Even without a signature song, Philly singer/songwriter Amos Lee has built a rich career.
Amos Lee rattles off the names of Twin Cities venues he’s played — Bunkers, Fine Line, the Basilica Block Party, the Minnesota Zoo, the State Theatre, Cities 97’s “Oake on the Water” show — as if he lived here.
The Philadelphia singer/songwriter vividly remembers opening his 2011 tour in Minneapolis and playing for nearly two hours even though he was ill. “I had strep throat that night,” he recalled. “It was horrible.”
When Lee returns to the sold-out State Theatre on Wednesday, it will be the second night of his tour. He’s promoting his fifth album, “Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song,” which arrived last month.
The recording was made in Nashville. Not that Lee is going country. He simply wanted to collaborate with hot producer Jay Joyce, who has worked with the Wallflowers, Patty Griffin, Brandi Carlile, Little Big Town, Eric Church and Cage the Elephant.
“It’s not really a prototypical Nashville record,” Lee, 36, said recently. “I just wanted to work with someone who is creative, and Jay is a super-creative guy. It was more about that than anything geographically or culturally.”
Being in Nashville made it easier to secure such guests as Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, whose dobro defines the record. There are a few guests from elsewhere — saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band), harmonica player Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson’s band) and singer Griffin.
“Mountains of Sorrow” once again showcases Lee’s rustic folk-soul music. “Dresser Drawer” is filled with gentle loneliness. Krauss adds ache to “Chill in the Air,” about a romance that’s over. The dry-as-West-Texas “Johnson Blvd.” contemplates the price of progress. Musically, Lee progresses on the funky and fuller-sounding “Man Who Wants You,” the noisy gospel-blues “High Water” and the techno-lite “Loretta.”
The title track is an homage to the late Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for the Band. “He was a lover of songs and a giver. Plus he was such a great dude,” Lee said. “We played one of his ‘Midnight Rambles,’ ” the weekly hoedowns that Helm staged at his barn in Woodstock, N.Y. “That’s kind of where the song started.”
Lee commands respect in the music industry. After releasing his debut album in 2004, he opened tours for Norah Jones and Bob Dylan. He enlisted Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam to sing on his fourth album in 2011. He’s warmed up sold-out crowds for Adele, Zac Brown Band and Dave Matthews Band. This fall, he performed at the Grand Ole Opry and at Farm Aid.
Despite his facile and soulful voice, Lee doesn’t have the uplift of Mumford & Sons’ artisanal folk or the gravity of John Mayer’s pop-soul. Still, he has forged a nice career over the past 10 years without a hit or even a signature song. Like Lyle Lovett, he has built an audience through lots of concerts and exposure on late-night TV talk shows.
“I’ve always been about a catalog,” Lee said. “But someday I hope [the signature song] happens.”
Maybe it could happen if Lee, who is witty between songs in concert, injected a little of that humor in his tunes — like one of his idols, John Prine, has done.
“There’s some levity that can be had,” said the voice behind lots of sincere, earnest songs. “I’m starting to think about that, for sure.”
Lee did make it to the top of the charts when his fourth album, “Mission Bell,” debuted at No. 1 in 2011 — to everybody’s surprise. (It was a slow week, with his 40,000 sales being tops.) “Mountains of Sorrow” did not climb up the charts.
He chuckled. “That’s not a surprise or a letdown,” he said of “Mountains” peaking at No. 16. “I don’t really have that much commercial success in my career. I have great fans, and that’s all that really matters.”
But, with his consistent crowds and résumé filled with famous names, doesn’t the former grade-school teacher feel as if he’s arrived?
“I think you’re always in a perpetual state of arrival,” he said. “You’re a songwriter; there is no arriving. You travel from town to town on your songs. They’re all kind of like magic carpets.”