Having a Coffee with Nate Lee 

This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about a few of their interests, as well as about the music that they love.  

Nate Lee is a 2015 IBMA Momentum Award winning instrumentalist and renowned teacher, with more than 17 years’ experience providing private lessons and instruction at music camps.

He is a member of the IBMA Leadership Bluegrass committee and a 2014 graduate of the program.  

Lee comes from a family of artists; including actors, a tattoo artist, a banjo builder. and several siblings who are “pretty handy” with a pencil, pen, or paintbrush. Every member of his immediate family enjoys playing music as a hobby.

Although he didn’t pick up an instrument until the age of eight, he was always interested in music. “One of my earliest memories is sitting in front of a record player as a small child, listening to my dad’s records,” Lee relates.

His first performance experiences were with a group of fiddle students lead by his teacher, Valerie Ryals. As Lee gained more experience, he began to play with some local bands in the Dallas area, including Jim Paul Miller’s Garland Square Pickers, Back Porch Tradition, and the Mark Gorman Band. 

During his second semester (spring 2006) while attending the Bluegrass and Country Music Program at South Plains College, Lee joined the Alan Munde Gazette. He toured with the band for six years and played fiddle on their second album Made To Last (released in 2008). 

Also, Lee played fiddle and drums in Joe Carr’s Western Swing ensemble during the Fall of 2008 / Spring 2009 school year at the Levelland, Texas college. 

A fellow member of the Alan Munde Gazette was Steve Smith, and Smith and Lee have continued to play together through the years. In the process, Lee has contributed to five albums by Smith’s band Hard Road / The Hard Road Trio. 

When the Alan Munde Gazette stopped performing, he did some fill-in work for various bands, before studying to be a motorcycle mechanic. 

However, after regaining his interest in music Lee decided to pursue that as a career and in 2012 he moved to Nashville, started playing gigs around town, recorded with Alan Tompkins, and did some touring with Ashleigh Caudill, as well as Brad Folk & the Bluegrass Playboys; spent a couple years working with Irene Kelley; before doing some fill-in work with Town Mountain – for a month long tour to Germany and ten-day tour of the Midwest; and then joining the Jim Hurst Trio, with whom he recorded an album JHT-1 (2016) and for which he wrote an original tune. 

In 2017 he joined the Becky Buller Band playing mandolin and fiddle, helping on her Crepe Paper Heart and her latest release. Prior to that he had assisted Buller on the recording of her The Christmas 45, Vol. 1. 

In the past few years Lee has released a few individual projects; his Plays Well With Others six-track solo album (September 2017), the popular teaching DVD, How To Play A Solo (On A Song You’ve Never Heard Before) (June 2018) and Wings of a Jetliner (Adverb Records, June 2020).  

Members of the Becky Buller Band call Lee “the bluegrass points guy” because of his affinity for earning airline miles and maximizing other rewards. 

What would you like to drink?

Pour-over Ethiopian coffee, black. Preferably made with freshly ground beans from Milagro Coffee y Espresso.

Do you want anything to eat as well?

A Texas style Czech cream cheese kolache sounds good!

What’s your favorite food? 

Whataburger! I literally have dreams about Whataburger.

And what would you have to drink with that?

Unsweet iced tea, Whatasized.

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had? 

That’s a tough one! One really nice and special meal was on the Bluegrass Jamboree tour in Germany in 2014. A chef prepared Texas style BBQ ribs for us, and he really nailed it!

Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music? 

When I was about eight years old my brother started bringing home cassette tapes with bluegrass on them. Shortly after, my dad found The Tony Rice Video Collection on VHS and that was when I first heard many of my heroes.

Which of your own songs / tunes do you have a particular liking for?

Serenity on my new album Wings of a Jetliner is my current favorite, named for the spaceship on the TV show, Firefly. I wrote it with Todd Phillips and Wyatt Rice’s rhythmic style in mind, and they made such a perfect groove on that song. Serenity makes me feel like a leaf on the wind!

What about a song written by someone else? 

Somewhere Far Away, written by Brad Folk and Nick Woods. That’s always been a favorite song since I first heard Brad sing it. I cut it on Wings of a Jetliner and it’s one of my favorite cuts on the album.

Which particular album do you like best and why?

Manzanita. Tony’s singing and Sam Bush’s mandolin playing are my favorite parts, and the way the band plays together as a unit is amazing. Sam’s solo on Old Train is my all-time favorite mandolin solo.

You play a mandolin …. … What model is it? 

I play Pava Mandolins, and my main axe is Pava #194, named “Wonderbat,” after Homer Simpson’s baseball ball. It’s my favorite mandolin I’ve ever played.

What’s your favorite bluegrass memory? 

Sword fighting Sam Bush with fiddle bows for the Becky Buller Band’s “What would you do for your BlueChip pick” video. You can find that video on YouTube on the B3 channel. 

How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road? 

I think ice cream is an important part of a balanced road diet. The official after-gig beverage of the Becky Buller Band is a chocolate malt. Only with malt powder though, malt syrup is for the birds.

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow? 

I don’t follow sports, but I enjoy going to watch the Nashville Sounds play baseball.

What hobbies do you have?

I play chess every day, and I also enjoy video games. Ratchet & Clank and Call of Duty are my go-to video games. My song Quick Select is named after the equipment menu on Ratchet & Clank.

What is the last movie film that you watched? 

I watched Jay and Silent Bob Reboot recently. Kevin Smith and the rest of the cast really nailed it.

Do you get much time to watch TV?

My current favorites are The Blacklist, and The Rookie. I like to play mandolin while I watch TV, and I wrote Rook Roller while watching The Rookie. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?

I’m a very business-minded person, so I’d probably still be running my own business, and I’d probably be teaching something. 

I’ve been in the music business since I was a teenager. My company is called Nate Lee, LLC, and it has a performance side, and a music instruction side. My music instruction business, Play Nately, provides private live online lessons, instructional videos, and music workshops taught by myself and a few other teachers. 

From Ovilla, Texas, Nate Lee now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Chrisanthi, and recently-born son, Charlie. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.