SPOTLIGHT: On Gabe Lee’s ‘Drink the River,’ Connection Flows Through Stories
Gabe Lee (photo by Brooke Stevens)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gabe Lee is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for July 2023. Learn more about Lee and his new album, Drink the River (out July 14 via Torrez Music Group), all month long.
There is a moment in nearly every song on Gabe Lee’s new record, Drink the River, where the melody unexpectedly curves in such a way as to almost rearrange your soul, to create more space in your heart. Combined with the richness of his vocals — somewhere between Lukas Nelson’s bluesy belt and Jason Isbell’s full-throated power — it is enough to make the sobering stories contained within these songs go down a hell of a lot easier. The gorgeous packaging of these lovingly crafted vignettes of real-life tragedies like dementia, cancer, and mortality wasn’t intentional. It just happened. Moving stories beget moving melodies.
“This batch of songs will definitely stir some emotion, cut to the bone. I think it’ll get folks to lift their heads up for a minute and really think about suffering, think about what it means to be out of your cushy bubble,” Lee says. “We have all pretty much created our own little bubbles, our own little safe spaces that, for our own security and protection, we dare not leave very often. Music and books and movies and TV are ways for us to do that. These songs paint pictures, more so than the songs of the last few records. These songs paint stories. I hope that people will feel them, but also want to go back to them when they wanna feel certain things.”
Those last few records Lee refers to were released between 2019 and 2023, amounting to about an album a year, a prolific run for the born-and-raised Nashvillian singer-songwriter. His output is a result of the savvy hustle he honed during his years as a server and bartender, work that allowed him to keep his nose to the grindstone and make a living while plowing each record’s funds into the next.
“It’s not by any means an overnight success story. You hear about artists that come on the scene, and most of the time, they might be nominated as a ‘Best New Artist’ or something, but no, they’ve been doing it like, five to ten years,” says Lee. “We’re doing it kind of the old-school way. I’m not like a TikTok star, I don’t make content that way. I just go out and play for crowds.”
Those crowds, from north to south and east to west, have been the source of the bulk of the narratives that make up Drink the River. Sonically steeped in traditional bluegrass and country, it is a collection of moments shared between Lee, his listeners, and the many folks he’s encountered during his travels and from behind a bar. Steered by the honesty and integrity of their stories, even the anthemic choruses in road songs like “The Wild” and “Heart Don’t Break” are kept down to earth thanks to textures of pedal steel, banjo and mandolin, dobro and fiddle. Lee likens himself to a kind of folklorist, picking up stories and bringing them from one place to the next, all the while building some connective tissue to bridge the gaps.
“Common ground is deteriorating in so many parts of the world, especially in our country. I think if I can bring a story from Merigold, Mississippi, to West Hollywood, and I can get folks to feel the same emotions that they felt in the Delta as they do on the Strip, in a way I am connecting people’s souls,” he says.
“I think it’s important as musicians — it’s our responsibility — to keep memories and stories alive through song. Who else is moving through all these different communities? Seattle one day, Wyoming the next, Colorado the next, New York, just the places that we travel. Who else is really experiencing those communities that way and then, like a honeybee, sort of bringing that pollen or energy to different places?”
Other People’s Stories
Inhabiting other people, real and imagined, is something Lee has always done in his songwriting, but it felt different this time, like more of an escape. It proved to be a healthy exercise in creating some needed distance from his own story. “You’re not fishing in the depths of your own subconsciousness for some sort of deeper meaning,” he says. “You’ve found a meaning in somebody else’s experience.”
