Smile Politely

Cody Lee: Chapter 6

For a quarter of a century, Cody Lee called Champaign home. “I moved to Champaign 25 years ago and was taken by its small city charms,” he said. Intending to leave his days of New York musicianship behind him, Lee’s original plans included the opening of a record store business. “I was not going to play in bands when I got to Champaign because I had spent my whole life in rock and roll.” Approximately three months after their arrival, his wife urged him to reconsider. Lee soon found himself in his first Midwest outfit.

“So I joined this band called the Delta Kings. We were a roadhouse band that played 1500 plus shows.  We played most of the summer festivals in the region, and most of the street festivals in the region,” he stated. Originally a bass guitar player, Lee initially did not sing with the band. He looks back on his Delta Kings days fondly. “The Delta Kings taught me to put substance over form. Check your tuning constantly, plant yourself and do your work first. Then you can move. It was a wonderful boot camp.”


Lee remained with the Delta Kings for fifteen years before leaving to pursue a new path. “I decided I wanted to try this sound I was hearing in my head, which was basically an acoustic guitar played by a guy who played rock and roll his whole life,” he said.  “It was really kind of cool. I never worked at having my own style per se because I didn’t think I was grand enough to have my own style. And then I did this thing, and I went ‘Wow’. I invented my own way to finger-pick, and then my dynamic range just flipped out.”


Lee’s initial solo venture would eventually lead to the formation of his recent band, Cody and the Gateway Drugs. “I’d say we were together for about two years. I’ve got nothing but praise and thanks for those people (that were in the band),” he stated. Various events in the lives of the members caused the group to disband near the end of 2015. “I’m at a different phase in my life,” said Lee. “I’m in a position to be like I was at 23. My (only) obligation is practicing (my music). And I’ve realized that it is a privilege to be able to do that.”

Once again, Lee took the opportunity to forge a new path. He began to write new songs and to finish old ones. When it comes to composing his songs, Lee finds his inspiration in our day-to-day world. “I think I am a subject matter inspired guy,” said Lee. “I do read voraciously, both literature as well as non-fiction. And I also read an English paper every morning and a New York paper every morning. I used to read a Champaign-Urbana paper, but I stopped.”

With his acoustic guitar in hand, Lee soon returned to the stage. “I started to play (out) more and I got my confidence. And I played out of town where people just didn’t know me. So they either liked it or they didn’t. It’s a slow snowball, but it is snowballing.”

Lee’s recent album, Songs For Damaged Hearts, was released just prior to his move from Champaign to Chicago. The decision to leave his home of twenty-five years didn’t come easy, but it was the one he felt he had to make. “And so what happened was, as much as I love Champaign-Urbana, I realized that our population here is (a little over) 100,000. If you have (millions) of people in Chicagoland, do the math on how many people are going to go out every night. So if we’re all fighting for Friday and Saturday night here in town, you can’t expect to get every one of them. And also, when I play out of town, I have absolutely no baggage. I love that, because this is a small town. People know your story.”


Lee realizes that he has been fortunate. He also realizes that he will need to put in the work in order to achieve his dreams. “I’ve been lucky. I’ve played in London, I’ve played in Nashville, I’ve played in New York a few times now, I’ve played in Germany, and I’ve played in Chicago a bunch. So I decided I need to go to a bigger demographic. I’m very nervous about it because I’ve got to not be full of shit. I’ve got to make more stuff happen.”


Lee returns to Champaign this weekend. He will be sharing the stage at The Accord with Shawn Mullins on Saturday, April 16th. “I loved living in Champaign-Urbana,” he said. “It is a great place to be.”

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