When the Waterside first opened in the summer of 1983, the hottest spot there was Phillips Seafood Restaurant. The restaurant side was filled with well-heeled seafood lovers---I remember seeing then-Governor Chuck Robb enjoying a meal there on Harborfest weekend---but out on “the deck,” young adults held sway at night enjoying the music of some of Tidewater’s (as we were then known) top acoustic artists. I played there a few times myself, but the king of the deck was Michael Lille.
Lille, a 1976 graduate of Maury High School, impressed me in those days with his rich warm voice, his skills on the guitar, and his low-key, mesmerizing way with a crowd of twenty- and early thirty-somethings. He seemed to have his own built-in fan club that knew all the songs and came out to support him night after night.
In the intervening 22 years, Michael Lille has seen the world, lived in musical hotspots, met his heroes, and continued to write and play music. Saturday night, he comes home for a Tidewater Friends of Folk Music concert at the Virginia Beach Central Library.
“I grew up in Winona,” he told me recently, “right off Tidewater Drive. My dad was an elevator repairman and a Norfolk city cop for awhile. But he left our family pretty young. Really, I was raised by a single parent, by my mom. She worked for the telephone company and then worked for a doctor. She contracted lupus as a young woman, in her thirties, and just passed away about a year and a half ago.
“Growing up, I really got connected with music through a church folk group and a nun who taught at Christ the King School, where I went to grade school. She got me into playing guitar, and I just loved it from the get-go. I really dug it from the beginning, started playing in that church folk group and by the age of fifteen, I was playing out in clubs.
“The singing nun taught me---Sister Claire was her name. I didn’t sing for a long time; I just wanted to play. The writing thing came very much later for me, but I was into playing covers and trying to play lead guitar stuff.”
He worked at Ramblin’ Conrad’s and discovered “a lot of the traditional folk music stuff.” Though initially drawn to heavier rock bands like Jethro Tull and Yes, “when I really got into learning songs, it was Neil Young and Cat Stevens; then later came James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg and the guys that were a little more complicated on guitar. At Ramblin’ Conrad’s, I was introduced to Mary McCaslin, Roy Bookbinder and Jim Ringer. It was a great place to work as a kid and be a guitar player.”
Fogelberg was his biggest inspiration, and his soft singing style shares many similarities. Like his idol, he felt a spiritual bond the first time he visited the Colorado Rockies.
“It wasn’t so much him,” he said of the Colorado connection. “I had taken a trip around the country, and near the end of the trip---I was traveling with an old girlfriend in a van for four or five months---we pulled into Colorado right in the fall, first snow. I’d never been to the Rockies; I loved the Blue Ridge, but had never been up to the Rockies. And I just fell hard in love with the place.”
So he moved to Aspen after that Waterside summer of 1983:
“I was planning on moving down to the keys, because I knew a couple of buddies playing music in Key West. And then I got this gig at Phillips that was paying a little more than most of the other gigs around here, and I thought I’d stick around and do it for a couple of months. Then when it was done, I decided I wanted to go out west.”
Living in Aspen, he hooked up with Fogelberg himself.
“I was a big fan,” he explained, “and some of his stuff bled into what I was doing. It’s kind of funny---when I moved out there, I met him and ended up playing with him a little bit. He was very nice to me. We skied together in Aspen and I invited him to come to a couple of gigs that I was playing. He started showing up and sitting in and playing guitar. He just really wanted to come and be a guitar player.”
Lille’s wanderlust overtook him, however, and two years later he came back to Virginia, first to Charlottesville, then to Richmond, with a trip around the world in between. Still, after he recorded his first solo album, Just in Time, in 1991, the pull of the music biz proved too strong to keep him in his home state. So he moved to Nashville, staying put for seven years.
“I had a nice thing happen early on,” he said of his time in Music City. “I was playing at the Bluebird Café. I got to be friends with the sound guy there, and he recommended that I send this song down to the Kerrville Folk Festival for their songwriter contest. And I got accepted to come down and be one of the finalists.
“I went down and played, and I was actually one of the six winners that year. It really opened my eyes to that whole singer/songwriter thing and, by winning that, it opened a lot of doors for me to hook up with other people to co-write and do some studio work. Then I got hired as a sideman for a few acts on the road, and doing some solo gigs, I was able to make a living and not have to get a day job.”
Since 1999, Lille has called Lakewood, Colorado home. And he now has a “day job” of sorts, as a sales representative and artist relations manager for Elixir guitar strings. He continues to perform and record, both solo and with others. He and his old friends Rusty Spiedel, Tom Goodrich and Michael Goggin, whom he first befriended at Phillips, play several weekends a year, mostly in the DC area, as SGGL. And he also works from time-to-time with Tom Kimmel and Tom Prasada-Rao, fellow winners at the 1993 Kerrville festival, performing as The Sherpas.
But Saturday night, it’ll be a homecoming for Michael Lille, one he’s looking forward to.
“An evening of songs and stories,” he promised. “I love coming back to Tidewater and doing that.”
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.