Album Review – Gabe Lee’s “Honky Tonk Hell”

Honky Tonk Hell isn’t just a great record. It verifies that Gabe Lee will be one of the next great artists in country and roots music that we’ll hopefully be hearing plenty from and enjoying for years to come.

His first record Farmland was a formidable work of song and performance as well, but preliminary and austere in its approach as a mostly acoustic record. It worked for him as a naturally-gifted singer and songwriter who needs little more than a mic and a guitar to make magic, and may even include a better group of songs than this new one. But you knew when listening that you were hearing the bones of what could be something even greater when robed in a more purposeful approach to the instrumentation and production.

This hypothesis is verified in Honky Tonk Hell. From fire-breathing Southern rock, to delicate piano ballads, Hank Williams-style Southern poetry, to Dylan-esque harmonica and rhyme, Honky Tonk Hell covers it all, and with the authority of a performer who is not torn about who he is, or addled by worries of how he’s perceived by the outside facing world. Gabe Lee belts his original words out like a man born to do it and who knows nothing else. His effortlessness is uncanny.

Pay no mind to the surprising package this music comes in. Gabe Lee has that mastery of Southern phrases and vernacular that few this side of Tyler Childers are able to call upon, and a cunning wit for how to weave it into melody and phrase, and steer it towards highlighting the strengths of his voice. If anything, assign bonus points to Gabe Lee for being virtually the only frontman of Asian heritage in country and roots.

Honky Tonk Hell begins with the title track that immediately announces this will not be some delicate and artsy singer and songwriter suite, but an omnivorous buffet with red meat a part of the spread. Co-written with Marcus King, “Honky Tonk Hell” captures Gabe growling about “All the folks down in Nashville, writing phony ass country songs.” And as one of the few souls in the music business who actually grew up in Music City, he can speak with authority on this matter.

At last check, Gabe Lee still calls Nashville home, but Honky Tonk Hell is all about moving on, leaving bad blood, memories, and relationships behind, and finding one’s self on the open road and in unfamiliar environs. This is what you hear from “Babylon,” to “Great Big River,” to “Blue Ridge Goodbye.” And whether it’s the Heartland feel of “Babylon,” the The Robert Zimmerman mood of “Imogene,” Gabe Lee finds the right textures and approach from which to tell his stories the best.

Honky Tonk Hell is also about women. This is where Gabe Lee has found his most potent muse in his short but productive career. “Eveline” from his first record was the song that stood out for most, and found the soft spot in Gabe’s heart, and and the sweet spot in his voice. “Susannah” is one of the more upbeat moments on the new album, without lacking in the writing department to make sure you don’t just hear, but feel the message.

But it’s on “Emmylou” when you once again hear the sound a heart makes when it shatters. It’s difficult to be overly complimentary about Gabe Lee’s manner of singing. It’s not just about some natural gift of tone or control. It’s his instinct to know how to use it. The second time Gabe sings the simple name “Emmylou” on this song, you’d swear it would have the power to make a barren field sprout flowers with the amount of emotion contained in those few fleeting, but eloquently elongated syllables.

Gabe Lee will continue to fly under-the-radar for many because he’s just too damn good. But the the more fleshed out approach of Honky Tonk Hell, along with the flavorful offerings that include something for everyone with country, roots, and Southern rock sensibilities, this record damn well better land him in the ears of an audience sizable enough to launch as sustainable career. Nobody’s looking to get rich here, but we’ll all benefit from making sure Gabe Lee gets to continue to do what he does here, and for bigger audiences, and well into the foreseeable future.

8.5/10

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Purchase Gabe Lee’s Honky Tonk Hell