Gabe Lee is 30 now, and for the most part, he’s spent all of that time in the town he was born: Nashville. His parents still live about a half hour away, and they’re “part of what keeps him there and part of what keeps him in line.”
“It’s been a huge blessing to have them here,” he says. “Especially last year, when everything was in flux. I couldn’t see them as much as I would have normally, but they were still within reach, which is comforting.”
He went to high school at University School before briefly attending Belmont. He then spent a few years away finishing his undergraduate degree at Indiana University before returning to “what has always been home.”
“A lot of the writers’ rounds–Whiskey Jam, for instance–all that jazz happens just a couple of blocks from where I learned by ABCs,” he jokes.
On Friday, he comes to Waverly, Alabama for a show at the Standard Deluxe with Molly Tuttle. Next week, he’ll kick off a run of shows with American Aquarium at the Basement East. And in December, he’ll join Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit for a show at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. If you’ve not yet heard his 2019 debut farmland or 2020’s Honky Tonk Hell, there’s no time better than now to dive into the work of one of the brightest stars in folk and Americana.
We spoke about his Nashville upbringing and the value in the exposure that joining high profile tours brings.
How did you get hooked up with BJ [Barham] and American Aquarium for this run of shows?
BJ is a phenomenal writer that has a lot of friends and folks here in Nashville. He passes through from time to time. I’ve been listening to their music for a minute. He met my manager, Alex Torrez, at some point along the way.
BJ has been super friendly and supportive of what we’re doing here in Nashville and finally after a while of ducking around each other, he said, “Hey, let’s get you on a tour with us.” And they’ve got some awesome openers for their whole year’s worth of shows. We’re just glad to have snagged a couple of those dates.
Most of the music that you’ve put out has been since the pandemic. This will really be the first time you’ve toured behind any of it, right?
Last year, we were putting together a handful of weekend shows and some one-offs here and there on some great little stages and listening rooms. And then right before we could tour, we weren’t able to; we had some awesome stages lined up and some festivals here and there, which would have been great. But we’ve rolled with the punches just like everyone else. We’ve got great–and even better opportunities, I think–down the road this year.
You mentioned how great American Aquarium’s openers are for the entire year. How important is it for artists to go out and spend the time to find really great openers and give great artists that opportunity?
For sure. I can only imagine when you’ve spent your entire life and career working on your project and your band and your brand, it’s time consuming. Even just working as a singer-songwriter here with a little indie label in Nashville–and I’ve worked several side jobs–there’s only so much time in a day. When it comes to the discovery and sharing of new music, sometimes it’s not that easy. The fact that they’re supportive of what they consider good music, storytelling and songwriting; the fact that they have a good idea of how they want to present the openers at their shows and how they’d like folks to be welcomed into their shows–seeing a solo acoustic guitar up there with just a singer–that’s something that we as storytellers–and Emily Scott Robinson, as well–she’s another one of the openers–we thrive for those moments. To be in front of a live audience with just ourselves and our guitar and it’s awesome that they recognize that.
You’re a rare breed in that you’re actually from Nashville. What has it been like watching the scene develop and change over the past 20 years or so as an actual Nashville native?
There’s a huge commercial side of the way a city like Nashville has developed; its’ rate of growth. So you see the buildings going up, the restaurants, the bachelorette barges that swim like crocodiles in the sewers of lower Broadway. That’s all fun and all. That’s the polite way of putting it. That growth is definitely stunning in a lot of ways. You’ll miss something if you don’t drive down a certain street. A building will go up or a building will be torn down. A house will be replaced by two skinny houses. The rate of growth is incredible.
But Nashville is still a small town for the folks that have spent a lot of time settling down here. If you’re from here, of course, you have a totally different perspective. A lot of what keeps me here and what keeps me focused on the Nashville that I know is the fact that I have a great support system. I have family here. I have friends that I grew up with that have been around. That vibe and that charm of the small town of Nashville is still how I operate day-to-day. I still consider it to be that and I treat my community like that.
The lifeblood of the musicians and the producers and the artists that have been in this town–people like my parents’ friends that had studios or were successful songwriters–they all provided the framework for how you can have a career in music. It’s all realistically possible. You can raise kids and you can have a good life and support yourself and be happy with what you do. And that reality is always a question for musicians; the steadiness of income is not to be taken for granted. Having grown up here with so many folks in the industry around us, that’s what makes the language and the lifestyle of the Nashville music industry feel to me like a small community.
Your folks got you into music. I know your mother was a classically trained pianist. How did you go from that to your first foray into country and Americana?
I grew up with church music in my family. A lot of the friends I was around and what their parents were listening to–that had a lot to do with it. My parents weren’t listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The closest thing they were listening to was probably some John Denver or some Paul Simon. That was the closest thing, secular wise, that I was getting a taste of–what would become folk and Americana down the road. My buddy’s parents listened to all that stuff; Allman Brothers, Doobie Brothers, CCR, Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was definitely my first introduction into country and Southern rock. We never took a guitar lesson–I played piano–but I’d pick up a guitar and try to play along with “Tuesday’s Gone” or “Freebird.” When my buddy first learned how to play the “Smoke on the Water” riff, it was like, “Oh my God. We’re rock stars.”
But by high school and college, I started figuring out things like Wilco. The Shins. Jason Isbell started coming around and the Drive-By Truckers. We got into Texas music. Turnpike [Troubadours] and some Red Dirt here and there. Americana just blossomed. The root of country to me is the storytelling. The songwriters I hang out with, that’s what we value and what we want to continue to do in this town.
You’ve been really prolific during the pandemic. Do you plan to keep that kind of pace?
Man, we’ve got so many songs. I think what we’re gonna do is get in the studio–we’ve got a couple of dates set–and see what happens. We’ve picked out our players and we’re just gonna roll in there and cut three or four songs on the first day and see what it feels like. There’s no rush. We’re not fighting any clocks. This year is an opening act for us. Last year should have been. And I’m excited for it because it’ll give me that opportunity to be onstage with just a guitar and not have to worry about a full band. We’re gonna try to be on a budget. If you get in front of the right crowds and opening for the right people, it’s makes a huge difference. That’s where exposure versus “getting paid the big bucks” really rings true. [laughs]
We’re gonna have a badass record in a few months, hopefully. And we’ll decide if we want to put it out slowly or–there’s gonna be a lot of records that come out this year because a lot of folks have been sitting on stuff. So there’s gonna be a ton of great music coming out that I honestly don’t want to compete with. [laughs] I may hold onto it until next year. But if we feel really good about it, we may roll with it. That’s the best thing about working with the folks that I do. We’re buddies and we’re honest with each other and there’s not a lot of undue pressure to do anything that’s not part of our identity. We’re lucky to have the setup we do. We can work at our own pace.