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“Spreading Memory,” Gabe Lee Embraces The Long Road

Brooke Stevens

Nashville’s Gabe Lee knows full well he’s in the “grind” phase of his career, and he’s loving it. It’s the endless hours in his Nissan Xterra phase, the always-planning-six-months-ahead phase, the town-to-town, retail politics stage. He’s ever on the road and ever on the learning curve.

“The touring has been kind of nonstop” Lee says in Episode 271 of The String. “And whether we're opening for bigger bands, or I'm playing songwriter rounds, or I'm playing festivals, it's been extremely enjoyable. I'm learning a ton.”

Besides playing the long game, Lee, now 33 years old, has embraced his purpose as a troubadour, not just the freedom but what he acknowledges is a “responsibility” to unite people from disparate communities across the country. “As the traveler, you’re the agent,” he says. “It's like pollination. Like you're soaking up vibes from one place and going on to the next one and trying to share and spread memory and keep memories alive.”

This missionary zeal seems to be working out. In five years, including the pandemic shut-down, Lee’s grown from an unknown “hometown kid,” as one of his titles proclaims, to a debut last year on the Grand Ole Opry. Working independently with the two-person boutique management company and label the Torrez Music Group, Lee has released four albums, earning the admiration of critics and a grass roots fan base that’s adding up to something special and sustainable.

The most recent opus is Drink The River, which Lee took in a more acoustic and nuanced direction than his prior release, and which might be emerging as Lee’s career record. Saving Country Music proclaimed it 2023’s Album of the Year, while Rolling Stone placed it #11 in the year’s crop of Americana and country records, calling Lee “one of the heartland’s most crucial storytellers.”

With a voice that evokes without imitating a younger John Prine and songs that ease us gently into some real-life, tough-luck tales of endurance and loss, Lee has turned his attention outward to the stories of others more than ever before. He speaks in our interview of thinking like a filmmaker, somewhere between a documentarian and a narrative director. “Some of these stories are kind of anonymous,” he says. “There are folks that I've met that are no longer in my life, or that I loved and knew and just are no longer around, you know, didn't make it this far. So they have to be handled with a certain amount of care.”

That thoughtfulness is evident in “Even Jesus Got The Blues,” in which an addict, an old friend lost “on the dark side of the road”, encounters a church that’s supposed to give her sanctuary, with no simple outcome. Meanwhile in the moving “Merigold,” a protagonist has lost his wife to cancer, and his grief and confusion is given a strong sense of place. It was inspired by a fan he’d engaged with online and then met in person at a show in Cleveland, MS.

“I found out when I got there that the husband's wife had passed away quite recently,” Lee says. “And they were a young couple, about my age, and all of her friends were there. And they were saying how grateful they were for not only myself, but the other musicians, you know, coming down to Cleveland, MS. They don't get a ton of touring acts down there. They're big music fans. And in a small community, everyone felt that blow pretty heavily, especially again, a young (woman) leaving behind a husband, two kids. And that story stuck with me from that night onward.”

As for what being an ambassador to and from the “heartland” means, Lee says he relates to the idea. “I think Heartland kind of inspires, for me personally, this image of just hard-working, well-intended folks that may never cross a certain threshold and are just, you know, okay with being where they are and loving the community around them.” He says he’s cognizant of the “dark side” of a romanticized heartland narrative that papers over pathologies and desperation. “As a reader, and as a fan of literature and southern folklore, I've definitely delved into those themes, and I enjoy them because I think they tell a fuller story.”

Lee will be telling his stories on a tour of the UK this summer and on the Cayamo cruise the first week of March.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>