Born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1964, Will grew up amongst musicians on both sides of his family. At the time, his father, Ricky Lee, was already a well-known guitarist with the Bluegrass Tarheels, special protegées of Bill Monroe. On his mom's side, Grandpa Clark was a fine ragtime pianist whose two sons both play guitar. The banjo is definitely in Will’s genes: William Penmon Lee, the grandfather he was named after, was a respected clawhammer banjo player down in Alabama and Mississippi.
When Will’s dad joined the legendary Stanley Brothers as lead guitarist, the family moved up to Ralph Stanley’s farm in Smith Ridge, Virginia. Will was six when he got a harmonica, his first instrument. By nine he was playing onstage with Ralph Stanley and competing in 4H talent shows. Then, on Hee Haw, he saw Grandpa Jones play harmonica and guitar together. Within a year, Will was playing guitar and, of course, had rigged up a little stand for his harmonica.
Around this time, Ricky Lee decided to quit the road. He moved the family to Alleghany County, Virginia and kept on playing in and around the Shenandoah Valley. When Will was 12, he gave him his first student banjo, an old Kay; Ricky had always wanted his son to be a banjo player. He presented the banjo along with a Flat and Scruggs record and an offer: “If you really learn every tune on this album, I'll get you a Gibson.” Sure enough, at 15 Will had met his dad's high standards and earned his Gibson—and that fine Gibson took young Will's picking up a notch, a big one at that.
Soon Will, though underage, was playing roadhouses, clubs, and sessions regularly with his dad. It was the finest kind of apprenticeship in the pure bluegrass tradition Ricky insisted on. Will's first non-traditional influences came from sitting in with the Ruley brothers, two of the best of Virginia's new generation bluegrass players. Gary Ruley, a guitarist, gave Will a half dozen tapes of the new heretics like J.D. Crowe and the New Grass Revival. Those tapes—and jamming with Gary's great banjo-playing brother, “Rooster”—were a huge new influence.
At the end of high school, Will started going to Galax and other traditional festivals. A year later, at 19, he met Larry Keel there and they started playing together all the time. Larry's flat-picking virtuosity was inspiring, challenging Will to hone his chops in more technical directions. For the next few years Will and Larry, playing together, did festivals, contests, and gigs throughout Virginia and North Carolina. At Galax in 1990 they ran into an impressive 15 year old bassist, Danny Knicely; the threesome found musical magic instantly and spent almost every weekend of the next four years picking together, all weekend long. Those weekend jams coalesced into Magraw Gap, a fiery young group that stretched the boundaries of bluegrass, even the new bluegrass. Starting as a trio, they grew into a quartet with John Flower taking over the bass and Danny moving to the front line on mandolin.
The band really took off nationally in '95 with a first place win at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and a CD that year. They returned to Telluride as a featured band the next year and eventually toured most of the East Coast, the West Coast, the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies. The high point of Magraw Gap's popularity was a most successful tour with Leftover Salmon in '97. They toured for another year or so.
Will and Danny have never stopped playing together, honing their unique duo sound and their creatively fresh arrangements of great old mountain tunes.
Will also plays regularly with Gary Ruley's band, Mule Train, doing clubs, events and colleges around Virginia—and he's playing shows and sessions with his old mentor, "Rooster" Ruley. Will is currently involved in planning for a major reunion of Magraw Gap in the fall.
|Murders, Drownings & Lost Loves (#11052)|