Those experiences include a friend lost to an overdose at the heart of the rollicking “Even Jesus Got the Blues,” and the warm, woody acoustics of “Merigold,” a devastating tale of loss based on a man Lee met at one of his shows in the titular Mississippi town. A man, mourning the sudden loss of his wife to cancer, faces down the reality of life without his beloved companion:
Last spring you cleaned out the cast iron and you hung it up
I been hungry ever since
Nothing fills me up no more and the drinking sucks
Carves me up just thinkin’ bout it
Or the softly soaring “Lidocaine,” sung in almost a whisper, in which Lee embodies a cab driver who once shared that he’d been given a dementia diagnosis at just 40:
If I’m a different man tomorrow
You be good to that unlucky fool for me
He don’t know where he is or through what color eyes he’s seeing
But he wouldn’t hurt a thing
The twangy banjo-picker “Property Line” finds Lee stepping into the work boots of a hard-worn rancher inspired by his girlfriend’s father, deeply territorial and threatened by encroaching forces. This same sentiment led him to include his own version, slightly tweaked, of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, “All I Can Do is Write About It,” off the band’s 1976 album Gimme Back My Bullets. Apart from the band’s significance in the eyes of an impressionable little boy growing up in Nashville (“Skynyrd, growing up in the South, was our Guns ‘n Roses, it was our Rolling Stones,” Lee says), its message felt universal.
“Regardless of your creator, your religion, or wherever you’re from, we’re all pretty much like, ‘Don’t touch my shit.’ We’re all territorial. Singing that song more and more and watching Nashville become a completely different town than the one I grew up in, we thought that cover was very appropriate,” he says. “It sings about [progress] in a lot of ways, but also development, hand in hand, coming down the road in a concrete truck. And what does that mean for me and mine? What does that mean for what we love and what we stand for? And in country music, man, the concreter is absolutely the big machine. The concreter is the giant music labels with all their money and all their power, and their radio and their pipeline. And meanwhile you’ve created your own community, your own little pipeline of music, and here it comes to uproot it and take it out.”
The Nashville Lee grew up in was one where connection, understanding, and community mattered, and where a career in the music industry was as normal as any old desk job. His friends’ parents were producers, studio managers, and songwriters, and his own parents played music in their church and taught piano lessons. A love for music was ingrained, as was a solid work ethic and the kind of adaptability he saw in his mother and father, Taiwanese immigrants who left their homeland and risked it all to build a new life, and who were ultimately welcomed and accepted.
“I don’t feel that my experience is any more unique than anybody else’s. But if you look at my heritage and my origins of where my folks came from and how they have made it, that is unique. That is important,” he says. “Just politics aside, if you can do that, if you can do what my parents have done, and also do it by the book, that is a huge testament to what people are capable of. Whatever they’ve accomplished, I can’t hold a candle to that.”
Breaking the Mold
Though Lee has watched as Nashville has gradually become a more inclusive place, there is still work to be done, and he wants his role in it to feel organic. He’s been involved with Rissi Palmer’s Apple Music show Color Me Country, which brings often underrepresented voices of the genre to the forefront, and has been featured in TIDAL RISING, an artist-empowerment series created by the streaming platform.
“Down the road, with whatever platform we create, that story of being not from here, of coming here and creating something out of nothing or just whatever you’ve got on your back, I think that is going to be very much more admired than it has been the last 10 or 20 years where you have folks that are worried about keeping people out of their territory, of their land, or even this country,” he says. “At the moment, we’re just trying to make ends meet. I’m playing the Opry and then the next weekend I’m playing a family barbecue. We have so much building left ahead of us, and when we figure out what kind of ship this is, then we’ll have a better idea where to steer it.”
That “we” is Lee and his producing partner, Alex Torrez of Torrez Music Group. The two have been working side-by-side for more than five years, strategically shaping their collaboration and sound. “I think at the beginning there, and still some days, I was chasing a certain sound, chasing a certain inspiration, trying to think, ‘What would Tyler Childers do here? What would Sturgill Simpson do here? What would Isbell say? How would John Prine make this song better?’ But ultimately that’s the goal of being an artist. The longer you stick with it, the more of an identity you create,” says Lee. “As the oldest kid [in my family], I’m used to breaking the mold and I think I’ve continued to do that in ways in the genre, in Americana and folk and country.”
With four records under his belt ranging from folk to honky-tonk and Southern alt-rock, and with Drink the River’s return to roots, he says, “I think it’ll kind of leave the story wide open. Who knows where we’ll go next, right?” For Lee, it has always been the stories that guide the sound. He wants to ensure their impact, whether they’re autobiographical, fictional, or inspired by the colorful people who feel like opening up to him once they’ve heard him play.
“I hope that my stories continue to be not just my own,” he says, “but really to be others’ as well.”