Farmland, Gabe Lee’s 2019 full-length debut, was a witty, harmonica & dobro laced affair peppered with revival tambourines and the kind of songwriting that left you anticipating from the jump. Lee hardly wasted a year before landing the follow-up, a barn burner sequel dubbed Honky Tonk Hell that catches with the first spark and throttles forward with twangy raunch, raising the bar and the stakes with electricity and attitude. Blending emotional arrangements with a lyrical style that wrings every visceral splinter from the landscape, the Nashville native’s songs carry the weight of nostalgia while simultaneously turning on the light with bruised wisdom and bittersweet clarity.
AI- You are actually from Nashville! You’re not a transplant, you didn’t show up there to make it in the music business– that’s hometown!
GL- Yes, sir, that’s correct! I showed up because my parents thought it’d be a good place to live (laughs) and they had jobs there! They came by way of Tucson, Arizona, where they went to school, and then before that, they came by way of Taiwan. So across an ocean and then across the desert to Music City, and my brother and I were both born and raised in Nashville.
And in the church, as I understand it. That’s where you learned to sing?
Yeah! The church was a huge center of education for my upbringing in regards to music, especially. Definitely, a really influential part of my music education, just because my mom was a pianist, my parents sang in the choir, and we spent a ton of time there. My attendance at the church has definitely probably been missed the last few years (laughs), but as a kid, we were there all the time! That was a huge part of learning to play the piano, the organ, singing, guitar and just learning from the other players and the instrumentalist there. It’s something that I always look back to– even in writing! Even content and lyrically, thinkin’ about some of the old Methodist hymns we used to sing, like the really soulful, kinda gospel-y stuff. That definitely still influences my writing today.
I’ve always considered old gospel hymns and of course scripture to be such an influence on American songwriting in particular. There’s a mythology to it as well as just a certain cadence that appears in so much music.
Absolutely! I grew up listening to and always loved bluegrass gospel, so anything Bill Monroe and afterwards, I was happy to have on the record player or the radio. That definitely plays a part in the history of country music and Americana and singer-songwriters today.
You talk about the radio and the record player. I know your mother is a classically trained piano player and taught you if I’m not mistaken. What about your pops? What did he have on the stereo at home?
My parents, their music was not as secular as some of my buddies growin’ up. They were definitely listening to the religious stuff, the classical stuff a lot. They just love instrumental music. I would say that, really, my dad was more of a talk radio listener (laughs) than music. Now, he is musical! He had an old guitar that he brought with him from Tucson, and that was what I first learned to play on. He taught me my first three chords or whatnot. As a listener of Southern rock and country and all that, I really found that more in the record collections of my friends and my friend’s parents when I was hanging out with them on the porch. That’s where I discovered John Prine, Lynyrd Skynyrd, CCR– all that good stuff!
So at what point in time did you have a moment where you woke up to the realization of what Nashville was and where it sits in the American landscape other than being the town where you were born and raised? Did you have a “jukebox moment” as a friend of mine might say?
I think it was something that was really more ingrained and just part of the lifeblood of the community that had always been there for us. We had an awesome neighborhood and family culture of my friends from school and then our friends from church. We had an awesome community of folks that were very musical and were super supportive of each other. I wasn’t thinkin’, as a kid, that I wanted to grow up and write songs and cut records, but eventually, in high school and coming back from college, you see that so much of the fabric of the community that you’ve been in has such strong roots in the music community and the music industry of Nashville. That basically spurred me to tell myself, “I gotta delve into this more. I’ve got this extremely rare opportunity to be in Nashville, to have a foundation here, to not be a transplant, and to call this my home. I love music so much that I’ve got to give it a shot!”
Eventually, I had some songs that came around that I felt proud enough to go out and play at open mics and songwriter rounds. I mean, everyone’s got the big dream in Nashville for sure, but I was just tryin’ to tailor my songwriting and my singing abilities and my guitar playing to be better every day. And I still do! So far, it’s workin’ out pretty good! We’ve got two records out, we’ve got another one comin’ in the spring of ’22, and we’re excited for everything! We’ve been on the road a little bit this year. I’m gonna kick it off in Texas, and I’ll be makin’ my way through and eventually down to see ya’ll in Macon!
