Laurel Lee and the Escapees

by Liza Mitchell
Sometimes it’s not about how you get there; it’s about what to do once you’re actually there. Laurel Lee Welch of St. Augustine didn’t set out to front her own band when she formed the alt-country act Laurel Lee and the Escapees. The evolutionary process was as subtle and organic as her songwriting; something she did just because she did it. “My band at the time was some boys I practiced music with. We were all just learning to play and I was writing songs on the side. They would say, ‘Let’s do that song that you just wrote.’ I thought I might actually be able to put something together, mostly because they said I should,” she says, “I had done some theatre so I was not afraid to perform. I just didn’t realize that was the next step until I was stepping in it.”
The original Escapees proved to be a loyal bunch, ably backing Laurel Lee for five years before she left the West Coast behind and settled in Northeast Florida. The creative community in Jacksonville welcomed her with open arms, and the generosity and support within the community made it easy for Laurel Lee to cherry-pick the new generation of Escapees.
“Jacksonville is a really large small town,” says Welch, “Fortunately, I walked into a very encouraging group of artists, even if they didn’t do that style of music.”
Laurel Lee quickly amassed a solid band with a little luck and extreme good fortune. Bass player John Mortensen was her husband’s old college buddy. She and singer Dolly Penland met at an open mic night and the pair became friends and collaborators. Drummer Don Beale, with three decades of experience under his belt including a stint with local punk icon Stevie Stiletto and the Switchblades, answered her ad on Craigslist.:“I said I was looking for someone who could do a ‘Waylon Jennings-Telecaster thing.’ It was pretty specific. He said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’” Violinist Phillip Pan, who has enjoyed a lengthy tenure with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, regularly joins the band on stage where he gets a break from the structured compositions in classical music and get his fiddle on. “In a country group, there is a lot of jamming,” Welch explains, “Phillip had no extemporaneous experience. It was interesting to see what would happen.”
Laurel Lee and the Escapees recently opened for rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. Her band “put their best professional foot forward,” always their goal unless they are playing more laid-back venues like Shantytown that allow for a certain amount of experimentation.
The band has recorded two CDs in local studios – Eastward Pioneer and Showdown – featuring songs that were born of Laurel Lee’s own personal experiences. Over time, she said she began to sew more common threads into her phrasing to echo not just her own frustrations, but those that might appeal to the average audience participant. “I realized, as a musician, there is more topical matter to choose from,” she says, “You can’t just play for catharsis. You have to get other people involved.”
Laurel Lee and the Escapees will perform on November 11 at the free Veteran’s Day Concert and Picnic event at Metropolitan Park and will close the day with a special performance at St. Cyprian’s Church in St. Augustine. The band plans to record a third batch of songs after the first of the year.