Honky Tonk Hell by Gabe Lee | Album Review
Gabe Lee’s second album is an Americana masterpiece
Nashville has some really great artists coming up in the world of Americana. One of these artists is Nashville native, Gabe Lee. Coming off his debut record, Farmland, Lee has expanded upon his sound with his follow-up record Honky Tonk Hell. Coming from Taiwanese immigrant parents, Gabe made his way to Nashville as a child after his parents got jobs here after finishing their master’s degrees. The throwback cover style of the album signifies the more traditional sound of his songs. The record is a blend of Americana, country, folk, and gospel influences that come together beautifully in the collection of tracks. These influences are deeply rooted in his childhood, as Lee’s parents would listen to NPR, classical, and gospel music regularly. This culmination of genres has shaped Gabe as an artist. Vocally, Lee has a Prine/Dylan-esque voice, but with more depth and polish that makes his lyrics shine. In his interview with Off the Record UK, Gabe stated this about his current album:
“Thematically, the record discusses a lot of relationships and not necessarily relationships of the romantic kind or between two significant others, it’s more on a broader scale. These relationships include that between a relationship and a community, between traditions and new culture and also the conflict and resolution between willpower and addiction. We play with a lot of names of women, it’s a trope in a lot of these song titles but they’re not necessarily directed at previous relationships. I think a really easy way to talk about and understand these issues are through the guise of romantic relationships.”
I was blown away by his sound and writing on this record. I find it shocking he isn’t much bigger in the Americana realm. Grab yourself some Jack and let’s venture into Honky Tonk Hell.
“Honky Tonk Hell” is the titular track and opener to the album. The song is a tale of living life hard and dirty until you see the light and are saved from your fiendish ways. (“18 wheeler, back road dealer, hundred different ways to ride/ If you’d have seen what I seen, done what I done you’d be lookin for a place to hide”.) The song grants full access to his seedy past. The second verse takes us through living fast and easy in Vegas until you lose everything. In all instances of his avarice and back-handed ways, he states how he has seen the light of his ways, (“Til the good lord set me free/ Found a way to put it altogether/ Tried to make the whole world see/ Dirty dealin begone! Glory St. Mary! Hallelujah let me be!”). Be it the sin of greed, pride, or the devil himself (as he refers to the Honky Tonk Hell he’s in within the 3rd verse), he’s been set free of these terrible sins. Gabe and Marcus’s writing have created some of the best country storytelling I’ve heard in some time. It’s a stellar way to start off the record.
“Piece of Your Heart” takes us along the journey between a man that has the urge for going and a woman whose tired of heartbreak. Gabe gives a full country western performance here. Lee’s opening lines: (“What if I were to tell you that I’ve always loved you but you might never see me again/That the wide open road is the last place I know a grown man can still play pretend”), set the scene of where his priorities are. Her standpoint is shown in the opening lines of the second verse, (“Well now she’s off to the races, all dolled up in graces, pretty as a June Christmas tree/ Headed to find her a one-night reminder why she don’t wear no hearts on her sleeve”), where you can see her jaded mindset has helped her cope with his antics. The chorus of the song really says it all, (“Take all your distant belongings, ball caps, class rings/ Worn shoes, flat tires, steel pans, and big dreams / Go talk to the man who buys broken down things /And sell him a piece of your heart”), showing that a broken heart is still worth something.
“Babylon” is an ode to getting back on your feet. The character in this song has hit the bottom of the barrel and the bottle. His years of drinking have caught up with him and it is only now that he realizes that his actions have gotten him to this place, (“I gave up on being loaded, hung my soul out to dry/ Paid for my last glass of sorrow, hit the road and said goodbye/ Cause it’s a cold and a bitter feeling, when you ain’t got nothing left to lose/ And you’re pickin up all your clothes off the pavement”). He acknowledges that his past actions have actions that may come back to bite him. After seeing all the fates that those in similar situations have met, Gabe is leaving this way of life, (“I‘m givin up, burnin it down, I’ve had one too many drinks in this town/ If you wanna find me, if you wanna find me/ I’ll be movin on, packin up my bags and gone, and getting outta Babylon”). I get a more contemporary country vibe from this track. As with Lee’s other songs, his lyricism and instrumentation make this track a pure delight to listen to.
