As Blue Summit hits the stage, every seat at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center is occupied, with more people standing in the aisles, and even more crowded around the door. There are teens, young adults, grandparents—even babies, who are dancing by the front of the stage. The band opens with a high-energy bluegrass tune that carries shades of classic country and a sprinkling of modern Americana. They play like seasoned professionals, but everyone is between 19 and 23.
All eyes are focused on lead singer AJ Lee, who hollers and strums her mandolin with the passion of a street performer busking for spare change. The other four members take turns on vocals, but clearly Lee’s vocals lead. The set includes a mixture of covers and Lee originals, and the audience loves everything the band throws at them.
This show in September was supposed to be Lee’s final gig in Santa Cruz before she made the leap to Nashville, where she intended to chase her dream as a professional singer-songwriter. But over the past few months, Blue Summit has blown up, finding a new level of success locally that caused her to reconsider her move.
But the show was fiddler Sam Kemiji’s last one before moving down to San Diego for college. Steep Ravine’s fiddler Jan Purat has been filling in, but they are looking for a permanent fiddle replacement so they can hit this year hard.
“There was some turmoil in the band, chemistry-wise. Also, I was having some pressures from friends to move to Nashville,” Lee explains. “Everything in the band clicked back together. We’re having a lot of momentum.”
It’s easy to see why Lee doesn’t want to leave. She’s having a blast on stage, and the energy of the band is unmistakably infectious, with a cross-generational appeal.
“I think what people tend to like about us is our stage presence, because we’re all just a bunch of friends,” says guitarist Jesse Fichman. “AJ has the soul of bluegrass in her voice. It keeps us tied to the tradition. But the songs may not sound very bluegrass.”
Let’s Get Serious
A year ago, this band wasn’t a serious pursuit at all; it was quite literally just a bunch of friends jamming together. Most of the members lived in Santa Cruz, but Lee was still in Turlock, the town she grew up in.
“We’d all hang out, pretty much jam and have occasional gigs,” Lee says. “I was thinking, ‘I love these guys so much, and our musicianship blends so well that I want to try and move there and be closer to them, and see what happens.’”
When she moved to Santa Cruz, she got a job at Lulu Carpenter’s and played music on the side. But by this past summer, the band was getting so many gigs that they were all able to quit their jobs and support themselves as full-time musicians. Moving to Nashville has been a dream of Lee’s since she was 17. She’s 20 now, and she’s not exactly sure what’s going to happen.
“I didn’t have that big of an expectation for this band, honestly,” Lee says. “I’m really enjoying being in the band because everyone’s contributing so much, and we’re working really hard.”
Blue Summit released its debut album, Sweet Company, in December, and is already planning a second one. They hope to tour, get booked at a bunch of festivals and really make a name for themselves this year.
They are also prepared for the possibility that Lee could change her mind again, and move to Nashville. That’s never been off the table—but for now, it’s on the back burner. It all depends on what happens with Blue Summit.
“One of the big things that changed is AJ’s goals. She’s turning into a very serious musician,” Fichman says. “She’s really pushing us to be more professional as a band. All of us are fine with that. We don’t want to hold her back if she does decide to go and pursue some other path. We’re kind of hanging on her.”
Lee was five years old the first time she performed in front of an audience. It was at an open mic in a pizza parlor. She was dressed in a cowgirl outfit, and had her mandolin in hand. Then she froze.
I’m sitting with Lee on the outside patio of the Kuumbwa shortly before Blue Summit plays. As I ask her about this story, Lee’s mom Betsy Riger comes over to the table, excited, and jumps in to tell me one of her favorite stories about her daughter.
“My best friend Sharon, she says to me, ‘she can’t remember the first notes to the song,’” Lee’s mom says. “AJ came over and I said, ‘Don’t cry. It’s so easy. All you have to do is hit the first chord, and it’ll come to you.’ My god, that’s what she did. That was so awesome.”
To my surprise, Lee doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed that her mom is telling childhood stories. In fact, she’s remarkably low-key for a musician about to take the stage in an hour.
“I was freaking out,” Lee says calmly, referring to her debut gig. But it was a good thing she mustered up the courage to sing. She impressed an audience member, Frank Solivan, who ran the Kids on Bluegrass program for the California Bluegrass Association. Kids who are part of this program get to perform on the main stage at the annual Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, and Solivan invited Lee to participate.
Lee is used to the spotlight now, which maybe explains her seeming lack of pre-show nerves. Since that first show, she’s continued to wow audiences with her far-too-mature-for-a-kid voice. Mother Jones interviewed her when she was 13, suggesting that she could be the next Alison Krauss.
She spent a majority of her childhood performing with a group called “the Tuttles with AJ Lee”—everyone in the band was part of the Tuttle family except Lee. Jack Tuttle, the patriarch, saw her sing at the age of 7 and was blown away.
“She was quite something,” he says. “The further back in time you go, the more it was way ahead of where it should have been. Her voice got better as she got older. In some ways, it was less amazing because at some point you expect a good singer to have a good voice, but when she was really young, she could really turn heads.”
The band didn’t play a lot, but landed enough high-profile shows that they made a splash on the bluegrass scene. Lead vocal duties were shared by Lee and Jack’s daughter, Molly, who was five years older than Lee. Three years ago, Molly moved to Nashville to carve out a career as a solo artist.
That was Lee’s plan, too. But it turns out that while her formative years were spent blowing people’s minds with her voice, she wasn’t nearly as confident about sharing her songwriting.
