SPOTLIGHT: Gabe Lee on the Small Town Within the Big Business of Nashville
Gabe Lee (photo by Brooke Stevens)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gabe Lee is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for July 2023. Learn more about him and his new album, Drink the River, in our interview, and don’t miss an exclusive video of him performing “The Wild” here.
Frankly, growing up in Nashville, I can’t recall anyone ever being referred to as a “local,” simply because everyone we knew at the time were just that, locals! Graced with parents who came quite a long way to end up in Tennessee, my folks found a home in Music City in the early ’90s, when it was a completely different city than it has become today.
It can be difficult to imagine someplace before enormous change. Heavily as our society places significance on progress, we tend to seek value in tangible change like how many people are moving here each day, what it’s doing for property worth, and how many bars can we fit on a city block, etc. But on the flip side of that coin are local folks like myself who, in the face of astonishing city growth, find ourselves missing parts of the small town we once knew.
Before the FGL house, the Nashville TV show, and yes, even before Taylor Swift, among the woods and creek, crabgrass and dogwoods of the west Nashville suburbs, so much of Nashville could’ve been any other town. Out beyond the Highway 70 and 100 split there was a Kroger, a post office, a handful of struggling restaurants, and a dying mall that loomed desolate just before the interstate gave way to a country road. If there was a glimmering, star-making shine to the Music City lights, I did not know it. What I did know was backroads and shortcuts, the best rope swing for river days, where the snapping turtles hid, which neighborhoods to trick-or-treat, which ones to avoid, local speed traps (although this didn’t save me from racking up plenty of speeding tickets), where the secret parking spots were downtown (all gone now), the best stores or restaurants for summer jobs, and where to find cheap gas.
This town’s lifeblood of music was and is, however, undeniable. Because of its giant entertainment industry, our community is one where songwriting is understood as a trade; it is respected here on a level unlike anywhere else. Where some towns are built on agriculture, steelworks, or mining, our town is built on songs and lyrics, or what hitmakers will incessantly refer to as A&R, aka lining up the right songs for the right artists. This aspect of the business has made entire careers, and is essentially the fulcrum on which radio, streaming, and publishing turns. This has ratified not only the commercial country world but the Americana genre, bluegrass, and storytellers like Isbell, Prine, and Carlile, not to mention the old greats who made the town what it is today. Beyond that there are videographers, venues, booking agencies, producers, and other affiliates of entertainment that keep this industry going. It was completely normal and often admirable to have friends whose parents were studio engineers, songwriters, or session players. If there was anything that made Nashville a cool town to grow up in, it was the casual nature of how seamlessly this industry blended into everyday life.
I cannot say what makes a hit, I don’t have one! My love and loyalty for this town began long before I had any aspirations for a music career; it began with the local community that supports me to this day. When asked for my best advice for a new musician in Nashville, I answer, without hesitation, find your people. Let’s be honest, this town is 99% go-getters. Everyone even remotely related to the industry is looking for a leg up, a claim to fame, a path to stardom and success. So very often this path is littered with cautionary tales.
Let’s get even more honest, this is a hard road. Even if you’re one of the most gifted people in the industry, sometimes your fate hinges upon only timing and luck. Hey, Nashville is the big leagues: the guitarists, drummers, and singers, who move here are probably among the best at what they do … back home. But when you get to Nashville, your Uber driver probably has better guitar chops than you. Heck, your bartender could be the next Lucinda Williams. Most people in this town are here for the same reason: to make it. Dreams are made and dreams are broken everyday, and I say that is GOOD for music city. Because ultimately it is only the truly hungry that stick around long enough to understand that this town will motivate, challenge, and most importantly inspire you to be a better musician, like it or not.
At the end of the day, success or not, boom or bust, rich or broke, you’ll need a community. If the music doesn’t take you where you thought it would, at least you’ll have surrounded yourself with people you can trust — that’s a hard thing to find as a young artist in Nashville. Occasionally I’ll sit around with my fellow bartenders or bandmates and irk about the lines at the airport, the Uber costs, or the dang bachelorette party barges twerking up and down Music Row. But as we hurtle forward through this town’s growth, I dare to hope that future generations of families and youth will come to admire and see Nashville through the same hometown eyes through which I was given the chance to appreciate it. I hope they have opportunities to grow up with this place and fall in love with the parks, the locales, and winding country roads that rest beyond the Broadway lights. When I was bartending full time, I enjoyed reminding folks to explore beyond the BBQ and hot chicken, that some of the best dive bars or meat-and-threes, taco trucks, and even woodland hikes were all just within reach, if only one cared to look.
Of course, a town can be too small at times, especially in a community as tight knit as Nashville’s music scene — spend a couple weeks here and you’ll see! Ask any songwriter: We have our cliques, our feuds, folks who struggle or refuse to work together. It’s not by any means a utopia, unless you feed purely off competition. My own experience is, unsurprisingly, more localized. Every other day I’ll run into old friends, teachers, church folk, and god knows why but ex-girlfriends and their parents at the gas station or a favorite lunch spot, asking “How’s the music going?” As the years go by, these moments are becoming more wholesome than embarrassing, and for that I am grateful.
Although taught this early on, I have only begun to deeply realize that music is an exchange of goods. The songs and stories a performer delivers provides safety and connection to listeners, while listeners offer support to the performer through their fandom and respect. Knee deep in what still feels like the shallows of my career, I hope to foster a music community that spans backgrounds, politics, religion, and maybe even sports rivalries (I’ve been known to heckle local sports teams on the road). I believe that common ground can be built through a shared human experience, not only by music but ultimately by the integrity of what it represents: the very real stories of us, you and me. It’s a big planet that can sometimes feel like a small world. In that spirit, we hope to create our own small town in this giant industry.
See you at the gas pump,