LEXINGTON, Ky. — At age 25, Ben Sollee has gained a national following with his heartfelt songs, his soulful voice and his unconventional cello technique.
Sollee can do amazing, unexpected things with a cello. He’s doing one this week, and it involves a bicycle.
“I was looking for something a little bit different in touring,” he said. “I had gotten in this habit of flying to one side of the country and flying back for one gig, then hopping in the car and driving six hours for another gig. The pace was inhuman. I wasn’t really feeling the places I was at anymore.”
Sollee is feeling those places this week.
Oh, is he feeling them.
Last week, Sollee and two friends began riding bicycles from his Lexington home to the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival at Manchester, Tenn., where he will perform this weekend.
They rode from Lexington to Frankfort, Ky., in a steady rain, and Sollee gave a concert when they arrived. The next morning, they officially began the 330-mile Pedaling Against Poverty Tour.
Each day since then, the trio has ridden about 50 miles a day, stopping to play concerts in Danville, Berea and Somerset, Ky., and Cookeville and McMinnville, Tenn. Now they’re on to Bonnaroo.
In addition to making a statement about environmentally friendly music touring, Sollee said the trip is intended to promote the anti-poverty charity Oxfam America and Xtracycle, the California company that made the bikes he and Marty Benson are riding.
The stretch bicycles have 24 gears, disc brakes and a cargo platform in back. Sollee has his cello case strapped to one side. His gear is strapped to the other side for balance.
Benson is videotaping each day’s progress and posting it on Xtracycle’s Web site, www.xtracycle.com. Benson’s sister, Katie, is with them on a regular road bike.
“Considering I hadn’t really ridden much before this tour, it’s going great,” Sollee said Monday. As he talked on his cell phone, Sollee’s voice was occasionally drowned out by the swoosh of a passing truck.
“We had a really hard day going from Berea to Somerset ... hauling about 60 pounds of gear up all those big hills,” Sollee said. “Heading into Somerset I didn’t think I was going to make it. We pulled in eight minutes before show time.”
There have been a few minor breakdowns and a couple of wrecks without injuries. Sollee ran off the road near Harrodsburg while trying to ring a bell on the back of Benson’s Xtracycle. It’s a game: Whoever rings the other’s bell the most pays for dinner at the end of the trip.
“Marty rang my bell today and wrecked his bike,” Sollee said. “It was sweet revenge.”
Sollee said he has learned several things on the ride, such as how roads are graded, how diet influences stamina and the importance of pacing yourself. And he has learned it is hard to draw a crowd at small-town concert venues.
Usually, Sollee is good at drawing crowds. National Public Radio named him one of the top 10 “unknown artists of the year” in 2007. He became a lot better known last year with two CDs, “If You’re Gonna Lead My Country” and “Learning to Bend.”
He performed on ABC-TV’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in March and was among those who played at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday concert last month in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Sollee’s next project is a CD with Daniel Martin Moore to raise awareness about mountaintop-removal coal mining.
It is an impressive resume for a native Lexingtonian who not that long ago was studying at Yates Elementary, Winburn Middle, Lafayette High and the University of Louisville School of Music.
When I called again Tuesday afternoon, Sollee had 45 miles under his belt for the day.
“We’re within spitting distance,” he said. “We made really good time today.”
With Bonnaroo only two days and about 75 miles away, Sollee seemed to have gotten a second wind.
It’s hard to know if Sollee’s Bonnaroo performances will be as high-energy as usual. Life on the road is hard on a musician, especially when he has to pedal his cello up all of those big hills.