Like Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and John McLaughlin, Cindy Cashdollar grew up being dazzled by Albert Lee’s jaw-dropping guitar playing. Apart from Clapton, though, five-time Grammy Award-winner Cashdollar is the only one of them to regularly perform in the same band with the improbably fleet Lee, who is also a multiple-Grammy winner.
“I first heard Albert when he was in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, back in the mid-1970s. I became an instant fan, bought his first solo album and have been a huge fan ever since,” said Cashdollar, who performs Sept. 9 with Lee at Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall (ticket information appears below). “He’s also one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met.”
Their joint concert here is a “Play It Forward” benefit for Carlsbad’s nonprofit Museum of Making Music, where the two memorably shared the stage last year.
“Cindy didn’t really do any solo stuff when we first played together about four years ago at a guitar festival in Canada. But she solos on all of my stuff, which is wonderful. She’s a terrific lap-pedal steel and dobro player,” said Lee of Cashdollar, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Asleep at the Wheel, Rod Stewart, George Strait and Ryan Adams, among many others.
Lee spent 20 years as the lead guitarist in The Everly Brothers, after they reunited in 1983. The extensive list of his other musical collaborators includes Joe Cocker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackson Browne, Brad Paisley, The Crickets, Dolly Parton, Dave Edmunds, Joan Armatrading and jazz greats Stéphane Grappelli, Eddie Harris and Herbie Mann.
Like a bluegrass Django Reinhardt
Clapton happily sang Lee’s praises in the introduction to the 2008 book “Country Boy: A Biography of Albert Lee,” writing:
“He is a great, great player, fluid, lyrical, and free — like a jazz musician, but with country scales; like Django (Reinhardt), but with a bluegrass past. … Albert will almost certainly live until he is 105, probably more, hopefully still playing the clubs, and I for one, want to be there at the edge of the stage, listening to him in wonder, as I always do.”
The golden-voiced Harris, in whose Hot Band Lee played from 1976 until 1978, once jubilantly declared: “When St. Peter asks me to chronicle my time down here on earth, I’ll be able to say, with pride — if that’s allowed — that for a while, I played rhythm guitar in a band with Albert Lee.”
And, speaking backstage at the Grammy Awards in February, a smiling Gill said: “Albert has been an enormous influence on me. I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Told of Gill’s comments, the self-effacing Lee said: “Vince has been very gracious over the years. I think he was still in his teens when we started to jam together.”
Lee, 73, was born in Lingen, a village in England close to the border of Wales. He lives with his American wife, Karen, in Calabasas, near Malibu, where Lee moved from London in 1973.
In the early 1960s, he was playing rock and R&B in some of the same clubs as the early Beatles in Hamburg, Germany. A few years later, Lee was a mainstay in Chris Farlowe & The Thunderbirds, a top London band whose various lineups also included future Emerson, Lake & Palmer drummer Carl Palmer, future Colosseum keyboardist Dave Greenslade and future If saxophonist Dave Quincy.
“It was a great time for guitar players,” Lee recalled. “In 1965, John McLaughlin was playing in Ronnie Jones & The Night Timers, Andy Summers was with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band and Eric (Clapton) was in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. So you could go to London clubs, on any night of the week, and see all of us, all doing slightly different styles.”
In the late 1960s, Lee co-founded the pioneering English band Country Fever. By 1970, the group had morphed into Heads, Hands & Feet, one of the best country-rock bands on either side of the Atlantic.
Among his many honors, Lee has been voted Best Country Guitarist five times in Guitar Player magazine’s annual Readers’ Choice awards. His 1971 classic, “Country Boy” — first recorded in 1971 by Heads, Hands & Feet — became a chart-topping 1985 hit for Ricky Skaggs.
Texas Steel Hall of Fame player
Cashdollar, 61, is a native of Woodstock, N.Y. She moved back there in 2014, after residing for years in Austin.
After taking up guitar at the age of 11, she immersed herself in bluegrass and blues, studying the intricate fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt.
At 21, she switched to dobro, a resonator guitar that is played with picks and a slide. Her love affair with the instrument has yet to subside, although she now can most often be found playing lap-pedal steel guitar.
“There weren’t any female dobro players I was aware of when I started,” Cashdollar — yes, that’s her real name — said, speaking from her Woodstock home. “Of course, Sally Van Meter was playing when I was, but I was not aware of her then, unfortunately.”
Early in her career, Cashdollar began playing in her hometown with blues harmonica great Paul Butterfield and two co-founders of The Band, Levon Helm and Rick Danko. From 1987 to 1992, she toured and recorded with Leon Redbone, followed by joining Asleep at the Wheel and collaborations with Dylan, Morrison and other legends.
In 2011, Cashdollar became the first female musician to ever be inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame. A year later, she was inducted into the Texas Music Hall Of Fame. Amazingly, she had only periodically played lap-pedal steel guitar before joining Asleep at the Wheel. It quickly became her signature instrument.
