AJ Lee’s earliest musical memory is matching her mother’s singing pitch from the back of their old white Chevy Suburban.
When they got home, the country songs of Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Rhonda Vincent played around their house in the small San Joaquin Valley city of Tracy.
For her first performance at age 4, Lee sang gospel tune “Angel Band” on ukulele with her mother for an open mic at Mission Pizza & Pub in Fremont. Someone suggested they check out the Kids on Bluegrass program run by Frank Solivan Sr. at Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley.
“It wasn’t your typical music academy,” says Lee. “It was more focused on performance, the ins and outs of walking on stage. It was all about teaching kids how to work with other people to showcase your song.”
By age 7, Lee, now on mandolin, was invited to join The Tuttles, a family band featuring renowned bluegrass educator Jack Tuttle and his three virtuosic children: Molly, Sullivan and Michael. Before long, Lee had performed at popular venues such as Strawberry Bluegrass Festival and Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.
“The piece of advice Jack gave me that I still use today is to keep your mandolin chop really simple,” she says. “Not filling in all that space can make everything sound a little more tasteful. He told me that at 9 years old and I think about it all the time.”
After high school in 2015, Lee left for Santa Cruz where she started Blue Summit with some of the same kids she grew up with jamming at bluegrass festivals.
“The thing I love the most about it is I can stay up really late with my friends and we could play about 100 hundred songs that sound exactly the same and laugh and giggle and have a good time,” she says. “It’s unifying music that everyone can get into if they want to … It makes it feel like a family.”
AJ Lee & Blue Summit’s 2021 album “I’ll Come Back” is an original emotive take on a traditional sound. Their next album, set for release in fall 2024, is being produced by The California Honeydrops’ frontman Lech Wierzynski.
“When you write for the bluegrass genre, it’s nothing more than four chords, let’s say three chords,” says Lee. “You have to make a melody that’s similar to everything else, but different enough to remember. That’s the hardest part – keeping it simple, but unique at the same time.”
With the support of a tightknit band, Lee’s singing and songwriting draws you in close, recalling at times the soaring grace Alison Krauss or the homegrown authenticity of Hazel Dickens.
“A lot of times on the road, it’s hard to find time to write,” she says. “When I was a teenager, I’d be up all night doing nothing but trying to come up with some lyrics. The best way is to put my ideas into notes, and then I’ll have a car session from last tour. But the other night I woke up at two in morning, went out onto the steps and wrote a song in 10 minutes. That’s kind of greatest thing for a songwriter. It always depends on when inspiration strikes.”
Though more people probably know his Grammy-winning sister Molly, Blue Summit features Lee’s idiosyncratic bandmate, baritone singer and fiery flatpicking guitarist Sully Tuttle.
“He doesn’t say much, but he’s one of the funniest people that I know,” says Lee. “He’s also a super-knowledgeable history buff.”
From the Sierra Nevada foothills to main stages around the country, Lee is leading a new generation of native Californian bluegrassers with a fresh vision for the future.
“You have to really want what you want,” she says. “Being able to cooperate with people and have good chemistry makes a difference in how your band sounds. Just like anything you want to succeed in, you have to persevere … At the same time, it doesn’t feel like eight years when you’re out having a great time with all your buddies.”