When John Travolta approaches you at a movie premiere and tells you that you’ve sung his favorite song, now that’s a memorable moment. But it’s just one of the many highlights in Johnny Lee’s long and accomplished career. Travolta was, of course, talking about Lee’s signature song “Looking for Love,” a monster hit from Urban Cowboy starring Travolta and Debra Winger that made cowboys boots and country music all the rage back in 1980. These days, Lee is refusing to sit on his laurels. His new album, Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, releases Feb. 12 and finds the native Texan unleashing his distinctive voice on a strong set of original tunes and a few carefully curated classics.
“I’m more proud of this album because I wrote most of the songs,” Lee tells Sounds Like Nashville on a phone call from his home in Branson, MO. “I had some friends who helped me write some songs on it. I’m proud of the rest of my stuff, but this album is special. I really enjoyed working on it with Buddy Hyatt.”
The Texas Country Music Hall of Famer traveled to Nashville last year to work on the album and is proud of the project that he and Hyatt co-produced. It features guest appearances from his daughter Cherish Lee, his longtime Texas friend Toni Jolene and the legendary Willie Nelson.
“It meant the world to me,” Lee says of Nelson playing his beloved guitar Trigger on “Did You Enjoy Hurting Me,” a song Lee had originally wrote hoping that Nelson would record it. “I wrote that song a long, long time ago and didn’t know how to get it to him. I just remembered it and I always heard Willie playing guitar on it. So I called him up and asked him if he’d play on the song I wrote for him. He said, ‘Send it to the studio,’ so I did and he recorded it. When we got it back, I said, ‘Don’t touch his mix. The way he played it, that’s the way it’s going to be.’ I’d still love for him to record it, but I can’t push it.”
One of Lee’s favorite songs on the album is the closing track, “Father’s Daughter,” a bonus cut written and sang by his daughter Cherish Lee as a tribute to her dad. “I wanted to cry,” Lee says of his reaction the first time Cherish played it for him.
“Every time I get pissed off at her, I listen to that song and it makes everything okay,” he says with a mischievous laugh. “I like that line, ‘If you know him, you know me.’”
Cherish called her dad and asked him about his life growing up in Texas, his time in the Navy and other life experiences then put all that information in the song. “I’m such a daddy’s girl. We’re cut from the same exact cloth and I just felt like I needed to write this song, so I did,” Cherish tells SLN. “I called him and asked him specific questions about him being in the Navy and other things because I wanted just a little more detail. I wrote this song for my papa bear and I ended up sending it to him because I send him a lot of what I write. He’s very honest. Both of us are very honest with one another. It ended up making him cry like a baby and the next thing I know I get this call and he was like, ‘Well, I’m going to put it as a bonus track on my album.’ I was so flattered and honored to have that because he just doesn’t do that sort of thing.”
Cherish admits she’s learned a lot from her father, particularly on how to approach her own career. “Don’t try to be like anybody else,” she says, sharing his advice. “Don’t try to sing like anybody else. There’s only one you and that’s what is going to land you your mark.”
In addition to Cherish’s sweet tribute, Lee’s new album is filled with songs that have personal connections, including his cover of the Jack Greene classic “Statue of a Fool,” which helped him land a crucial gig early in his career. “I got the job at a club called Cedar Oaks in Texas because the guy said, ‘I like your band and everything, but my wife really likes country music so if you can play some country music we’ll hire you.’ I learned ‘Statue of a Fool,’ and got the gig,” Lee recalls. “I never dreamed that I would ever become friends with Jack Greene but on the duet album he did, I sang ‘Nightlife’ with him.”
“I Know Me” is a tender ballad that explores a failed relationship that might be rekindled, but still wouldn’t work because it seems destined to have the same old issues. It was written for Lee after a conversation he had at dinner with T.G. Sheppard’s wife Kelly Lang. “We went to dinner on a cruise one night and we had a conversation. I didn’t know Kelly went right to her room and wrote that song from our conversation. I don’t know what the hell I told her. We were talking about Charlene. Maybe it’s about her,” Lee says of his ex-wife, actress Charlene Tilton.
Another song that sounds as though it could have been written specifically for Lee is “Take Me Back to Texas.” “I heard Lee Ann Womack sing it on some television show. That song made me cry and I just had to record it,” says Lee, a native of Texas City, Texas who grew up on a dairy farm before joining the Navy. “When it’s my time to go, I thought about getting cremated and having my daughter take my ashes back to Texas and put them in the prettiest blue bonnet field they could find.”
Lee also includes a cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” and asked an old friend to duet with him. “I sang with Toni Jolene. She and I used to sing together at Gilley’s,” he says. “She’s a minister now and I called her up and said, ‘I want to do this song with you.’ That’s the one take and as we did it. I love that song. She and I did it as a duet. She still sings.”
