Paul Sammon writes: Gabe Lee is tough to pin down, but we got him after his set on The Front Porch, nailed his feet to the floor and had a chat about classical piano, John Prine, and his new-found need for coffee.
SSC: So, here you are, in the UK. Enjoying it?
GL: Absolutely, man. Coming away with Rissi and the Color Me Country folks and the folks at Apple; they’ve shown us so much support over the years and now our first opportunity to come out and play here, seeing what the crowds are like and finally getting to meet some folks who’ve been listening to the music for a while. It means a lot. We do so much touring back home, Stateside, now we realise today was a really good sign for maybe coming back out and doing our own stuff.
SSC: How are you finding the UK? Have you been out and about?
GL: We just got in yesterday morning. It’s been a kind of a blur just flying around trying to make our planes and trains and everything. Last night I played at a local pub in Swinford called the Chequers. I got to meet the locals and some folks who were at the festival but snuck out to catch it and it felt good. It was a blast. They had me behind the bar pulling the pints. Of course, I filled one up and everyone starts going, “Drink, drink, drink…” so there’s a great video of me just chugging it down. We crushed it on merch and that helps us get to the next gig y’know, so all pretty amazing signs for us to put something together next year and come back.
SSC: So, you were playing The Front Porch with the Color Me Country band. How did that come about?
GL: Rissi [Palmer] has a great career of her own as an artist and songwriter. Over the last few years, she’s gotten really involved with Apple Music and uses her platform to help lift up voices that she finds significant, both culturally and the narrative of country music in the States as a genre. It is, obviously, one of the fastest growing genres in the World and we’ve been shown that coming over here and seeing so many folks at this festival, but also all my buddies that tour abroad in Spain, France, Scandinavia they keep saying, “Gabe, you’d crush it out here”.
So, Rissi said, “We’ve got five artists going and my own band will be your backing band.” So, we all met in Nashville and practiced for about an hour. *Laughs* They’re great, seasoned players so we ran it a couple times and then we loaded in today and they backed me up and I think everyone had fun.
SSC: Then they just stayed on and supported Sacha. They’re all just so good.
GL: This is the first time I’ve met some of these artists that Rissi has brought. Sacha is such a sweetheart, as you know, she’s Canadian, and she just gets up there to do her thing. It’s all just an incredible opportunity to connect, to network, y’know? We can fashion roads and connections for all of us down the road. Just being from Nashville as well, I always remind folks, “If you’re coming through, just give me a shout,” because if I’m not touring, I’d be happy to do a co-write or something to help; that’s what it’s about, man.
SSC: So, is this your full-time gig now?
GL: Yeah, full-time. I mean before this I was in restaurants and bars for like, forever. I think it was about two years ago now that I had a bartending gig and I’ve slowly accumulated touring experience and “road chops” for being out and this past Spring did a whole two and a half month run with about 50 shows out on the West Coast of the States and had a blast with that as well. So, success is different by definition for so many different folks depending on where they are in their careers. For me it’s sustainability, so, like if I can go out on the road and half the shows, like the big towns, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, L.A. if those towns show up, that proves to me that we can go back out there to these markets and crush it and do well and sell some merch and not lose our bets on money, y’know?
But of course, it’s the in-between ones, the little ones that get you. The small towns in the middle of nowhere and you just pray someone comes out on a Wednesday night and I’m learning a lot on the road, so, yeah this has been my full-time gig for just over a year and a half now.
SSC: When I first encountered your music it was during lockdown in May 2020, over Zoom with CES Virtual Shows and Emma [Smith] and Colin [Parry] showcased Aaron Goodvin, Billy Montana, CJ Solar and many more alongside yourself and you’ve since come such a long way, literally.
GL: Yeah, they reached out on the socials and the timing was what it had to be y’know? We were all trying to figure out ways to be sustainable with our careers and keep it up, right? And, seriously, Emma and her community of friends was something I looked forward to. I did it a few times and it was very encouraging, very sweet and it didn’t hurt that Emma was such a number one fan for so long and it really means so much to go to a place you’ve never been and to feel at home. And that’s exactly what they have brought.