Despite their differences in age, nationality and upbringing, Cashdollar and Lee share a number of traits in common, beginning with their seemingly effortless virtuosity and abiding love for country music, bluegrass, rockabilly and other earthy American styles.
Both have been featured on albums and concert tours by numerous other artists, including a fair share of music legends.
Both are held in high esteem by their very famous contemporaries, while remaining largely unknown to casual listeners.
Both perform with equal skill and sensitivity in almost any setting, whether guesting on albums by others or playing on their own solo recordings.
And both have an unshakable devotion to music that far outweighs any aspirations they may have once had to achieve fame or fortune.
“I tell everybody that there are no pensions in this business for guys like me, sidemen, unless you’re a regular session guy like (studio drum legend) Hal Blaine, who gets decent checks every month from the Musicians Union,” said Lee, who averages several concert tours of Europe a year and performs regularly throughout North America.
“For the little I’ve done, I’m happy to receive whatever I get. But it’s not enough to live on. That aside, I do enjoy going out and playing live. A lot of musicians fall by the wayside. They get to my age and their playing suffers, because they rest on their laurels, so it can be detrimental not working. Although it would be nice to have money, it can really stop you from improving. Fortunately, I think my playing is as good as it ever was.”
‘The spice that flavors the main course’
The quest for constant improvement is also held by Cashdollar, who — when not sharing the limelight with Lee at their joint concerts — stands out by keeping out of the spotlight and providing exemplary support to other performers..
“To me, it’s always about suiting the song and the artist you are working with,” Cashdollar said.
“As a side person, I’ve often said you are not the main course; you are the spice that flavors the main course.”
Museum of Making Music Executive Director Carolyn Grant sounded almost giddy discussing the Sept. 9 pairing of Lee and Cashdollar.
“They are absolutely superior musicians and absolutely experts in their own genres,” Grant said. “Both of them have been trailblazers. And to bring two trailblazers together on stage at once is a joy.”
Cashdollar, like Lee, exudes a sense of joyousness in her playing. She credits three of her early musical partners with imparting key musical wisdom.
“Before I played with Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Paul Butterfield, I’d been playing with (guitarist) John Herald and doing nothing but bluegrass — with a lot of solos — for five years,” recalled Cashdollar, who rose to national prominence during her eight-year stint with top Texas country-swing band Asleep at the Wheel.
“And both Rick and Paul said to me: ‘You know, less is more.’ I thought that was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’d ever gotten. It was an epiphany for me, because I realized how correct they were. Leon Redbone was also a big stickler too for just having me play melody, with a lot of feeling. I was very fortunate to work with them and to learn that.
“And working with so many songwriters over the years, I learned the importance of listening to lyrics. My brain is going in a million directions, but mostly I’m focused on fitting in with the instrumentation around me, what’s going on with the lyrics, and how can I best support the lyrics and the singer.”
A gifted singer himself, Lee is also a key example of a guitarist who always plays tastefully in service of the music and artist at hand.
That may be the reason he was featured successively in three of Clapton’s bands, while all the other members were fired and replaced.
“I thought I did what was really needed in his bands,” Lee reflected. “Eric always tried to outplay his guitar players — and I don’t play that way. No matter what the style is, I always keep my playing within the confines of the song. My goal is not to compete with Eric, or whoever I’m working with, but to add to the song and give it a different flavor.
“Maybe my longevity with Eric came down to (Clapton album producer) Tom Dowd, who I think was my champion. We were recording in Nashville, and Tom said to Eric: ‘It would be smart if you keep Albert. He’s a good, all-purpose guy who sings and can back you up well on rhythm guitar.’ So they kept me and they gave me solos on the record and in concert, too.”
Lee’s first solo album, 1978’s superb “Hiding,” featured Harris and their Hot Band colleagues. His most recent release, 2015’s ballads-fueled “Highway Man,” is an intimate, solo affair that features him on acoustic guitar, piano and vocals.
Cashdollar — whose past collaborators range from Merle Haggard and Manhattan Transfer to the Dixie Chicks and Graham Parker — only released her debut solo album, “Slideshow,” in 2004.
She is now completing her second album, which features Lee, Sonny Landreth, Rory Block, Marcia Ball, Asleep at the Wheel mastermind Ray Benson, and others.
“It’s a whole different world for me!” Cashdollar said. “It’s like: ‘Oh, wow, now I know what a band leader must feel like, with the pressure of picking songs and people, and arranging and mixing everything.’ It’s a lot of responsibility. But, in the end, it feels like a vast accomplishment.”
Singing his praises
How highly regarded is Albert Lee by some of the world’s greatest guitarists? We asked four of them.
Jeff Beck: “Albert is one of my favorite guitarists. I’d really like to make an album with him.”
Keith Richards: “I love listening to Albert play. He’s someone I never get to hear enough of.”
John McLaughlin: “I’ve known Albert since forever — what a great guitar player! When you look at guitar magazines, Albert is always spoken about in revered tones, and I’m always very happy for him. He was already playing great 40 years ago.”