MARSHMALLOW ON FIRE
When Lee tells me about the first song she ever wrote, she stutters a little bit. It’s a rare moment where she actually seems a little embarrassed.
Her first song was called “I Set My Marshmallow on Fire.” She wrote it when she was 12, and it’s just as silly as it sounds.
Her songwriting has since gotten much better, which I see firsthand when Blue Summit hits the stage. In fact, you can tell which songs in the set are Lee’s originals because they sound less like traditional bluegrass, and have instead a more straightforward, subtly twangy singer-songwriter style to them.
It took a while for her to bring her own music to the stage. Before she turned 18, she’d been performing live for longer than most pop stars, but her originals never made it to the Tuttles’ set, with the exception of a few at the very tail end of the band’s run.
“I wasn’t known for any of my original songs when I was little. It was just what came out of my mouth,” she says.
The Tuttles never technically broke up, but when Lee was 17, the band more or less faded into the background as Molly pursued her dreams.
This left Lee at a crossroads. Should she even continue playing music? She nearly pursued a non-musical profession, with veterinarian at the top of her list. But one day she realized, “I’m only 17.” While it seemed she’d been in the spotlight a lifetime, she’d never actually tried to go all in as an adult artist.
“There was something inside me telling me, ‘This is what you love doing right now, and you know you have some potential to do something with this for a future career. Why not just try it, because you have all these years to make mistakes?’”
Around this time, producer John Abrams, who was a fan of the YouTube videos that captured her live performances, reached out to her about working on one of his projects. This evolved into the two of them working together on making a solo record for Lee. He recorded her, and assembled a band to play on the record. They ended up recording two EPs together. Abrams helped her choose some of her originals, and also suggested several covers to play.
Abrams had a vision to package Lee as a sophisticated California country star. Her cover of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” got a lot of positive notice, but while Lee liked the song, she also felt like it didn’t resonate strongly with her.
The EPs didn’t sell all that well—partially because Lee had no live band to promote them, but also because she felt like she wasn’t really supporting her own vision.
While she was putting all this hard work into these records, she was jamming casually with her old friends as Blue Summit, with little expectation from it, and that’s when she really started to feel herself coming out.
“I wasn’t too comfortable doing solo acts. Mostly I stayed in my room and started writing, seeing what comes out, and that’s where most of my development happened,” Lee says. “It helped me broaden my songwriting mentality. Kind of experiment with different instruments and different things. I’d say those two albums were definitely the beginnings of me developing as a songwriter.”
Blue Summit was originally conceived by upright bass player Isaac Cornelius. He’d wanted to put together a band for a while, and thought about the kids he grew up with from the Kids on Bluegrass program. Mostly, he thought about playing with Lee, who he knew from even before getting involved with Kids on Bluegrass.
“AJ, I’ve known supposedly since we were in diapers,” Cornelius says. “There’s video I believe of AJ and I singing together when we were 2 or 3 years old. I’ve known her for quite a while. I would 100 percent consider her one of my best friends.”
Cornelius contacted Lee first, and together they discussed some of the other kids they’d gotten to know through Kids on Bluegrass. At the top of the list was Fichman and guitarist Sully Tuttle from Lee’s old band the Tuttles. Fichman suggested a friend of his, Kemiji—the only member that didn’t grow up in the Kids on Bluegrass program—to play in the group, as well.
The relaxed, low-pressure environment of the band gave Lee a chance to explore the sort of covers that actually spoke to her, and to also find her voice as a songwriter. In the first year, the band was so casual that oftentimes band practice was mostly Lee driving down to Santa Cruz and hanging out with the guys. They might play some tunes if they felt like it.
“When I started branching out, I tried to write these songs that were more in tune with myself. What started coming out wasn’t bluegrass,” Lee says. After considering it a moment, she continues: “They’re definitely more indie-bluegrass, I’d say. Maybe even rock-grass. More of the progressive side, I’d say, because there’s a youth influence and youths like messing with things.”
Her move to Santa Cruz in early 2016 marked a decision to put more effort into the band. But she and Fichman got together, which complicated things a bit. When they broke up, it seemed like maybe the band wouldn’t be able to continue. But she and Fichman worked through everything, just as the group found their unexpected success. It seemed like with even just a little bit of effort, people really responded to Blue Summit.
Cornelius recalls the group’s gig at the Plumas Homegrown Americana Festival in Quincy in early September, a few weeks before the Kuumbwa show, when the group shared a bill with bluegrass legend Peter Rowan. That’s when it seemed real to him.
“For us, that was big. I’m standing backstage with Peter Rowan going, ‘Holy crap, this guy’s a Grammy award winner. He made an album with Tony Rice.’ Those were moments where I felt, ‘OK, this is legit. This is an option,’” Cornelius says.
All through the summer, even as everything was going much better than anyone expected, Lee stuck to her guns about moving to Nashville—that is, until the summer was nearly over and it dawned on her just what she’d created here, and how she was able to discover her own voice with this group of friends in a way she didn’t anticipate.
“Being around these guys that have been my best friends growing up, the chemistry is so strong. And that’s really helpful when I’m writing,” Lee says. “I feel more comfortable because I’m in charge of developing who I am instead of having input from a producer’s side. It’s easier for all of us to develop at the same time and help each other. These guys are probably the best thing that’s happened in my life.”
BLUE SUMMIT AT SCMF
Blue Summit plays Sunday, March 11, at 3 p.m. at Abbott Square, as part of the Santa Cruz Music Festival. The SCMF runs March 10-11 at locations around Santa Cruz; details and tickets at santacruzmusicfestival.com.