Wyman Lee of Salem understands the evolution of country music through first hand experience. He observes from the vantage point of 40-years of songwriting experience in and around the Nashville scene.
"I started out when I was 14, always had dreams and aspirations of making it," he said. In the late 80s, Lee stepped out independently and charted a song at 53, "Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Me."
"Music has always been a part of my life," he said. Lee plays one of two Fender Telecasters, 52 Vintage and 70 Vintage Thin-line. He released an album through Crossroad Records as an artist of 10 singles in 1989. Prior to the CD release, he played five years in Europe, televised on French TV the NCO Club circuit, opening for Johnny Russell and Connie Cato.
Lee has seen country change over four decades of what is now country-music history.
He gets his inspiration from "what everyone calls classic country or Americana. That's my first love when it comes to music. Music has changed from the traditional to the 'pop-country.' There is still a lot of good country out there. Some of it leans to the traditional style but then there's some that lean way to the other side."
Artists like George Jones, Merle Haggard and Ray Price were his favorites growing up in Alton and River Wood, Ill. He was also influenced by Jerry Lee Lewis and Wayland Jennings. "The rockabilly style: Johnny Cash, and little Elvis thrown in there. I think I've taken from everyone of them and I'm still uniquely Wyman Lee," he said. He feels the need to do more than just sing, he wants to entertain.
"I'm a real up-front entertainer," Lee said. "When I am on stage I want to engage the audience not just get up there and stand and sing. I talk to the audience a lot."
The region is the creative buzz, so when we go back to Nashville and they say 'oh listen, he's doing really good, they've got a fan base, it basically proves to them that we can sell music. In the past two months Lee has drummed up gigs at the Moose Lodge in Salem, Music on the Mountain in Horseshoe Bend, the Loft at the Turkey Mountain Golf Course and Bull Shoals Theater of the Arts. "We are starting to get established," Lee said. "We want this to happen. When we first signed the deal, the goal was to get recognized and start getting national distribution." His CD and his hopeful rise to fame is more the story of the old school musician. "They become popular in a region and build on it," Lee said.
"We need to regionalize with the music," Lee said. "This puts you where there is a fresh set of ears to hear the music." His CD has been released nationwide to country stations, but before his music will be played across the nation, his performances have to create a regional buzz.
"Pull your share of the load," the first song of the CD released to country music station, came from "inspiration from my father and several of my uncles that taught me work ethic and how you get along in this world if you aren't rich and famous. It's what they told me through the years and it stuck with me," he said. His rich baritone voice paired with zestful guitar styling gives Lee's music an original brand of traditional country. He plans to hold a songwriting contest, through NCA, and take the winner as an apprentice songwriter. The contest would run in the Ozarks and in southern Illinois, where he is originally from.
"Even though I've been playing for 40 years and I'm still paying my dues," he said. Lee has to go through the process of greatness just as if he were starting over, because of his transition from songwriter to song artist. What does he want to leave behind? "That they know me. I want my music to express that I feel the same thing that they feel. I have the same emotions, the same feelings, the same thoughts. That's what I think country music is all about. I'd like them to feel that even if they didn't know me, that they could have walked up to me." His songs and his life have always centered around a large and loving family.
"He played lead excellent, even though he's a front man not a lead man," said Lee's wife, Barbara Markle. She recalled the first time that she met Lee, over 20 years ago. The combination of the two got Barbara's attention. A year after their first meeting, Wyman Lee Markle and Barbara started talking at a country music venue, "a drink turned into all night long coffee talk. We where down by the water and I'm a fool when I get by water. I just talk and talk and talk." The couple became friends and shared a family together: Wyman's three boys, Barbara's three girls, and the two of them. "It's a regular Brandy Bunch kind of thing," Barbara said, explaining how the family stair-stepped in ages.
The couple's departure from Nashville, two months ago, was a decision made "after visiting three months and falling in love with the place," Wyman said. "The laid back setting, the folks that we've met in our travels here have been wonderful. We had a very, very warm reception. It's kind of been an adventure, but we are not against that. The travel and moving around part is not unusual," he said. Wyman and Barbara traveled the country as a trucking team at one point in their 20-year marriage.
He continues to return to Nashville as a staff writer of NCA Records, but his roots have been resettled in the Ozark foothills. "Every trip I've ever made to Nashville, you see a guy with a guitar in one arm, a bed roll in the other and a pawn shop right in front of him. Guess where he's going with that guitar? He's going to the pawnshop so he can eat," Wyman said. "This way if I need to do something to make a living, I'm not vying with every other musician down there to get the jobs -- music jobs or regular jobs. I can still be just Wyman."
Although country music nation still resides in Nashville, "This is where it is at," he said. "Nashville may be the hub, but the real music is right here. You can go the Nashville and do a perfect song, but if you sit here and play a song, you're there to have fun. They don't care if you miss a note, they care what's right here," he motioned to his heart.