Gabe Lee defies easy categorization, and I’m not sure how exactly I mean that.
Not that we need to pin him down to any one particular sound or style, mind you, but there’s something of an earnest restlessness to his work I’ve only picked up with time that I think speaks to an odd progression. He broke through in 2019 with the tastefully low-key farmland, which, with his raspy drawl and the album’s more intimate focus, drew to mind comparisons to artists like Bob Dylan and the late John Prine. Easy – maybe even accurate – but whether it’s fair one way or the other is a different conversation that’s hard to approach with any artist.
And just when you thought you had him pinned down anyway, he pulled a pivot toward more barn-burning southern-rock and honky-tonk with the aptly titled Honky Tonk Hell in 2020, which I think went beyond eschewing any easy comparisons in sound or style and really proved Lee to be something of a wild hell-raiser in the writing, too. Self-aware enough to always have a bit of fun with himself and the audience, though, which is part of why that album has held up so well as an immensely good time.
But I’d also say it’s a project like that which showed him at odds with himself, and not in a bad way; “Honky Tonk Hell” stood just as well alongside a more starkly observational cut like “30 Seconds at a Time,” after all, thanks to Lee’s eye for detail where either good sense or empathy (or both) always came through. Maybe it’s because he’s the rare Nashville native to actually become a country music singer, calling home to a place constantly shifting and changing itself, either for worse or for better, and never quite in a consistent manner. Or maybe it’s the natural artistic ethos we love to romanticize fueling his restless spirit. Maybe it’s just something else entirely, but Lee finding his own place not only in the world but in his hometown itself? That’s an underrated driving force of his material, and one that makes his work its own.
And with Hometown Kid, that natural yin-and-yang division is probably at its most direct – an album that, yes, may sand away some of the wily edges of its predecessor and feel a bit more grounded as a result, but also might be better for it. And I know that may sound like a contentious statement to make, given that this should feel like the lesser project of Lee’s discography: It’s more weathered, it’s wrapped around more familiar hometown-inspired archetypes and fables of the people who inhabit them, leave, and return, and it’s all a bit rustier in its presentation compared to either of his two previous projects. But the more I’ve sat with this, not only has it become a real favorite of the year for me, but it’s also the most fully formed artistic statement Lee has made yet with his work, both for himself and for one of country music’s most beloved and tired subjects.
But there are other elements I want to discuss before we get to that, the first of which being the noticeable sonic shift this album takes. We still get that usual mix of styles and sounds that comprised Lee’s last project, but they seem to burn a little less stridently than before. No less confident or full of swagger, mind you … it’s just that the fire has shifted, rather than gone out. And I admit that that threw me upon the first few listens. Hell, that dusty, sandy approach to a lot of the tones here is part of what kept me at a distance from loving lead single “Rusty” for a time. But there’s a greater intention at play here, on a project where Lee returns home – both literally and metaphorically – to find a sense of place and belonging, and even find parts of himself that got lost along the way navigating the dark crevices of the honky-tonk hell we call the real world.
So yeah, far less abrasive in intent and mood, but dig a little deeper and not only is there a lot of richly organic warmth present in these tones, but there’s also that greater sense of variety present that’s made Lee a jack of all trades still in control of his sound. Subtle as hell at times, I’ll admit, but it just means it’s the smaller, more wistful moments that really help this album sink in further for me: I love the spacious keys bouncing off the wistful acoustics grounding “Wide Open,” especially those little flourishes that crop up after the hook; I love the slow-rolling soulfulness building up to a fantastic high on “Over You,” a breakup track that’s really about a Tennessee Titans game, of all things; I love the blast of harmonica cutting through “One of These Days,” especially given that it’s a mostly spoken-word track and feels like Lee’s own personal retrace of his younger days through town. Really, it’s just so phenomenally well-balanced across the board, where even though there may be a little less variety in terms of overall sound, it just may find strength in a sense of greater consistency.
