REVIEW: Gabe Lee Shows off his Storytelling Skills on “Honky Tonk Hell”


For all the songwriters in Nashville, few have a story like Gabe Lee, a country singer-songwriter who is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and one of the few Asian-American songwriters in the Nashville Americana scene. On his previous release farmland, Lee showed his prowess for evocative melodies and lyrics. He continues to show that strength on his new album Honky Tonk Hell.

The album begins with the title track, a song co-written with Marcus King. The best way to describe this song is big because there is a lot going on here. The first thing you notice is the beat laid down by Dave Racine, which is ready for arenas anywhere. Along with that is an organ part by David Dorn and a rock and roll guitar that would feel right at home in a Blackberry Smoke song. You even hear some Dobro by Lucciana Costa that lends a little down-home sound to the mix. The arena feel is capped by lyrics that are sure to have people singing loudly: “Honky Tonk Hell is a hell of a place. They got a big old dance-room hall. Seats reserved for all the folks down in Nashville writin’ phony-ass country songs.”

In contrast to the big sound of the opening track is “Heartbreaker’s Smile.” It opens with just acoustic guitar, resonator, and vocals. Then the organ and backing vocals come in, giving something of a gospel feel to the song. The cool thing about this song is you don’t need to know specifically who the subject is. The truth is, everyone probably has their own person in mind when he sings about someone who’s “got a heartbreaker’s smile.”

Lee shows he has a way with ballads with “Imogene” and “Emmylou.” “Imogene” is a song that features only acoustic guitar and harmonica. The narrator addresses the song to the folks back home after he set out on the road “running from a woman, looking for a fight.” It might be a mellow song, but it’s a good song when you’re doing some rambling of your own. “Emmylou” is a piano ballad about someone who misses Emmylou so bad that he has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.

The history of music is laden with songs about troublemakers. Lee adds one of his own with “All Dogs Go To Heaven”. Immediately you can tell that this is a song to get people dancing. The guitar part borders rockabilly while the organ is pure country soul. While the whole song is pretty easy to sing, there is one line in the song that begs to be shouted: “Ain’t scared to raise hell cuz all dogs go to heaven.”

Lee shows real talent as a songwriter on this album. Specifically he shows he has a talent for writing songs that get people dancing and singing along. Seriously. Once you get to know this album even a little bit, it will probably be one that you sing loudly as you drive, or cook, or any other activity really. Honky Tonk Hell (Torrez Music Group) is available everywhere as of March 13. Order your copy here.

Gabe Lee: guitars, piano, harmonica, organ
Lucciana Costa: Dobro, lap steel
David Dorn: piano, organ, keyboards
Jon Conley: guitars
Tim Denbo: bass
Dave Racine: drums, percussion
Rusty Danmyer: steel guitar

Background vocals
Kylie Rae Harris, Lucciana Costa, Gabe Lee, David Dorn, Alex Torrez, Jon Conley, Tim Denbo, Dave Racine, Rylie Bourne

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