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Michael Lee’s “Tattoos”: Salvation And A CD That Is Not Hard To Love

Like a tractor-trailer fully loaded whining its big wheels up and down the blue highway over Taylor Ridge, our own Michael Lee Stancil roars full speed ahead with his new cd “Tattoos.” As you would expect, this new music pulls few punches. Michael Lee’s voice oozes a vintage country sound, the same sounds we have heard on his previous cds and the same sounds to which Chattooga County once listened on WGTA and now on AM-1180.

Yet, there is something strikingly different about this cd. I do not mean to diminish Michael Lee’s previous efforts. But, to repeat myself, there is something incredibly special about this one–rather than its being stuck on me, I’m indelibly stuck on “Tattoos.”

In short, with “Tattoos,” Michael Lee Stancil has come completely into his own.

Rest assured, you’ll not hear any contemporary Georgia-Florida Line rap here. Michael Lee muscles his musical rig west toward Fort Payne and Randy and Teddy and Jeff or north toward Nashville and George and Alan, not along the flat I-75 South toward Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard down near Valdosta or Jacksonville. With “Tattoos,” he is still whining around The Appalachian Mountains, miles away from sunny beach music that is passed off as “new” country.

Indeed, Michael Lee remains old school, and comfortably so; like a three-speed on the column, Michael Lee grips the wheel with one hand and shifts quick and hard with the other to move straight ahead, giving his new music everything he’s got, delivering a message that is right on time for his fans, both old and new alike. What I like most about this cd is that it is imbued with a certain peculiarly personal poignant urgency, rather than emersing itself in a Satan-May-Care Epicurean bon-fire party fest that we’ve regrettably come to expect from many of today’s country artists.

Michael Lee uses the tried and true Rand-McNally map to manuerver around, not a GPS device that might take him into unfamiliar territory. And after giving the entire cd a few good listens, I hear how Michael Lee revs it up only to gear it down every now and then, and then just long enough to let us listeners catch our breath.

Band photo from Tattoos recording

Rest assured, from the beginning to the end, from his Alpha to his Omega, this cd is solid and strong, a heartfelt and up-lifting ride, giving us a fresh look at a landscape that is as familiar to him as it is to us.

I have long admired Michael’s talent, and I confess I am more than little fond of this cd.

This newly released cd “Tattoos” opens with a rousing, foot-stomping and hand-clapping number titled “God’s Country.” After one listen, the reason Michael Lee and his producers selected “God’s Country” as its first track becomes obvious. (Before going any further, I must give a deserving shout out to Rick and Micah Schweinsberg, the producers of “Tattoos.” Their exceptional work on this cd reminds me of that of Rodney Crowell or Emory Gordy, Jr., two producers whose production efforts I have long admired.) While “God’s Country” is a remarkably strong start, the entire cd is masterfully produced without being overly polished. And “God’s County” is vintage Stancil, sung as only our local boy can do: his layered tones and Southern enunciation are as nuanced and rich as a big hunk of crackling cornbread buttered hot out of the oven.

Both the lyrics and the tune of “God’s Country” ring familiar, as right as rain, without being cliched. After a good half-dozen listens, I found myself sounding like my Daddy, interchanging the words “Trine, Georgee” for “God’s Country,” as the town which Michael Lee paints is the one I knew in the early Sixties. (Of course, I sang “Trine, Georgia” at the tops of my lungs in the privacy of my car; regrettably I cannot tote a note in Aunt Leak’s water pail.)

Stancil sings:

“I grew up where we never thought to lock our dohs at night
One groshry stoh, a five n dime, n jest one traffic light
Go to school each morning where we’d say the pledge and pray
And Mamas never worried when the kids went out to play
In God’s Country, everythang made perfect sense
In God’s Country, wish it was that way agin
We’ll still fight to keep her free, now won’t we?–
In God’s Country.”