Though he included a few of his favorite covers, the foundation of the album is original songs penned by Lee himself, including the title track “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” “I started writing that song at least two years ago, and wasn’t meant to be finished back then I guess,” he says of the song, which has a timely lyric of encouragement in these troubled times. “A friend turned me on to Tony Ramey’s music. He’s a Texas artist. Tony came on the bus and met me and I played him that song. He made up a couple of verses on the spot and I said, ‘Wow, I really like it that.’ That melody has always stuck in my head and it’s a good melody and good hook line. It has a positive message. Everything’s going to be alright. It’s just one of those songs that’s always sat with me and I figured it would be a good a time to do it.”
The upbeat “If You Drive Your Husband to Drink (Drive Him Here)” boasts a good two-stepping beat and fun lyric. “I got that line off a wall in a bar in Texas,” Lee recalls with a chuckle. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope I write this before anybody else does.’ Donny Crumb co-wrote that with me. That line on the wall stuck with me and I started writing that song. I met Donny when he played at this place in Texas and I told him about that line. He said he’d love to do something with it sometime. So we wrote it.”
“Livin’ Hell” is a song Lee says he’s had in his pocket for a long time. “Everything happens for a reason. If I had recorded it a long time ago, it wouldn’t have meant anything, but it’s a damn good song,” he says. “My guitar player Mike always asks me to play that song and said, ‘Man, you’ve got to record that! It’s country.’ So I talked to Buddy about it and played it for him and it turned out that way on the album.”
Lee also reached back into his repertoire to include “Annie,” a song he wrote and first recorded on his Looking for Love album. The pretty ballad was inspired by a girl he met after a show at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. “I took her back to hotel and we sat there in the hallway talking. It turned out she was a songwriter and singer,” he recalls. “I tried to get her to go back to Nashville with me. I was going to take her to the studio with me. She didn’t go, but I promised her I’d write her a song. So I started writing the song that night and finished it the next day.”
Though he and Annie were never destined to be a couple, she surprisingly surfaced in his life years later at a recording session in Nashville. “I was working on an album with Curb Records and the guys brought in a pretty girl to sing with me and low and behold it was Annie,” he says.
“Sawin’ on the Fiddle” is a song Lee wrote for the late Charlie Daniels. “I wanted to write this song for him, but I never got to play it for him,” Lee says of the song which was inspired by The Dalton Gang, a group of outlaws in the Old West. “Word had it there was a band coming to town and going to play this dance. He took his wife out there to the dance and come back and bought an old fiddle and he said, ‘Sawing on a fiddle beats sawing on logs.’ So I wrote a song about that and put some of my childhood experiences in there. I hadn’t written the last verse of it when we recorded it, so I went to the studio and I made the last verse up on the spot. Megan Mullins is playing fiddle on it.”
In addition to the songs on the new album, Lee also recorded The Pledge of Allegiance. “I met a veteran who was 97 years old and, to me, he’s a hero. And I met some guys who were in the Battle of Bastogne. One guy jumped out of a plane, got shot and he walked in the freezing cold. He said his blood froze, and it pisses me off that they’d take it out of the schools,” Lee says regarding the fact that some schools no longer have students recite the Pledge. “I said, ‘I’m going to do it on here by God.’ I just felt like being patriotic. I did it for all my brothers who passed away.”
Though he’s been battling Parkinson’s, Lee is still active promoting the new album and playing shows with multiple dates listed on his website [https://www.thejohnnyleemusic.com/tour], including shows with his longtime friend Mickey Gilley. “We are so different. He’s a goody two shoes and I’m a stepchild,” Lee says with a laugh, “but we’re closer than most brothers.”
In addition to performing, Lee is always ready to write a new song. “I’m not writing for the next album yet, but you can never tell when a song will hit me,” he says.
He has plans to do some co-writing with Ashley McBryde. The two connected when Lee and Gilley attended the CMA Awards last fall when the 40th Anniversary of Urban Cowboy was recognized. “Ashley cried and told me that when I first met her I gave her some advice when she opened for me,” he shares. “She won a contest and she opened for me someplace in Tennessee and I gave her some advice. She had tears coming out her eyes when she told me about that. She’s really cool. She said she wanted to write some with me and I said, ‘Yeah!’”
When he’s not writing and performing, Lee loves spending time with family, including his daughter, grandchildren and his mom. “My mother is here visiting with me and is going to celebrate her 92nd birthday February 10th,” Lee says. “It’s gonna be a good time.”
Reflecting on his 50 plus years in country music, Lee is thankful for such a long ride and feels like he owes a lot of his continued success to making people happy. Known for his comedic timing and his ability to keep crowds in stitches, Lee admits that’s been part of his recipe for success. “They laugh,” he says of his audiences. “I make a lot of people laugh. You gotta keep them happy.”