“Heartbreaker’s Smile” alludes to the female character, Jamie, whose free spirit pulls you in and breaks your heart. The track is a holdover from Lee’s last album Farmland. Each verse of the track gives you a little more about the story between these two. The story unveils itself seemingly in reverse, going from Gabe being left broken by this woman to the events that brought him to meet her where she plans to tell him she’s moving on. The chorus of the track flows beautifully, giving us a little more about constant movement from San Antonio, New Orleans, and Tennessee. All in all, this pull she has is what Lee is trying to warn against, (“Shine on / Shine on/ You can go wherever you like whenever you want… She gotta Heartbreaker’s/ Heartbreaker’s Smile.”). This track is much more Americana tented. Gabe’s acoustic guitar is the focal point as the organ, piano, and slide guitar adds to the atmosphere of the track.
“Great Big River” references the Ohio River and the characters hope that this hometown river will break him out of his depression. Lee is disillusioned by the world which shows in the opening verse, (“I’ve sung sad songs all my life/ Honest words turned to lies… I’ve left women at the door / Wonderin what they loved me for.”). Although he’s grown apathetic, he’s still hopeful that something/someone will break him of this melancholy. This song he sings while working away as a dishwasher pleads to take him back home to feel whole again, (“Ohio River won’t you take me home?/ Lead me where the sunshine goes every night/ Fly me there, take me to a place somewhere/ I’m hoping I can hide my fears for once in a while/ All I can do is hope and pray/ I’ll be a better man someday/ Great Big River, wash these blues away.”). I love the horns and Hammond organ in this track. It pitches it up to this almost religious plea to wash yourself of your sins and start again.
“30 Seconds at a Time” is one of my favorites off the album. Each verse tells of some sort of spiritual experience through various means. The first verse speaks of this trip through hallucinogenics, (“There’s a spot out by the train tracks all the local girls and boys like to get stoned/ Their minds are filled with destinations but they ain’t nearly brave enough to go alone/ So they wander through the railyard making faces at the moon.”). The second verse takes us through the life of a psychic who sees visions of the future through shards of glass. There is a nod to her off-kilter personality towards the end of the verse, (“Sellin last week’s magazine outside the laundromat, slowin down traffic at the light/ 30 seconds at a time.”). The last verse sees us meeting Jesus at a local diner blessing his bowl of mac n’ cheese. All he wants is a little break before he continues his work, (“He says the king’s buffet upstairs is overcrowded and the TV’s always stuck on CNN/ Says he just wants to catch the score before the work comes in, fast food commercials flicker by/ 30 seconds at a time.”). I think it’s a clever look at the world and those who look at it a little differently than the rest of us.
“Emmylou” is the woman that Lee can’t see to exercise from his mind. Although she’s moved on, Gabe is stuck in the doldrums. This depression can be seen in the song’s chorus, (“I try to wake up every day, I try to find me something to do/ But when the morning breaks and the sun comes shining through/ I can never hardly move/ I just lay in bed stuck here thinkin of you, Emmylou.”). The few lines that really stick out to me in the song are: (“I can see the tattoo on your shoulders, every night that mockingbird still haunts my dreams/ He gets to chirping and a calling whenever I’m not around/ Raggin on me every time he sings.”). You can feel every bit of pain, regret, and disappointment that he feels over their ending from the image Lee has painted here. This is one of the slow tracks on the album. Gabe’s piano playing blends in with a bright Hammond organ to give off this bittersweet feeling throughout the song.
“Susannah” sees Gabe’s more gruff way of living pushing away the woman he has his eye on. The track is a great country rocker. We open with the imagery of the ending of church service on a Sunday. The lines, (“Lord knows I never been afraid of dyin/ I just can’t stand the thought of comin clean/High-grade kitchen soap scares the living hell outta me.”), gives you a full view of his aversion to spill out all the skeletons in his closet. His short fuse, as shown in the second verse, causes Susannah to walk away. This hot and cold relationship between the two is highlighted in the song’s chorus, (“Susannah, why u gotta run me around/ Who’s takin care of you?/ Tell me what you really fussin about/ Happens every time you see her gets you all turned out/ Oh Susannah darlin of a one horse town.”). The subtle hint of gospel in the track blends well with the southern country/rock that is prevalent throughout.
