fan, his writing is so good, he’s like Hank Williams and Lucky Mizell all rolled up into one. It was an amazing power he had for writing songs and getting into the psyche of the common man, the working man.”
Lee had a string of hits with the Midnite Rodeo Band in the 1980s and earned nominations for Juno Awards and Canadian Country Music Awards. He hit the top of the Canadian charts five times with songs like “Crowhill Road.” In 2011 he was inducted into the BCCAMA Hall of Fame and and in 1984 was praised by Country Music News as having the best pure country voice in Canada.
In actuality, his voice is a dead ringer for Haggard. But Lee says he will be playing him straight, he will not be trying to be someone he is not, rather, he will be playing more the role of storyteller on stage.
“I wouldn’t ever do a clone show,” he said. “It’s hard enough being yourself.”
Lee did on occasion work with Haggard’s bandmate Redd Volkaert and even had the chance to meet him a few times, but always passed, not wanting to be a bother to the country music outlaw.
“I just didn’t know what to say to the guy,” he said. “I was just happy to hear his tunes. He’s a study for writing a good country song.”
Haggard made his name in the industry after serving a stint in prison, he turned his life around and recorded 40 No. 1 hits, including “Working Man Blues,” “Okie From Moskogee,” “Mama Tried,” and “Silver Wings.” Lee’s favourite is “Are the good times really over for good.”
“It asks a question and he brought it around at the end that the good times aren’t over for good,” he said. “He just has a real cool way of getting people to look around ask these questions themselves.”
Lee’s country roots run deep in Alberta. He grew up in Edmonton and has lived all over Western Canada, these days on a constant migration back and forth over the three provinces.
His music, however, has stayed true to his roots, singing about life out in the west and Metis and First Nation issues with albums like “Sacred Ground” which garnered a Juno nomination in 1995, his 2011 release “Still Standing on Sacred Ground” and “I am All of This” in 2013.
He does still tour a little bit with his own music, but it is more sporadic.
“I have pockets of musical friends all across the country, and when I get a chance to do something I will call them up,” said Lee. “There’s not a lot of call for the kind of music I do, but I am finding little niches here and there … where it’s still alive and well. A lot of the people are in their 70s and 80s but they still love the music.”
He continues to write and is expanding on his repertoire. While wintering on the West Coast, he rests his head in Cumberland, a small hamlet on Vancouver Island. The Island is a hotbed for the blues, particularly the Cumberland Hotel which he frequents.
For him it all comes down to the message and story being told in a song.
“As long as I’m here doing what I like to do, that brings me joy,” said Lee, who is working on a new album. “We’re in tough times right now. … There are some good songs coming out, there are some young artists that have a good grasp on what’s important — it’s how we look after each other and how we care about each other. When I hear that in their songs, it makes me feel good that the young ones are getting it.”