But the country musician has nevertheless earned a trio of Juno nominations and a spot in the BC Music Hall of Fame.
One nomination was for his album Sacred Ground, which got him banned from Canadian radio stations due to references to the 1995 Gustafsen Lake standoff and the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec.
“A lot of people phoned up the stations and said, ‘It’s about time you guys played some music that told the truth.’ But an equal amount phoned up and says, ‘Don’t play that kind of stuff, it just stirs up the Indians’,” said Lee, 63, who performs this weekend at MusicFest. (solo performance, Saturday at noon, Grassy Knoll Stage)
“That was maybe nine, 10 years too soon for that album,” he added, noting former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology. “Effectively, I ruined my own career because I chose to tell the truth about the native people. I can live with that. Sure, it’s been tough over the years. But somehow we managed to survive. I’m a musician, I’m a writer. That’s what I do. I’ve learned to live on very little.”
Lee formerly lived in Peace River, Alta. where he owned a hobby farm, and worked a few years as a hunting/fishing guide.
“I just couldn’t do it any more. I was always trapping as a kid, and hunting, but always for food, never for sport. I helped feed other families with elders. It’s the Metis tradition to help the elders out. Then I quit it all. Killing ducks and geese. I just didn’t feel good about it.”
Lee recently became a resident of Cumberland, where he had visited on and off since the ’70s.
“I always loved it here. Living in Cumberland, you’re surrounded by so many musicians. It blows me away.”
Years back, Lee had tried to secure a record deal in Nashville, where he met songwriter Joel (Doc) Shapiro. He wanted to manage Lee, but as fate would have it, Shapiro died. Then in 1992, he was slated to perform at the American Music Awards, but the event was cancelled due to the L.A. riots.
“I just quit. I said, ‘I’m done with this whole cartoon of trying to get a record deal and being a country music star. I love the music but I hate the business.”
Lee enjoyed performing a series of Merle Haggard shows in Saskatchewan and Alberta — but first had some explaining to do after Haggard died earlier this year.
“We had to tell everyone, ‘We’re not trying to jump on the bandwagon. We had planned this way before he died.’ I’m not an impersonator. I just sing the tunes. But it worked out really good. We had sold out rooms and standing ovations.”