By Johnny Griffith
I love music. I love creating it, listening to it, and writing about it. Luckily, this area has some of the most talented musicians you’ll find anywhere, so I get the opportunity to listen to, and interview, some fantastic artists every month for EGuide. This month I got the pleasure of sitting down again with one of my personal favorites, Lee Mathis.
A resident of Henderson, Mathis is a rebel in style and music. His distinctive beard and hair are recognizable in a crowded room, while his talent and old-school approach to music can hold that crowded room captive. A throwback to the outlaw country and troubadours from years gone by, Lee and The Brutally Handsome pay homage to the classics, but are equally as adept putting outlaw spins on modern covers that keep audiences engaged.
We last interviewed Lee back in May of 2017 and in the meantime, there’s been an album out as well as some changes in the lineup of the band. With new faces and a new lineup in the works, I decided it was time for another sit-down to find out what’s old, what’s new, and what’s coming up in 2019.
Johnny: The band has had some personnel changes over the past 18 months. What is the current lineup of The Brutally Handsome?
Lee: Currently it’s me on lead vocals and lead guitar, Jon Morrow on bass and vocals, Marcus Jones on drums, and the newest member of the band, Sheila Weaver on fiddle, vocals, and guitar.
Johnny: So does the new lineup mean we’ll be seeing Lee Mathis and the Terminally Pretty anytime soon?
Lee: Ha, ha! Sheila does pretty the boys up, for sure, and we talked about the name of the band with Sheila coming on board. Before we even gave it a second thought, she said, “Hey, I can be Brutally Handsome!” So, there you have it.
Johnny: How excited are you to have a fiddle in the band? I mean, you can officially play in Texas now, right?
Lee: As sung by a band from Alabama, right?! Seriously though, we’re super excited about having a fiddle! It opens up the range of songs we can do, from bluegrass to swing country like Bob Wills and George Strait, as well as our normal honky-tonk outlaw country!
Johnny: Last time we sat down for this, you guys were doing about four originals per show. Where does that number stand now?
Lee: That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. In a standard 3-4 hour show, we’re doing anywhere from 8-10 originals now including some brand new stuff which is some of our best work yet.
Johnny: You’ve had an eventful 2018. Any good ideas for new songs come out of this past year? What’s your favorite original you do right now?
Lee: I have a ton of songs that have been written in 2018 and even as far back as 2017. After “The Hard Stuff” album came out, I didn’t exactly stop writing, but you get busy playing shows and you mean to get around to it but don’t always. I do have a good way of taking quick notes in case I come up with good idea, title, or lyric while I’m driving.
As far as my favorite original song that we do, I see more and more people request and sing along with “Something About the Rain” and I can’t help but think “are you kidding me?” Something I wrote is getting yelled out at shows like “Freebird?” It’s surreal, but I love it. I will say that a couple of new songs from our upcoming album in 2019, “Whiskey Revival” and “Don’t Hold a Candle To You,” I absolutely love singing, and I’ve got some tearjerkers on the horizon that I wrote in 2018 too.
Johnny: Your interpretation of music, whether it be your own or a cover, has always leaned toward a raw, stripped-down, honest ‘take’ rather than chasing a trend or what’s “mainstream.” That being said, do you feel like “mainstream” is starting to catch up to the appeal it has to an audience and “outlaw” music will have its day in the sun sometime soon?
Lee: So much of that mainstream stuff is slickly recorded. They just keep cranking them out and are running a toxic formula into the ground. It’s half rap/half pop with a southern drawl, and it doesn’t reflect the soul of what built the genre. Red Dirt is getting watered down as well though, and I’m afraid the term “outlaw” will too one day. What I’ve learned, and still learning, is to just sing with passion and from the heart. I just don’t believe all the tailgate and dirt road songs you hear today. Growing up, listening to George Jones sing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” I really thought George was singing a true story about someone dying and finally stopping loving that certain someone. Guys like him and Waylon and Willie and Merle had that connection. It’s like there’s a Merle Haggard album in a glass case with a sign that says, “Break glass in case of heartache.” That’s what music needs to get back to. When you hear a song, you need to feel that the person singing it is either living it or has lived it.
Johnny: You and The Brutally Handsome do some fantastic takes on some old classics, rock, and country. I know my personal favorite is your version of “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins, but what cover do you most enjoy playing?
Lee: I’ve come up with most of the songs in the setlist. We’re all on the same page as far as new covers we add. I’m a huge Waylon fan so “Lonesome, On’ry, & Mean” is a favorite. I also love Whitey Morgan, one of the newer guys from today. He does a song called “Sinner,” which just kills every night on stage. Can you cover a cover? Yeah, you can! Whitey covered ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid” on his newest album, and we do the Whitey version! My mind has to be just right to nail them each night! Also, I’m a big fan of album cuts. Deep cuts, if you will. They were either never singles, or they were singles that didn’t make it to #1 or #2. We do a Johnny Lee song called “Highways Run On Forever” that I truly love doing every night. We spin around during that song and have a lot of fun each night with it.
Johnny: You released an album shortly after the last interview and your website currently says that you guys are working on a new one. How was that process the first time and what did you take from that experience going into this new project?
Lee: The first album was crazy slow making. We did it ourselves and would go weeks without touching it. It was killing me because I wanted to get it finished, but couldn’t really do anything about how slow it was going. Life would come up, and we’d go take care of that. Finally, we booked a show at Memphis in Longview a couple months out, and said, “Ok, this is the CD release party date. Let’s finish it because now the countdown is happening!” And we finished it. I love that album. There’s always a couple of things I’d like to do differently, but the body of work itself I’m very proud of. We aren’t doing this next album ourselves. I want to give the fans new material, and that just needs to happen way more often than once every 18 months or so. Normally, you wouldn’t play your new stuff live before you have it ready to sell, but as I said, fans liked “The Hard Stuff,” and now they want something new!
Johnny: You’ve had some pretty cool opportunities this past year to take the stage with some interesting people. Anything stand out above the rest from 2018?
Lee: I’ve been so fortunate to make some good friends and relationships with different artists over the years. It’s still amazing to think about opening for the rock band Night Ranger! That was a crazy night! I raised an eyebrow to a honky-tonk band opening for a rock & roll band, hair metal band, but the crowd loved it! We had a blast this year, also, opening for Jason Boland, John Anderson, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, Dallas Moore, and Jackson Taylor among others! I still have some of the most fun playing with my friends around East Texas. There’s an incredible music scene with some amazingly talented artists such as Gary Patrick, Heather Nikole Harper, White Trash Wannabees, Allen Wayne Nichols, TEAZUR, Meredith Crawford, and Chaos & Creation. Of course, I still want to jam with you and them Dagnabbit boys some day.
Johnny: What is on the horizon for Lee Mathis and the Brutally Handsome for 2019?
Lee: We’re going to branch more out in 2019. I love the places in East Texas we play, but I want to tour more in 2019, so we’re going to do some touring, both full band and acoustic. We’ll have the new album finished up in the next few months. Man, that’s going to be a good album and we are excited about it. We’ve already got some opening slots lined up with the Bellamy Brothers and Tennessee Jet.
Personally, I want to talk to more of these venues around here about doing multi-band shows: two bands and maybe one acoustic opener or something like that. Maybe the acoustic act is someone that’s up and coming or just getting their name out there. It wasn’t so long ago that some folks made me that acoustic opener and I’m forever in their debt.