SSC: So, tell me about your albums.
GL; Yeah, we’ve got Farmland, Honky Tonk Hell, Hometown Kid and Drink The River is the newest. It’s a pretty good pace and it really is where my love of music stems from is being in the studio; being with the producers, the musicians. We’re blessed with amazing talent in Nashville; A-list players. In Nashville, the culture’s really cool because you can reach out to any of these players and they’ll have played for Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, all these legendary players; Vince Gill and what-not and members of their band are just like working session guys and you can just send ‘em an email and they’ll probably just say, “Yeah. For a standard day rate, I’ll play your record.” Then what’s so important is they create a vibe around your record, and they do it very efficiently and that’s why in the last four years I’ve been able to pump out four records because Nashville’s process within the industry it makes it, not ‘easy’ but it can be done efficiently.
Then we roll profits from one record to the next, then we play shows and sell T-shirts to pay the rent.
SSC: When I first heard you, I heard Paul Simon in your voice, Dylan in the writing and I’ve learned you were influenced by John Prine. Will you be catching up with Tommy [Prine]?
GL: Yeah, we’re actually doing a tour together in January. He’s the man. He’s just put out a new record and John Prine’s legacy is so strong in Nashville. His record label, Oh Boy Records that still continues, and his son, Jody, runs it, they’ve been really friendly with us, and we collaborate all the time. There’s so much about the light of his legacy that folks like myself hope to carry that flame. Even Tommy says, “I’m not John Prine Jr, I’m doing my own thing.” There’s so much that is attached to John and what he brought to music that it’s important to keep that alive. That’s part of what I’m doing. Y’know, I’m not John Prine Jr either, I’ve got my own vibe, but the Oh Boy folks have definitely been very supportive.
SSC: The way you do tell your stories in song, you’re kind of the epitome of a country singer. Your parents are from Taiwan though, so how did you even get into country music?
GL: Well, they were looking for education and when they came to the States they landed in Tucson, AZ. They were very young newlyweds, and it was tough. They kinda snuck out of Taiwan and left behind their families looking for something new and going on an adventure. They found it in Tucson and finished their degrees and their first official American ‘gigs’ were at a publishing house in Nashville. The community in Nashville just welcomed them and took them in and they found friends that we really consider family today that made Nashville home.
So, my brother and I were both born there, and it’ll always be home no matter how far we travel. We both grew up trained at classical piano and with a love for music and I would say the country side of things, as far as secular music, my folks listened to a lot of gospel in church, and probably the only country music they’d listen to was like, John Denver *Laughs* But, for myself, getting exposed to Southern writers and Southern bands really came from my friends and folks I was hanging out with whenever I had the chance to. A lot of Dylan, CCR and Skynyrd, Jim Croce and of course a healthy dose of John Prine. Folk singers, too; James Taylor, Jackson Browne and such. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. So, exploring that, over the years where I started to write my own music, leaving the classical piano world, y’know? That all had to do with my buddies and I starting garage bands, playing in every band possible really, and like in high school and just past high school, we’d play some shows like a wedding or a random bar gig and made a couple hundred bucks and was like, “This is pretty cool.”
SSC: You never seem to stop.
GL: Yeah, we’re hitting the Rhinestone stage as the Color Me Country crew and we’ll do a song each then close it all together. Then back home Monday, a couple days off then I’m hitting the road again. Y’know, I was never a coffee drinker until I started touring. Twenty-nine years I’d never had coffee, then started touring and y’know what? I need this stuff. *Laughs* But I’m learning, y’know? Every day I’m learning about what it takes to be a Road Dog and it’s folks like Joshua Ray Walker, and contemporaries like Tommy Prine, we’re coming up around the same time, figuring it all out together. So, if it wasn’t for folks like Emma or folks like Rissi, looking out for us just letting us know we’re loved and supported it would be so much harder. We appreciate you.
SSC: We can’t wait for you to come back. Thanks again for taking time out.
For more info on Gabe Lee, visit https://www.gabeleetn.com/