Let’s talk about that music! Last year, Honky Tonk Hell came out on March 13th, which had to have just been one of the worst times on the planet to release an album (laughs)! We didn’t necessarily know it at that time! I saw my last show– up until just a couple of weeks ago– on March the 11th, and then the following week, everything shut down! I can only imagine what that was like with an album not only in the can but about to be released and then your entire plan had to be shot all the hell!
I think that the preparation that we had made leading up to the record release last year and everything going forward from that, we had in our crystal ball what we wanted to happen. It was gonna be great! We had an awesome set-up and we were going to execute the year with some amazing opportunities, some amazing stages, playing with some amazing folks! We were gonna go out to Luck Reunion, we were gonna be on Willie’s farm– so obviously having a lot of that drawn back and rescheduled, postponed, canceled is no fun! But we ended up with a record that folks still listen to and put their ears on because they were sittin’ at home or workin’ from home and spending a lot of time away from the rest of society. One great way to cope with that for a lot of our listeners was to delve into the new record!
There would be better times (laughs) to put out a record for sure, but having lived with it for over a year now and having another record comin’ out next year, in looking back, we’ve definitely told ourselves that we made the best out of a down year and our opportunities still remain in a lot of ways. They just got pushed down the line a little bit. That’s good practice in a lot of ways! Not everything’s gonna work out all the time, and we’re very aware of that– and I’m aware of that from other aspects of my life, not just in the music industry! There’s no point in gettin’ down about it if you can help it!
I appreciate the idea that people being home, not on the road, at work, doin’ jobs, and having that time to truly listen and appreciate music and albums that were coming out. A huge part of our quarantine was listening to music and records in particular. You are not the first artist that I’ve spoken to who has really put the focus on the fact, “Well, I made a good album and it was finally an opportunity that people could sit down and listen to it and be focused on it.” Esther Rose told me that our recorded music was more important now than it’s ever been.
Absolutely! And there were so many great records that came out last year! This year has been an explosion of music as well, which is so cool! It just goes to show that music is, in a lot of ways, its own catalyst, its own inspiration. It won’t be hindered by something like what happened last year. I mean, live shows? Sure. That was a huge blow to many touring musicians and there are some who will never recover from it. There’s some who were waiting on that next stair, and unfortunately, some people slip and they don’t get back up. They’re gonna really miss that momentum and it’s gonna take a long time to get it back. For us, shoot, in a lot of ways we’re blessed because we were just about to get on the road and pack it all up and see if we could get in as many rooms as possible! We got stopped before we left the gate and that made it so that we could just be patient and bide our time.
Farmland is very lean, singer-songwriter, wonderful songs. You mentioned John Prine earlier. His influence, I think is readily apparent on that album. Honky Tonk Hell retains those aspects, but it’s certainly electrified, more band-centric. Tell me what’s coming in 2022 for the new album. I don’t want to dig too deep into it ’cause I hope we can talk about it some more when that rollout happens– but what’s going to be the focus this time around? Are you gonna be mixin’ it up or do you have a new stylistic direction?
We kinda marry a lot of the principles of both records to a more fluid and well-designed and well-arranged flavor and landscape on this third record. I think it’s just more balanced. The players that we used are the same as last record for the most part, and we have a great synergy now. The guys who we cut records with and the producers and the engineers, everyone who’s got their ears on this record when we’re in the studio or are involved in some way, their vibe influences how it turns out. That’s something I’ve really tried to remind myself every time I go back in the studio. We have such a great freeform open communication in that Farmland studio, so this third record I think is just smooth. More polished a little bit for sure, but not in an overproduced way at all. It’s still got the raw, rough, passionate, soulful vibes that we approached on the last record. Honky Tonk Hell was just fun ’cause I’d never had a band like that in the studio before, and we just let ’em play. And they sure did!