(Note, without the lyrics printed in the liner notes, I have taken the liberty to spell some words phonetically; as Randy Owen once sang about his college-educated life across the State Line, “I’ll speak my Southern English as natural as I please/I’m in the Heart of Dixie and Dixie’s in the Heart of Me.”)

Michael Lee penned about half the tunes on this cd, and while he did not write “God’s Country,” he and his producers did well to include it on this cd. While “God’s Country” could be set in almost any small town, Michael sings and plays it as if it were penned with the Webb Boys or with Derry and Rusty and Meathead one Friday night out in The Shed.

This tune certainly describes the Trion that I once knew: Ms. Cochran’s, Ms. Moody’s, Ms. Hogg’s rooms on the 1st and 2nd grade hall, in the elementary school across the road from the high school that sat on the river: a flag hanging from each classroom’s black board and a Bible verse chalked in large print across the board for us students to recite together each morning as we learned to read, and clean bath towels carried to school each Monday for us to nap on after lunch. Then south of the school, we had Mr. Woodard’s Piggly Wiggly in Trion, around the time the Big Friendly closed, and not long after 1960 we had Redford’s Five and Dime there at, what was then, the new Triangle Shopping Center. Back at home, down Highway 27, the Pennville Gang roamed the streets till nightfall, just as Michael Lee recounts. True to form, I remember closing nothing but the screen door when Daddy, Mama, and I left for church services, Sunday Mornings and Wednesday Nights, leaving both house and car doors unlocked. This was early Sixties, maybe a few years before Michael Lee’s day, certainly a few years before Madeline Murray O’Hair. But Michael Lee captures this era in his song. And he captures this time, this era as well as anyone.

Yes, the lyrics to “God’s Country” are as familiar as Trion’s Park Avenue or Summerville’s Commerce Street. The song pays a moving tribute not just to Trion and Summerville, and Lyerly and Menlo, but to any small town struggling to hold tight to yesterday’s traditions in an ever-changing politically-correct world, a world that is hell-bent and high water-set on moving forward, like a bulldozer tearing down a mountain to put up a parking lot.

I won’t spoil this first song by giving away its ending. Suffice it to say that Michael Lee longs for those days that now seem as by-gone as leaded gas selling for twenty-five cents a gallon. As he laments that it looks “like we lost our way,” he makes it clear that though we still have “so much to be thankful for,” some changes have “shore broke his heart.”

Knowing Michael Lee and our county, I can easily discern the origin of his music or these lyrics. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Michael Lee’s lyrics and tunes strike such a familiar chord in my soul.

Most of us know that Michael Lee, hales from Chattooga County, and as a young adult, we listened as he cut his musical molars on whiskey and beer-lined bars, not only in Northwest Georgia but also across the Southeast. He had what looked to be a certain career in country music as one half of Buck and Duke duo with Derry Maddux. Together they crafted their classic country sound rather than electing to affect a contemporary “bro-country” appeal.

(As a side note, less anyone fear that I am not giving classic country its due in today’s times, I must affirm that classic country is still alive and well: artists like Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson prove that the old sound is as relevant today as it was half a century ago. As Stancil sings, “Everybody Loves A Comeback.”)

Though Michael Lee saw the glimmers of country music stardom through his windshield lying just over the horizon, God had other plans for this young man.

Without getting into Michael Lee’s spiritual affairs, I point you to Track Four, “Saved,” in which he narrates a story of an un-named sinner in church:

“. . . I gripped that pew in front of me
So hard my hands went numb
But I couldn’t get there fast enough
When ‘hat Preacher said come
‘Cause there was a change in me
I’d never felt more free
Like ever’ chain that had me bound
Hit the flo’
Each tear I cried fell sweater
Evry breath I took went deeper
Than any breath I ever took befo
It’s a feelin still hard to explain
When evry sin you’ve ever had
Has been washed away
And you get up saved.”

This is good stuff.

This is testifying on Wednesday night.

Heads bowed. Eyes closed. Hands raised.

Amens and Halleluyahs shouted across the sanctuary.

