The ride is always an adventure, but it isn’t always the wisest choice.
There are times when Ben Sollee doesn’t do his research and finds himself riding his bicycle in the steep hills between Kentucky and Tennessee. Or following the sandy Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Pensacola on U.S. 90, which is rigorous enough when he’s not carrying a cello.
Then again, Sollee wouldn’t know, because he always carries his cello.
“But I won’t be riding my bike to Baton Rouge,” he says, laughing.
Sollee speaks from Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’s helping to stage a ballet. He’ll perform from his eclectic repertoire of classical, jazz, blues and bluegrass Friday in the Manship Theatre.
As far as staging that ballet, Sollee doesn’t dance, but he’s as much a part of the performance as the Charlotte Ballet’s dancers.
“I kind of float around the stage,” he explains.
The ballet is based on “Dangerous Liaisons,” a story that heavily relies on dialogue. The only problem is, there is no dialogue in ballet.
“So, this is a difficult story to perform through dance,” Sollee says.
It also was a difficult story for Sollee to score. He wrote the music for this ballet and performed it.
“This was the second time this ballet has been staged,” Sollee says. “I was commissioned to write it. The choreographer asked me to perform in this show, so they have a solo cello with electronics sitting on a floating platform.”
Sollee isn’t complaining. The ballet is simply part of his musical adventure, which began with his grandfather’s fiddle. Sollee grew up in Kentucky and makes his home in Lexington.
He remembers a childhood of sitting next to the radio with his grandfather, listening as Grandpa played along with the songs on his fiddle or his banjo.
Sollee still appreciates how his grandfather’s performances were for the love of music.
“He played for pleasure,” Sollee says. “I admired it. I saw the contrast in how people are under pressure every day and how their music takes them away from that.”
And though Sollee makes his living through music, he remembers that music isn’t a job; it’s an art form. It’s also an adventure found in different terrains that are sometimes reached by bicycle, sometimes through different genres. And its only limits are self-imposed.
Sollee not only plays the cello, he also writes and sings his own songs. His only stage accompanist is percussionist Jordan Ellis, who sometimes takes part in the cycling trips, also with musical equipment strapped on his back.
On top of that, Sollee also incorporates banjo, guitar and mandolin into his performances, along with a dash of storytelling and a pinch of political activism.
This adventure began 22 years ago, when Sollee picked up a cello.
“I started playing it in public school,” Sollee says. “I was attracted to the weird sounds it made.”
Sollee continued studying cello at the University of Louisville while simultaneously performing with bluegrass bands, rock bands, and eventually legendary blues singer Otis Taylor.
“I was at a conference, and I heard that Otis Taylor was looking for a cellist,” Sollee says. “I contacted him and played for him. Then I found myself on a tour with him.”
Sollee’s resume since that time could fill a book. He’s toured with clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile; performed throughout the world; written and performed music for television and film; and recorded several albums, his latest, “Half Made Man,” released in 2012 by Tin Ear Records.
But his biggest productions are his cycling adventures. Sollee has been riding bikes since age 10 but didn’t incorporate cycling into his tours until 2010. He’s an advocate for the environment, and cycling is one way he can help the earth.
So, he decided to pedal the 330 miles from Lexington to a Tennessee show.
“I should have done my homework first,” Sollee says.
He can’t help laughing at himself. It was summertime, which can be as brutal in Kentucky as it is in Louisiana.
“I didn’t train or prepare for the trip,” he continues. “I just strapped on my cello, hopped on my bike and rode. You can see so much on a bike, and when you’re on a bike, there’s the effort of getting there. It feels more social, like I worked to get there.”
Which brings Sollee’s musical experience full circle to his grandfather’s.
“He would sit down after working 10 hours a day on the farm and just play for pleasure,” he says. “And after riding the bike, it was a pleasure to settle into a show and play the cello.”