Indicative of the nomadic lifestyle he’s led since leaving the hilly riverside Minnesota town of his youth, Frankie Lee can’t remember if he was living in Texas or California when a friend sent him a news clip a decade ago in which actress Jessica Lange explained why she moved away from Stillwater. But he never forgot her comments.
“She talked about the hardware store closing and the condos going up, and how it just wasn’t the small town she moved to to raise her kids anymore,” recalled Lee, who was a schoolmate of Lange’s eldest daughter. “It broke my heart.”
Heartache being one of his best commodities, the country-rock singer/songwriter revisited that memory and many other childhood-tinged emotions as he returned to his old hometown on something of a whim to record his new record. He wound up titling the album “Stillwater,” and he wrote a song based on Lange’s exodus, “Downtown Lights.”
His release show Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center will also feature historic Stillwater film footage from the 1940s-’50s for visual accompaniment. The gig just happens to fall on his 37th birthday.
Another hidden-gem songwriter that many local music fans believe should be more famous — but who has a lot of famous friends, and doesn’t seem to want that for himself — Lee has been ubiquitous over the past decade-plus in the Twin Cities music scene.
He came to the fore as a sideman for other rootsy greats like Molly Maher, Erik Koskinen, the Jayhawks’ Tim O’Reagan and Curtiss A. The latter was something of a father figure after Lee’s musician father, Paul Peterson (aka Frankie Paradise), died in a motorcycle accident when Frankie was 12.
Lee finally started releasing his own music with the 2013 EP “Middle West” and 2016’s full-length “American Dreamer.” With songs built around his roaming, Kerouac-ian personal life and Don Henley-sandy voice, those releases earned favorable magazine reviews and an especially good buzz in Americana-music-loving European circles. That was enough to attract attention from a London label, Loose Music, and from a music publishing company that offered a sizable paycheck toward the new album.
But almost like his own version of keeping the Stillwater hardware store in business, Lee balked at the publishing deal the week he was to go into the studio.
“It was enough money for me to spend two weeks working in a real studio, which seemed luxurious,” he recounted, “but I realized right before it came time to make the record they were going to own all of it. I wouldn’t even own the masters. So I scrapped the whole thing.”
That decision left him stalled and disillusioned, he said, until his friend and guitarist Jacob Hanson gave him a good talking-to: “He said to me, ‘Just make some music.’ It didn’t need to be a high-pressure situation. It could be just like I was going to play bass with Erik or guitar with Molly or whatever, just a thing I do with friends.”
That’s when he got the idea to set up a makeshift recording studio in his mom Karen Kramer’s little house on the edge of downtown Stillwater, where he spent much of his youth. Kramer mostly lives and works in St. Paul nowadays but has kept the house as a getaway. Frankie stays there sometimes, as do some of his musician friends while on tour.
With help from engineer Tom Herbers and Jacob’s brother, drummer Jeremy Hanson, they banged out the album’s nine tunes there in a taut three-day stayover.
“There was no schedule, no clock, no isolation booths,” he raved. “It felt so natural and easy, I even wrote a few songs during those sessions.”
Despite (or because of) the modest approach, the LP sounds like a million bucks. In sonic terms, it has a living-room warmth, while in spirit, there’s a laid-back softness.
Besides the lushly twangy “Downtown Lights” — which imagines a night strolling down Stillwater’s Main Street with Lange — highlights include the poppy romantic strummer “Only She Knows,” the autobiographical heart-tugger “One Wild Bird” and the swooning, almost Nat King Cole-like ballad “In the Blue.” The latter two are among several tracks that used the piano in his mom’s house-turned-studio, which dated to Frankie’s childhood.
“It was part of the package,” he said. “It just needed a tuning.”
Lee kicked off promotion of the album with three weeks of European tour dates in May, opening for Philadelphia rockers Strand of Oaks. In keeping with the record’s low-key style, though, he doesn’t have ambitious tour plans for it.
“So many musicians I know have to force their music to get out there, like it’s toothpaste they’re trying to get on the shelf at a superstore,” he said. “I don’t want that. I’m more like the guy selling sweet corn out of the back of my truck for two months out of the year. If people stop, they stop.”
Not so coincidentally, he’s back to working part time on a farm in Afton, where he has helped wrangle cows and sows for close to a decade now — making him one of very few alt-country performers who can brag of actually being a cowboy.
“For me, it’s just free therapy and exercise,” he quipped.
One big part of Lee’s life that has changed, however: He may finally be settling down for good. It’s a change hinted at in the album’s closing track, “Ventura,” influenced by frequent trips to Los Angeles in recent years visiting a former girlfriend and his brother Clint Peterson, who is a pro skateboarder.
“How long must I run? How long must I leave all my love behind?” he sings.
He said of the song: “I’d been in this relationship going back and forth from New York and L.A., and then spending a few months here in Minnesota, and I thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’
“I’ve lived a dream life. I really can’t complain. But I don’t think I’m cut out for it anymore.”