Though I am getting ahead of myself by writing about Track Three, this number makes it difficult to separate the singer from the song, and that is particularly true for those of us who know about Michael Lee’s heart transplant, how Jesus moved into his heart’s chambers about the same time that Jack Daniels got served his eviction order to get the hell out. After all, a man cannot serve two masters, and Michael Lee knows this stone cold fact as well as anyone.

What he shares with us in “Saved” is his conversion (which like St. Paul, knocked him off his horse and changed his vision) and his subsequent dedication of his life to the Lord’s service. Michael Lee knows repentance, a total change of one’ s life and one’ s lifestyle. And despite his masterful efforts to convey what happened to him that night, he recognizes the feeling that accompanies salvation as something that remains essentially ineffable, despite one’s dexterity with clever lyrics and melodious chords.

If I have not been straight forward, if all I’ve been doing is beating around the burning bush, I must make two points clear: this is an inspired gospel cd, and no doubt it is a solid country cd as well. Country music fans would have to be tone deaf not to hear influences of country artists like Montgomery Gentry on “God’s Country.” And in tracks that follow, discriminating fans of the Nashville sound might hear a little Vern, a touch of Toby, and a smidgeon of a Travis, both Randy and Tritt. And if your country album collection is as thick and numerous as mine, you might also hear a little George and Paycheck.

As Joplin says, “If this music sounds country, Man, that’s what it is.” Yet, the sound does not overwhelm the message, it compliments it. And its message–at times explicit, at others implicit–comes from Michael Lee’s spiritual heart, a settled heart that has found a place equally at home in Dixie as it is in His Word.

Being inspired by others who traversed those lonesome musical highways does not mean a new artist won’t venture off a road well-traveled to find his own way. And he does just that by infusing his Christian message with honest-to-goodness country roots. By doing this, by being true to himself, Michael Lee has carved out his own path.

Believe me, my enumerating what I have called Michael Lee’s country influences does not suggest that Michael Lee tries to sound like anyone but himself. In my mind, Stancil wears his own work boots and Carhartt jeans, and that garb he dons fits him just right. Don’t think for a second he’s walking in another’s shoes or putting on another’s shirt, be it made of flannel or rhinestones. He’s our Michael Lee, blue-denim-ed in Mt. Vernon country, and I, for one, am proud of him and the road he has taken and the jobs he has worked along the way.

Without duplicating or affecting the styles of others, his own sound is infectious, as you will hear on this cd. In the final analysis, when he belts out “God’s Country” or some other track, he does not aspire to sound like any singer other than himself.

And that’s a good thing: Michael Lee Stancil’s voice is just that good.

He has a distinctively and definitively rich country sound, regionally nuanced. He is an original and an originator and not just a fair to middling imitator or lead singer for some house band taking requests at closing time. Like young Samuel, the voice Michael Lee now hears is that of the Lord, and, like an obedient child, Michael Lee is following His call.

Track Two, “Everybody Needs a Comeback,” is a foot-stomping “goodun” as well. A series of mini-narratives: an injured football player, a broken marriage and addiction, and you get the picture: “Everybody loves a comeback.” The third verse ices the cake:

“They nailed him to that cross
He died for all of our sins
With a promise of eternity
He would rise again
[Short pause]
Everybody loves a comeback
Everybody loves a second chance
Everybody loves to see somebody
Make it to the big dance. . . .
Everybody loves a comeback
Loves a comeback.”

