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Tuesday, October 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington Voices

He’s turned life into a song

Musician ready to hit the road in school bus that’s also his home

Charlie Lee plays a sad song Wednesday in the converted school bus where he lives with his four dogs. The longtime musician will join others for Street Music Week in downtown Spokane June 11-15. (Jesse Tinsley)
Charlie Lee plays a sad song Wednesday in the converted school bus where he lives with his four dogs. The longtime musician will join others for Street Music Week in downtown Spokane June 11-15. (Jesse Tinsley)

The mutts, Baxter, Rockie, Bandit and Otis, miss having a yard to run in.

They have been with Charlie Lee for years and now, they patiently wait for the bus door to open so they can stretch their legs. When Lee plays the harmonica, the dogs accompany him with howls; when Lee plays his guitar and sings, they quietly listen to the stories their master tells.

Everyone has a story, and while you might guess the gist of someone’s story by a mere glance, that is not true in Lee’s case. He calls himself a “bum who lives in a bus with four dogs.” He has been demoralized, cursed at, and spit on and as he recalls these experiences, his eyes tear up but he brushes them away.

“I am not a sob story,” he said. “I didn’t plan this but there’s no one to blame but myself.”

Long story short, Lee, 57, was a working man. He got injured a couple of times but he kept working. He had a home in Spokane Valley for 31 years and lost it. Ergo, the full-size school bus he bought in early 2010 turned house on wheels, complete with siding and a roof. He has since traveled close to 8,000 miles in it between Spokane, Montana and Texas.

Lee’s stories are material for hundreds of songs. He’s written more than 100 already; typed neatly and kept in a three-ring binder. Another binder contains his “book project” – hilarious recounts of his childhood. Born in Spokane, he spent his first 13 years in Montana with time spent in Iowa and Illinois. His family settled back in Spokane in 1968.

In one part of his book, he compares dodge ball to a game of marbles where, instead of dropping marbles into the hole, you drop opposing players onto the floor. He also writes about being a lefty in a right-handed world, something he had to contend with when learning to play the guitar –he taught himself to play upside-down. His harmonica is also flipped over to be in sync with his guitar.

Lee first picked up the guitar in 1967 and it has accompanied his stories ever since. He has picked up other tricks along the way, like putting bottle caps in his mouth for a reverb effect. He has played solo and in bands for years and he has recorded in garages and professional studios. One soulful session is captured on YouTube.

Lee is waiting to play during the 10th annual Spokane Street Music Week, June 11-15, where musicians play in downtown Spokane to raise money for Second Harvest food bank. After that, he will hit the road to be best man at a wedding in Montana and then to Nashville to do some recording.

When asked where he and his dogs might eventually settle, he quickly answered, “Heaven, I hope.” No doubt it will have a large field to run in.

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