There are two kinds of people in America: those who leave, and those who stay. Either you were born to leave your hometown, and spend your adolescence and young adulthood plotting your escape, or see little need to ever go past the county line, unless its on vacation, or to land a better deal on a vehicle.
Nashville, Tennessee is full of leavers, very few stayers, and a not a few phonies, including many who moved to the town with the best of dreams and intentions, yet fell into the country music industry to ape whatever the hot musical commodity might be at the moment. Finding a native Nashvillian is like finding a good song on country radio. Good luck. There are a few though, though few would suspect this son of Taiwanese immigrants to be one of them.
Born and raised in Nashville, Gabe Lee has a greater birthright to making music in Nashville than most, and an authenticity others fail to muster. Most importantly though, Gabe Lee doesn’t just have a penchant for wanting to make music for a living, he has that poet’s heart, a keen sense of observation, an incredible voice for conveying emotion with an enviable level of expressionism and control, and the capability to put it all together in a way that has some professing him as a premier talent of our time. Those people might not be entirely wrong.
Gabe Lee’s new album The Hometown Kid is about football. Well okay, only a couple of the songs are about football specifically. “Kinda Man” evokes the American high school football mythology like the Uncle Rico character from Napoleon Dynamite in many respects. And even though “Over You” works excellently as a devastating heartbreak song, Gabe has revealed that a devastating playoff loss by the Tennessee Titans football team was its inspiration. No, this is not an album about football, but the subject is a good start for the kind of exploration into Americana (the cultural ethos, not the genre necessarily) that The Hometown Kid undertakes.
More Mellencamp and Springsteen than Hank and Lefty, and more Heartland rock than Harlan Howard, The Hometown Kid is a steeping out for Gabe Lee musically into a more full-bodied and universally inviting sound. You don’t have to convince your buddies to listen intently to the lyrics to understand what you’re raving about with this Gabe Lee guy anymore. Even if some of the lyrics fly right above their heads, the music will draw them in.
The Hometown Kid is not about Nashville specifically. There’s no bemoaning of the overdevelopment of Lower Broadway and the bane of the pedal taverns with their braying bachelorettes. This is more a character study into the stayers, or hometown kids all across the United States—their heart, their struggles, their honesty and simplicity. It’s also about how you never can truly see your hometown until you leave it and come back, as Gabe Lee so eloquently encapsulates in the song “Rusty.”
There is definitely some nostalgia and glory days syndrome at work here. But ain’t that America, and the way Gabe Lee delivers it, it’s not rendered as pandering or patronizing. It’s reverent, and reverberative, revering of the everyman, and how all of our sometimes piddly-feeling lives revolving around some speck on the map in middle American still hold a hell of a lot of meaning and beauty when singled out from the crowd and sung about, especially when the person doing the singing is someone with the conviction, soul, and insight of Gabe Lee.
Oh and don’t worry all you country fans out there. If you fell in love with Gabe Lee’s previous honky tonk material, make sure you keep listening to the final tracks of this record where things take a country music turn, from the forlorn and profound moments of “Hammer Down” and “Never Rained Again,” to the fun and entertaining “Angel Band” taking you out. Gabe Lee runs through a lifetime of emotions and musical influences in The Hometown Kid.
The songs that impact us the most are the ones that seem to eerily dictate our life experiences in the verses and chorus, set to the sounds that feel as familiar to us as the rhythms and landmarks of our hometown. We all have a hometown that remains static in our history no matter where life takes us, and how far flung we go, or how we feel about it. Gabe Lee’s happens to be Nashville, and we may have never heard about him, and he may have never pursued music if it wasn’t. But it’s how all of our hometowns are so elemental to who we are that Gabe Lee explores so eloquently in The Hometown Kid.
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