Quite frankly, Track Three “Ain’t That Just Like Jesus” is my unabashed favorite. It touches my heart like no other song on that album. From the opening licks on the acoustic guitar, this song tugs at this old boy’s heart:

There’s a homeless shelter down on Main
Where the volunteers give more than just their time
Ain’t that just like Jesus
There is a stranger steppin up
To help a single mom who’s barely gettin by
Ain’t that just like Jesus
Red and Yellow Black and White
Don’t matter when you’re lookin through His eyes
Lovin your neighbor just comes natural
When you’re livin color blind
Ain’t that just like Jesus
A teacher goes the extree mile
For a kid who’s all but given up on life
Ain’t that just like Jesus
A county comes together
To pray for peace by candlelight
Man, ain’t that just like Jesus
Red and Yellow Black and White
Don’t matter when you’re lookin through His eyes
Lovin your neighbor just comes natural
When you’re livin color blind
Ain’t that just like Jesus
Forgiveness for the blackest heart there is
Lovin’ people through the pride

This is the Good News at work around us, the Gospel that Jesus taught moving in our midst. I was reminded of Michael’s song as we recited our Collect at church today: “O God, You have taught us to keep all Your commandments by loving You and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of Your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to You with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

His song or this collect, the Message is the same. Yet I prefer his song to our recitation at St. Barnabas.

Track Three ends, leaving me wanting more. Kind of like a good Sunday morning service, dinner on the grounds, or a red-orange sunset over Teloga that moves us to tears, giving us a tiny taste of heaven here on earth. “Ain’t That Just Like Jesus” almost seems to stop mid-verse, too soon perhaps, as if the last few words are left for us to sing. When Michael Lee’s song stops, our hearts take over.

Just as with His Ascension, His disciples were left with the task of living their lives just as Jesus lived his: which is the song’s very point.

Across this old world, good lives might be cut short; mountains might seem too high, and valleys too low: hurts might ache too deep for relief, and our sins might look too black to be forgiven. And when it seems we can’t do it on our own, that’s when we look around and see Him, alive and well, moving in others, at times and at places when we might expect to find Him least of all.

And, “Man, ain’t that just like Jesus.”

In my opinion, this tune does more than any Sunday Morning Tele-Evangelist can to justify God’s way to Modern Man.

At the end of the day, this cd ain’t about Michael Lee. It’s about that old bearded country cuss who rambled around the pebbled paths of Palestine over two thousand years ago. And Michael’s cd assures me that His Spirit, well, it still moves about the green kudzu vines hanging from pines and oaks above the river up in Trion near Round Pond.

And He is the vine and we are the branches. It is good to have Michael Lee remind us all–red yellow black and white–that we are all branch kin.

Track Five is another heart-touching number. Featuring Rhonda Vincent, “Near You” is the only duet on this cd. It compliments “Ain’t That Just Like Jesus,” taking us from the earth to the pearly gates where mansions abound. But, not to sound ungrateful, Michael Lee and Rhonda put an interesting twist to what some might see as the pie in the sky promises that Christianity offers. In their own way, they turn down what may motivate others saying, “No, thank you,” by singing:

“They tell me that you’re building me a mansion
In a city where the streets are paved with gold
But if all I’m gonna git is jest a mansion
Then forgive me, Lord, but I don’t wanna go
‘Cause we got those, down here, you know
Oh, and truth be told–
I wanna be near you
Just near you.
So don’t go wastin’ too much space on me.
I wanna be near you
Just near you–
That’s all the heaven I will ever need.”

There is much more to this song. The harmonies are as wonderful as the message.

Following this prayful petition is Track Six’s “Run to Jesus,” in which Michael Lee testifies to others who may be running the wrong way. He offers words of comfort and direction, without condescion. Michael lets us know that wherever we have run, he’s run there as well. And “Love is the only thing that frees us/So when you run, just run to Jesus/Just run to Jesus.” It is an upbeat number for those who may feel more than a tad down-trodden.

The title number “Tattoos and the Truth” follows. It is co-penned with Michael Lee’s old writing and singing partner Derry Maddux. In this number, Michael Lee and Derry appear talking to others and to themselves, while addressing the Lord. It, too, is somewhat confessional without enumerating particularities; they write honestly about life’s winding road, “I am not the only one who lives with regrets every day.”

And though regrets are a common theme in this song, the tune essentially remains a prayer of thanksgiving. Michael Lee sings in the chorus:

“But I know you love me, Lord,
And I’ve been forgiven
And judgmental people–
They won’t stop me from livin’
Because in You
I’ve been made new
Even though sometimes it seems like
I’m just stuck between
The tattoos and the truth.”

