Country singer Lee came from
a musical family in Michigan
She was inspired by the music of Miranda Lambert
(Sept. 21, 2018) – Along with artisans from around the country, the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art on Sept. 29-30 will also feature performing artists throughout the entire weekend. All of them are making their return to Madison from previous years of performing at the show.
Country music singer Melissa Lee Zenker, 23, of Nashville, Tenn., will be among them. She will make her second trip to Chautauqua to perform from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30, on the Lanier Mansion North Lawn.
“We’re excited to have her back. She’s part of a genre that wasn’t really represented before,” said Joe Devito, entertainment chairman for the Chautauqua.
Melissa Lee is a Sault St. Marie, Mich., native who started her musical career at an early age.
Born Melissa Lee Zenker but known as simply Melissa Lee to her fans, the singer grew up in a musical family in Sault St. Marie, Mich., before pursuing her dreams after graduating high school.
“We booked mostly the same bands this year,” said Devito. “We’ve found that people really appreciate that consistency.”
“I was always surrounded by music throughout my childhood, especially from my mom and grandpa. Music has always been a part of my life.”
Lee grew up playing piano and also participated in band and choir throughout high school.
She has wanted to be a professional musician since she was young, but the country music focus came later on in life. “I grew up listening only to the country that my parents listened to, which was just Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels,” she said.
Her defining moment as an aspiring country music artist happened when she was in high school. “I was on the bus one day, and everyone was singing to the country station, and I felt really left out. Then a song came on by Miranda Lambert called ‘Gunpowder and Lead,’ and it gave me butterflies. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Devito said that Lee’s “acoustic flair” works well on the Lanier North Lawn and that there has been great feedback since her performance last year. The Derby City Dandies, a 1940s-style swing and jazz band from Louisville, Ky., will be performing on the Lanier lawn all day Saturday. “The Derby City Dandies were a hit last year. They are super fun and entertaining,” said Devito.
“This year, the stage has been moved so there’s more tree coverage for people to sit and be comfortable.”
His hope is that people will spend time on the Lanier North Lawn to enjoy the music and take a break from touring the festival. “We want it to be more of a gathering. Instead of trying to swap multiple acts, we’re only going to have one entertainer for each day,” he said.
Lee, meanwhile, knows how to hold her own as a performer. She has opened for popular country music bands and artists such as Cole Swindell, Brothers Osbourne, David Allen Coe and Josh Turner. She toured for a year with Confederate Railroad and says the “best day of her life” was singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with Charlie Daniels. She has traveled from coast to coast and defines her method of performing as “self-touring” since she books her own shows. “Since I’ve moved, it’s been tough to play only in Nashville and make a living, so I’ve been on the road a lot,” she said.
Melissa Lee’s first full-length album was released in 2016 with 11 songs, nine of them being original works. “I can’t believe how quickly time has gone. I’m ready for a new one,” she said.
In five years, Lee said she hopes to be playing in stadiums and locations outside the United States. “In two years, I see things picking up drastically,” she said.
Lee continues to find musical inspiration from singer Lambert, as well as other country music icons like Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks.
“My No. 1 goal as an artist is to write my own music. I want to travel the world and play shows, but I want to have songs that I write be on the radio,” she said. Lee performs mostly cover songs during her live performances and plays the guitar but said she will also be singing some of her original music at Chautauqua. “My goal is to get people singing along and dancing.”
Aside from the performances on the Lanier North Lawn, there will also be artists performing on Broadway and First streets, Broadway at Vaughn Drive, Elm Street at Vaughn Drive, and Vine Street at Vaughn Drive. Chris Jesse and Big John Atkins will be performing on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, at Broadway at First, the entrance to Chautauqua.
“These are solo acts, and they’re well known locally. We thought this would be a nice welcome for the thousands of out of town guests who are coming to the festival,” said Devito.
The Rob Houze Quintet, another popular local jazz group, will be performing on Vine Street at Vaughn Drive on both Saturday and Sunday. Bob Culbertson, known for playing an instrument known as the Chapman stick, and Emily Ann Thompson, who specializes in Celtic fiddling, will also be returning to perform on both Saturday and Sunday.
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