And yet, ironically enough, it’s also an inconsistency in the framing and overall writing that I think informs this project, and not in a bad way. I noted before the sense of division that seems to inform Lee’s work – more like a duality, really – controlled by an artist who can be just as adept at playing the role of the wild rapscallion as he can the role of the observational poet. Maybe it’s just how that eye for detail always shines through in sketching the scenes around him, but it always comes together, weirdly enough. But what to do with a country album about, well, hometowns – one that plays directly to predictable tropes like failed high school football stars, years of old ghosts and broken dreams catching up with someone, or just an odd love/hate relationship that both forever binds us to that original spot and makes us want to search for something greater beyond it?
Well, therein lies the other nugget with this album, and I admit upon first listen I wasn’t sure if it would all come together. But Lee is just such a frankly witty writer that he can speak to both his own experiences, and make the more broadly sketched ones feel nevertheless lived-in, speaking once again to that odd sense of duality. Hell, it comes through alone on “Longer I Run / Hammer Down,” the first half adopting the more restless narrative of letting one’s own self-abuse for past mistakes and failed dreams weigh them down, all through a muted smattering of ‘80s soul to keep some glimmer of hope alive. I’m not sure it necessarily blends well with Lee’s more nasal tone, but if anything it’s why I love the more directly country second half, where hope has now faded and he’s the broken down shell of himself … and it’s not OK, but he’s getting by, and that’s still what matters.
It’s why I love “Wide Open” as the opener, Lee’s own quintessential decision to travel back in time and back home and open that door for himself, and maybe even for others he knew or observed. And he’s smart enough to acknowledge the cliché of the concept right off the bat, noting on that track how it’s a familiar tale for most people and that it’s not so much the place that matters – they’re all the same, at the end of the day – but the experiences that shaped the actual time spent within it; it’s what it means to us, if anything, that makes it special in the first place. For him, it begins with traveling back in his father’s old car handed down to him, with the John Prine sticker and all. And then it bleeds into “Over You,” which despite the hilarious context surrounding it, still sounds like an overwhelming moment where all of that history rushes back.
And it’s clear it takes a toll on Lee and his characters, a rusty figure who flips through faded memories of himself and others. And indeed, there’s even time for final glorious highs like the blazing “Kinda Man.” But it’s not necessarily an album stuck in the past, either. Hell, one of the starkly frank points made in the latter half is that Lee and his characters are older and can’t go back, and that whether they succeeded in their endeavors or not, they’re still in the same boat of living in the present. Dreams never die, they just change shape or form, and it doesn’t necessarily mean things are OK now, but there’s still a way to carve out a sense of belonging – peace. It’s why I love the callbacks to Jason Isbell’s “Relatively Easy” in “Never Rained Again,” which finds a sense of comfort even despite dour circumstances in a rainstorm, of all things. And Lee himself is just such a witty, charismatic presence, that there’s always an urgency and passion to the more soulful moments like “Buffalo Road” and “Over You,” and a shit-eating grin when he’s letting loose for a rollicking good time, like on “Long Gone” and “Angel Band.”
With that in mind, however, I do have some nitpicks with some tracks here feeling like repeats of the same general themes and ideas of better highlights. I enjoy the ‘90s country rollick of “Lucky Stars” well enough, but placing another breakup track right after “Over You” is just asking for trouble. And while “Lonely” is probably the closest you’ll get to “old” Lee in terms of his trademark conversational flow, it’s another moment that just didn’t seem to have enough meat on its bones in the composition or writing to stand out further.
And … that’s about it. Really, I’ve just had so much with this album over the past week and have been finding new things to love about it with every revisit, that I’m convinced it’s Lee’s most complete collection to date – even despite the odds against it and, ironically enough, being an album centered around the anxieties of feeling incomplete. It’s another leap forward in what’s turning out to become an impressive discography, and for me, the perfect highlight and comfort listen as we near the end of the year – a trip back to the familiar and an embrace of the unfamiliar I didn’t know I needed.
- Favorite tracks: “Wide Open,” “Over You,” “Rusty,” “Kinda Man,” “One of These Days,” “Never Rained Again,” “Long Gone,” “Angel Band”
- Least favorite track: “Lonely”