Last summer, while most bands were pulling into the massive Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in giant, gas-chugging tour buses, Ben Sollee rolled up on a bike—pulling his 60-pound cello behind him. The Kentucky-based folkie biked 330 miles to the Tennessee festival from his home in Lexington, stopping along the way to play concerts in small towns. Sollee dubbed the journey Pedaling for Poverty, and proceeds from the shows were donated to Oxfam America. The musician’s activism has also recently been extended to the fight against mountaintop removal mining. Sollee was one of the headliners at last summer’s inaugural Mountain Aid festival in North Carolina.
Sollee’s music is an eclectic blend of rootsy singer-songwriter folk with the classical undertones of his instrument and the R&B flavor of his unexpected Motown croon. In addition to releasing his own solo CD, Learning to Bend, he has collaborated with Bela Fleck in Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet and recently toured with the Vienna Teng Trio.
BRO: What initially motivated the bike trip to Bonnaroo?
BS: I’ve gotten into bad habits being in different bands of flying across the country to play one gig and then driving through the night to get to the next gig. It became an inhuman pace. It was good to just get on a bike and slow down. I had to play smaller venues, because you can’t travel as far to the next big city on a bike. It was a real change for me.
The two people I was traveling with were worried, because I really hadn’t ridden great distances before this tour. I was pulling 60 pounds on basically a glorified beach cruiser, an Xtracycle utility bike. I wanted to unite music, sport, and global aid by supporting Oxfam. It was a great triangle to coordinate. I plan to do this again with close regional touring.
How did this issue of mountaintop removal mining become important to you?
BS: When I first heard about mountaintop removal mining, I was immediately struck by how intuitively wrong it is. It made me look at where my resources come from and realize that I had to do something about it. My grandfather was a coal miner, so I have connections to the industry. It sustained my family for many years, but now it’s hurting so many people’s existence in Appalachia. Many in the region have survived off of coal for years, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to survive off it. For some it’s hard to let go.
You recently made a CD to raise awareness about mountaintop removal.
BS: The music isn’t necessarily about mountaintop removal or coal mining. It’s much more about the overall culture of consumption. It was produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Daniel Martin Moore and I wrote the songs together. Daniel is an old-time crooner type and I’m an R&B folkie. Jim, of course, is an out-there rocker. If you can imagine those three things coming together, that’s exactly what it sounds like. There are some unusual, surreal sounds, but also a lot of it is very folkie. We tried to really interpret our Appalachian influences through the prism of our urban upbringing. We’re going to tour across the country in October.
What else have you been getting into musically?
BS: Earlier this year I finished a tour with the Sparrow Quartet. Now, I’m actually working with some DJs up in Detroit. On my next album I hope to have a lot more R&B and hip-hop influence on it. I’m into different things influencing each other without ever meaning to. Growing up in Kentucky, my grandfather was an Appalachian fiddler, and my dad was an R&B guitarist, while I was learning classical music on the cello. I want to bring all of these inclusions together in a genuine way.