This song is understated, and strong in this understatement. It is a quiet one, that sneaks up on you.

The last three songs are “God Writes Good Stories,” “I Did,” and “Where Grace Had to Start.” By naming these three songs together I don’t mean to give them short shrift.

The first of the three is an upbeat number, beginning: “If you wanna make God laugh, just go ahead tell Him your plan, and if it don’t go your way, you ain’t gotta throw up your hand. It might not be the right time–He might have somethin better in mind, that you ain’t ever thought of, something big that this is just the start of.” Again, this is Michael Lee’s confessional, and in keeping with this song’s message and with this cd, well, this is God’s, not Michael Lee’s.

“I Did,” the next to last song, is a well-crafted, perhaps as well written as any song on this album. While this is one of the five or so songs that Michael Lee did not pen, he puts his fingerprint all over it.

“Said I’d never bat an eye
Or ever let them see me cry
The night I told my folks
Good bye
But I did.
Swore I’d never let
The alcohol
Grow me up
To ten feet tall–
Chop me down
And make me crawl,
But I did.
Take everything for granted
Forget the good seed planted
That’s ever took root in this stubborn head
Who said the Fool can’t learn
Turn around and re-build every bridge
He’s ever burned–
But I did.”

It’s a song about eating crow and humble pie, a dish we’ve all wished not to have a heaping helping of.

“Where Grace Had To Start,” the last track, is a good concluding number to an exceptionally fine collection of songs. And, as some of us may realize, it is a fitting tribute to our Brother Tom and to North Summerville Baptist Church, as well as to all the Brother Toms and all the Churches where you still find red Church Hymnals and King James Bibles resting on the pews. While this song appears to me to be the most intimate and the most confessional of all the songs on this cd, ironically Michael Lee does not tell his story, he tells Brother Tom’s.

Likewise, musically speaking, with its guitar licks, its drum beats and cadences, and its whine from the fiddle and the steel guitar, this might be the most country sounding song on this cd. And Michael Lee’s unhurried laid-back cd-ending delivery is genius as he drawls, “Man, I’m heah to tell you’ll reap jest what you sew.”

Well, yes, unless grace gets in the way.

I won’t belabor this song. Just give North Summerville a visit some Wednesday night. Or, if you can’t get there, or if you have your own church, pick up a copy of this cd and hear Preacher Tom testify via Michael Lee. You might just find you and MIchael Lee having prayer meeting as you roll down the highway.

And if you are not careful, you might, as I did, find tears flowing down your cheeks.

You know?–Wherever two or more are gathered.

Thank you, Michael Lee, for this cd. It is wonderful, and I will treasure this gracious gift for as long as I live. Like grace, I didn’t deserve it.

I was sitting in my car, waiting for my wife to come out of CVS, when I saw you see me and when you turned around and went back to your car, just for me.

Giving me something before I asked for it.

And, hey, ain’t that just like Jesus?

Michael Lee, if you are reading this piece, I must say, having had multiple careers, I am not one to give advice about another’s line of work. Yet, with that said, now just might be the right time for you to quit your day job.

Contributed article: Jon Dennis

More about Michael Lee Stancil. Michael Lee was born and raised in Summerville. He and his wife, Julie, live in Chattooga County and have three children Darrah 17, Brylie 13, Mason 10.

Michael and Julie have been married for 18 years, “she is the strongest person I know, I tell everyone if the rolls had of been reversed I would have bailed a long time ago but she keeps right on praying and standing beside me… she knows me better than anyone. She has seen me at my best and my worst she’s watched me grow up, then learn and develop what I do in a way NO one else has… she’s the bomb.”


Villeda Concrete

Casie Bryant is the NW Georgia Regional Manager for AllOnGeorgia.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Clair Greiner

    June 15, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Great article – and what a find – Michael Lee – I only now have become aware of this amazing artist.

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