“Imogene” is a sort of love letter to a small town that the character in the song has found himself in. After running away from the woman that he angered, Gabe has found himself in a hole in the wall town in Mississippi with a population of 26. The place he came to take a breather has become the place he’s ready to lay roots, (“Aint nothing to see/ Just little patch of rough hidin in the green/ And you can tell the folks back home if they’re still askin after me/ I’m workin it all out in Imogene.”). In an interview with Off the Record in 2020, Lee had this to say about the track:
“…‘Imogene’ itself, I was up super early and I was looking up ghost towns in the States, just a regular morning… diving into their town histories and what they became. ‘Imogene’ was a small Midwestern town, it inspired me because it never surpassed a couple of hundred people, but the town kept burning every several years from the 1900s up until the 80s. I started playing with the imagery of this real place, but building a landscape of stories around it — just because a place is in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean dramas don’t unfold there. Building off that, I had this song that also discusses an inner conflict, the narrator is running from something and is trying to find a place to land and can’t seem to do it. That song came together hours before one of our last tracking days, because our manager said ‘it would be nice if we had another Bob Dylan-esque, finger picky type of song to balance out all these other rocky songs.’”
This is one of the more popular tracks off the album. As Lee stated in the interview segment above, I get this Dylan-like tone from this track. It’s a very simple track, just vocals, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. Although it has the essence of Dylan, Gabe has created something very fresh and all his own. It is very much worthy of a few plays and a good glass of whiskey.
“All Dogs Go to Heaven” looks to take the point of view of an abandoned pup that gets picked up by some kind strangers to live out a whole new life. We get a full rockabilly-style country sound here. Lee starts off by telling how the puppy was found on the side of the road. We then take the point of view of the dog’s rowdy early months, (“I wasn’t easy to love/ Got in a world of trouble/ Near chewed up the whole dang town in a couple of weeks/ That’s when the mayor called and he said son from now on I guess you’re wearin a leash.”). The second verse takes us into the dog’s first Fourth of July. The final lines in the song could either been interpreted as the dog getting hit by a car or just being startled by everything literally running the shit out of him, (“When the guns went off like a tickin bomb as I ran out into the street /Finally seeing the light ran the shit right outta me”). I do love the sentiment of this dog not being afraid to live life to the fullest cause all dogs go to heaven. I really enjoy Gabe’s take on a stray’s life.
“Blue Ridge Goodbye” is the final track on the record. We end with a very solemn country-western diddy. This split doesn’t seem to be painted in bad blood as Lee states that he hopes to see her again. Gabe’s demons seem to be haunting him something bad, (“Somedays I just wanna disappear/ Come back in the morning smellin of smoke and beer/ Ride off in the saddle on a horse named, see you next year’/ Kiss all my worries goodbye.”). At the same time, it seems the two of them are so at odds with one another that the only safe bet is to move on. The chorus gives us a little reprieve from these sorrows to say better things will come from this, (“Oh but easy now and onward bound/ There lies ahead things to be found/ Across the blistering white ivory sand/ Beyond the Blue Ridge Line.”). Although not my favorite track on the album, it is a fantastic way to close out this collection of tracks.
I am such a fan of Gabe Lee’s music. I love the richness of his storytelling and the rootsy country sound he takes with each of his tracks. I made sure to go out and get a copy of the album on vinyl to add to my collection. Gabe has released 3 singles since the release of Honky Tonk Hell. The most recent of these is a reimagining of the song “Lyra” off of his first album, Farmland, released March of 2021. I am so sad that I missed out on catching him live in June. He will be performing at the Americanafest in Nashville in September 2021. I have to say, if you are a fan of more raw earthy country/Americana music, Gabe Lee is the guy for you. I think it’s criminal that more people have not heard of him or his music. Here’s to spreading the word. My favorites are:
- “Great Big River”
- “30 Seconds at a Time”
- “Honky Tonk Hell”
My overall rating: 9 out of 10 kinds of Honky Tonk Hells…
Gabe Lee’s website: https://www.gabeleetn.com/about
Check out Gabe’s Music:https://open.spotify.com/artist/4d7vxlNVahWbjoKO3ZBHD4
Check out Christine (The Backroad) Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtCWYwNhsMm_vRpd6RvHZhw
INTERVIEW: Gabe Lee on Honkytonk Hell, Imogene and solo writes
We chat to Gabe Lee about his new album Honkytonk Hell, Imogene and why he's still a fan of a solo write. The full…