From slinging drinks to bachelorettes on Broadway to making his Grand Ole Opry debut.
Gabe Lee is somewhat of a unicorn in Nashville these days: He’s a Music City native.
As Nashville has grown exponentially over the past decade or so, it’s become harder and harder to find somebody who actually grew up here. But Gabe is Nashville born and raised – so he’s seen firsthand the changes to Nashville in recent years.
“I think any town that experiences change and progress is going to experience growing pains. When I was bartending in the Gulch there were a few times I was running late and then I’d get off the interstate and I’d be stuck behind a bachelorette barge.
It’s ok. It’s part of the change, and if you’re a local and you see these changes happening, I think a lot of folks definitely think to themselves like, ‘Get off my lawn.’
But if a town is to grow, it’s gotta go through similar stuff like this.”
Of course as Nashville has changed, so has country music. But Gabe said that while he was bartending, he always liked to explain that there was more to Nashville than Broadway and hot chicken – just like there’s more to country music than what’s on the radio:
“When I was a bartender and I was more in the food scene, I was telling folks about how Nashville, despite being known for Broadway, hot chicken, barbeque, burgers, these kinds of things, that there was so much more to the town.
The last thing you want to see is your favorite restaurant or bar or music venue close down and get pushed out, which continues to happen unfortunately.”
Of course growing up in Nashville you’re surrounded by country music – whether it’s in the grocery store, the gas station, or walking down Broadway. And Gabe, who just released his fourth album Drink the River, took inspiration from being immersed in the country music scene when he set out to start on his own music journey:
“Growing up in Nashville, a lot of my friends, we’d be hanging out at their houses or on the back porch and learning how to play guitar, learning to play a few chords.
And we’d be playing along with their record collections, which was Lynyrd Skynyrd, CCR, and even folk storytellers, Paul Simon, Dylan, Prine, all these guys that really brought around a respect for introspective lyrics and storytelling songs that dug deeper.
Nashville’s just such a lifeblood of country music in general. Every shop, store, gas station, restaurant you walk in is playing it. So it was always around.”
It’s all of those influences that you hear in Gabe’s music: From his 2022 album The Hometown Kid that featured more of the heartland rock stylings of Creedence Clearwater Revival to his latest album that showcases his incredible storytelling in the style of guys like John Prine and Bob Dylan.
And while Gabe’s sound has evolved, he said it’s all been an intentional part of exploring his sound:
“I think that you’re always looking for your sound. If an artist has found their sound I would hope that they’d be willing to explore more into it.
As a music listener there’s always that one record from your favorite band you’re like, ‘Why did they do that? What were they thinking? They went on a completely different branch or a tangent of what they’ve been doing that was so good.’
And what we’ve done is definitely to keep people on their toes, because we went from an acoustic record to a honky tonk record to an alt-rock record and now we’re back to the roots with the bluegrass.”
It’s an exploration that’s served Gabe well. His new album may just be his best one yet (and that’s saying a lot for an artist who’s continually raised the already-high bar with each album he’s made), and it led him to the opportunity to make his Grand Ole Opry debut.
Growing up in Nashville you obviously know the history and the importance of the Opry in country music, and Gabe said that playing the Opry has been something he wanted to do since he first picked up a guitar:
“I think when you get to Nashville or when you’re aware of the legacy here and how important it is to you, it’s different for everybody. People come here with similar dreams, similar goals to make it. But then you have your own definitions for success. Mine is pretty much just having a sustainable career.
If I have a chance to do something that is breaking into a community like the Opry, which is cream of the crop, and a community that holds so much respect and regard in the music community worldwide, then it’s an extremely special moment for us.
But I think folks probably write songs in this town and perform around this time in country music thinking, ‘Man it would be nice one day.’ But it’s part of the dream, and sometimes you attain that and sometimes you don’t.”
Well Gabe definitely attained that dream, and finally got to step into the historic Opry circle to make his debut.
And I’ve seen quite a few Opry debuts in person, but I’ve never seen somebody who looked as calm and comfortable making their debut as Gabe did while he was standing in the circle.
I’m sure he was nervous, but watching from the audience you would have never known it as he put on a masterclass in storytelling through song with performances of “Rusty” from his 2022 album The Hometown Kid and “Eveline” from his debut album farmland.