California Report – AJ Lee & Blue Summit

AJ is nine-time winner of the Northern California Bluegrass Society Female Vocalist of the Year. She’s the mandolinist and leader of the band Blue Summit, described on their website as, “A genre-fluid bluegrass band and remarkable group of young musicians who have grown up performing in the California bluegrass community. One of their latest achievements includes a CBA showcase at the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) event held in North Carolina. They have been gaining traction with their unique sound, sharing their music all over the West Coast. Later this year, they plan to travel overseas for the first time.”

Hey AJ. Thanks for your time. 2019 looks like another busy and fun year. What all is on tap?

Hi Dave. It’s my pleasure to chat with you! 2019 is going to be a good year for Blue Summit. We’re beginning to have a more solid fan base, and we’re very excited to release our second album.

Congratulations on the upcoming release. What excites you about it?

It’s all original, and we got to work with our friend Parker Miller, who did a stellar job recording and mixing the tracks. It’s also very exciting to see songs that I’ve written three or four years ago change and grow throughout the years we’ve performed them.

Are there any surprises?

We have some guest artists, which is very exciting. Jan Purat, Nate Grower, and John Mailander will all be featured on different songs. As far as any other surprises go, our friends and fans will have to listen to the album and let us know what they think! I believe my originals are pretty different from one another, so our listeners can expect to get a full AJ Lee spectrum. If I could choose one word to describe the album, it would be “intense.”

I like that song Misty Rays from the new release. It sounds a little dark.

Misty Rays is definitely one of the more moody songs on the album. Compared to bluegrass and country, this is a new direction for Blue Summit. I feel like this is the music that’s always been inside of me, I just never had the motivation to share it until the band encouraged me.

What are the overseas travel plans?

At IBMA 2018 we met Maria Wallace, who’s helping us coordinate our trip in June. Our main reason for going is the Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Ireland. Maria is helping us fill in some gigs along the way. We’ll also be going back to Europe in August for the La Roche Bluegrass Festival in La Roche, France. I believe we’ll be headlining on the Saturday of the festival.

What upcoming California shows are you looking forward to?

It’s hard to pick just a few. Fans can check out our Facebook page and website to see when and where we’ll be playing. Some to keep in mind would be the Fiddling Cricket series, Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, Parkfield Festival, and the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival. We’ll also be opening for Front Country at Moe’s Alley in May.

What’s your definition of genre-fluid?

I’d consider genre-fluid to be a mix of more than three genres. Not only do we play bluegrass but we also throw in some country, swing, rock, pop, and folk.

Tell us about the players in Blue Summit.

Blue Summit is currently made up of myself, Jesse Fichman, Sully Tuttle, and Chad Bowen. Three out of the four of us – me, Jesse, and Sully – grew up going to bluegrass festivals around California. The band started out as a rag-tag group with members Isaac Cornelius and Sam Kemiji. Isaac is now working on building a family, and Sam is off traveling and getting a degree in microbiology. Chad joined us a little under a year ago, but it seems like we blend together like we’ve been in this configuration for years.

What are some of your earliest music memories?

The earliest memory I have, and which was probably the starting point of my whole musical career, goes back to Mission Pizza in Fremont. I think I was four years old and I sang the song, Angel Band. That’s where I met Frank Solivan Sr., who until last year was the director of the CBA Father’s Day Kids on Bluegrass program. Around the same time, I have vague memories of singing in my mom’s old band Granny and the Skillet Washers.

What was your first festival performance?

I sang Old Rattler at the Plymouth Bluegrass Festival when I was five years old.

Can you share some thoughts on the California bluegrass community?

Where do I start? I can definitely say that the CBA and the Northern California Bluegrass Society have shaped me into the person I am today. Whether it’s from Frank Solivan telling me to look into the eyes of the people I’m talking to, to making lifelong friends, to deciding a career path, to learning morals and respect and joy and love.

Of course, many of us associate you with the Tuttle Family Band. How and when did you first meet them?

Jack Tuttle is a well-known music teacher around the Bay Area, so naturally my parents knew who he was. Jack used to put on performances with his students that he called the School of Bluegrass. One time he asked me to guest in one of these performances, and my relationship with the Tuttle family grew from there. I started guesting with the Tuttle Family band, and eventually we became the Tuttles with AJ Lee.

Are there any plans to do more work with the Tuttles?

So far, there are no new plans. All of us kids have branched off to do our own thing. But Sully and I haven’t stopped playing in the same band yet!

Do you think you’ll keep California as your base?

For a long time there was a rumor that I was moving to Nashville. I don’t see that in my near future to be honest. All of us value the musicianship in California, and it’s important to me to remain a California-based band. West coast rep! Some people might not agree, but I don’t think Nashville has to be the next step in a professional career.

Tell us how you compose a new song.

Sometimes a little melody or rhythm will pop into my head and I’ll reach for my phone to record it. Sometimes it will become something, part of a something, or nothing at all. Sometimes a whole song will get written in an hour. It really depends on when the inspiration hits. For me, it’s a waiting game. I’ll catch myself thinking about love, or friendships, or nature, or having a good time, and that always helps inspire me to write.

Who have been your mentors and influences?

My two biggest inspirations are Jack Tuttle and my friend, David Thiessen. I always tell David he’s one of my biggest inspirations, but we’ve been friends for a long time, so he humbly brushes off my comments. Jack is so precise and values clean notes and ideas, and David plays with so much heart. Because of them I feel like I have my own unique style of playing.

What’s the secret to playing clean notes, beyond just repetition and slowing it down?

It’s the way you pick the string. Along with fluidity, the angle that you hold the pick and release the note is important in achieving a clean tone – or a not clean tone – depending on what you’re going for.

Blue Summit records a lot of non-bluegrass covers. Are there any that you just couldn’t make work?

There have been a few songs over the years that we’ve tried to cover but it just didn’t seem to work. Our obstacles have been vocal range, syncopation, and filling space where an electric or midi instrument would be droning. However, you can make anything work with enough creativity and persistence.

How did you come about recording the bluegrass song, Wait a Minute, in a straight-up country style? It’s usually the other way around.

That song is featured on my EP that I did with my friend Jon Abrams. I’d have to credit him for most of the production and ideas.

Are you also an instructor?

I’m not an instructor, but if anyone would like lessons I’d be happy to share the methods that work for me!

Thank you all for playing so many benefit shows. It’s wonderful to see the bluegrass youth being active.

Bluegrass may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but from every experience I’ve had, I’ve seen it bring smiles to people’s faces. We NEED more youths to experience this music – to remember what it’s like to interact with a generation that isn’t yours and to physically be part of something that can inspire others.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?

I’ve gotten into gardening recently. I just moved to a new place in San Jose that comes with enough yard space. I’m a terrible gardener, but pulling weeds can be therapeutic!

Do you play any other instruments?

Mandolin is my primary instrument, though I also play guitar.

What are your favorite fiddle tunes?

Red Haired Boy, Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Salt Creek, along with other bluegrass standards. They’re all fun to play REALLY fast.

Is there anyone you’d love to play alongside some day?

I’d love to play with Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sierra Hull someday – my bluegrass and folk queens! It wouldn’t be fair to put Molly Tuttle in that grouping only because I’ve already gotten the pleasure of playing with her for years. However, I would never turn down a chance to get to play with her again!

Thanks AJ. I look forward to seeing Blue Summit in festival season.

Thank you Dave.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.