Nashville-based songwriter Gabe Lee is becoming increasingly known for his ability to detail the intricacies of everyday life, the small distinctions that leave some on the fringe and others in the mainstream, and the particulars that stick around long after a lover leaves.
His second album in as many years, Honky Tonk Hell, finds Gabe diving deeper into themes that aren’t far from his own life — exactly what it meant to grow up in Nashville and what it means to still be a songwriter there, how it feels to be settling into adulthood and the monotony and occasional heartbreak it can contain, as well as the pieces of a younger time that didn’t quitework out as expected.
But, the way he tells these stories — these common pieces of experiences
— is through narratives of men on the run, lovers who leave and vivid imagery, inspired by everything from Biblical stories to forgotten small towns and the people who inhabit them.
Adorned with wailing guitars, pedal steel, a B3 organ, an occasional harmonica, dobro and lap steel, Honky Tonk Hell almost seems tailor-made for any dancehall jukebox — but with sentiments that will stick with you for much longer than its initial play.
“Heartbreak doesn’t necessarily have to apply to romantic love but also the relationship between an individual and a community, family, and society,” Gabe says. “In a lot of ways this album is about the relationship of the songwriter to the scene, the thrill and the burden — the heaven, the hell — and all in between. “
Like his previous release, farmland, the 11-song collection offers hints of his distinct perspective, influenced by a musical childhood — in which he was surrounded by music, but a particular amalgam of church and gospel, classical music, and NPR radio. One of just a few songwriters of Asian descent in Nashville’s Americana scene, Gabe’s parents immigrated from Taiwan in the early ‘80s to pursue master’s degrees at the University of Arizona. They followed a job to Nashville, where he was raised. His mother, a professional and classically-trained pianist, was an integral force in Gabe’s musical education.
“Emmylou” marks the first time Gabe has recorded a track he’s written on piano. “It’s another heartbreak song,” he says. “It’s about the stage where it seems impossible to get someone out of your head, centering on a man who’s wishing someone back in every waking moment.”
Gabe’s material mixes a deep understanding of his classical training with what he learned at his friends’ homes, where he learned about the greats of the classic rock canon including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan. There are hints of his adolescent favorites including Nirvana and Bright Eyes weaved in, as well. It’s a varied set.
The lead single from the new album, its namesake, “Honky Tonk Hell,” is a rollicking co-write between Gabe and southern rock wunderkind Marcus King, that began as the two discussed Nashville, specifically the elements of Lower Broadway — bars named after country stars row after row, music blaring out every window, the debauchery that can take place. It’s an ode to the ramblin’ man aesthetic, centering around a troublemaker and his perception of modern country music.