Gabe Lee’s Honky Tonk Hell — including the track “Heartbreaker’s Smile,” premiering exclusively on Billboard below — is heaven for fans of the stylistic diversity that can be found under the country music umbrella. And the Nashville-based artist is happy to be showing more sides of himself after the “songwriter project” of his 2019 debut, Farmland.
“The first record was very light instrumentation, a pretty sparse, intimate feel trying to showcase the storytelling,” Lee, a Nashville native of Taiwanese descent, tells Billboard. “This album I recorded with a band, which was really a joy. It was fun seeing the songs come to life from these acoustic work tapes I had. It shows we can get loud, too.”
Among the new album’s stretches, Lee says, is the hard rocking title track, co-written with Marcus King, as well as the soulful, Van Morrison flavor of “Great Big River.” “Heartbreaker’s Smile,” meanwhile, was written during the Farmland cycle but was held for Honky Tonk Hell. “It had a similar vibe to that first batch of songs,” Lee, a classically trained pianist, explains, “and it fit perfectly for this next record because it hearkens back to that sound from Farmland. It’s kind of like a thread back to the first record that leads into this new one.” And the title should certainly have listeners reaching for the hanky before it comes on.
“It’s descriptive of a heartbreaker,” Lee notes, “anyone who everyone seems to love but who’s hard to nail down, personality wise. It’s someone who’s in everyone’s hearts but at the same time is always on the move. It’s actually a very positive song, not quite your average heartbreak, sad and lonely kind of vibe. We wanted it to be a little happier.”
Overall, Lee says the 11-song Honky Tonk Hell “is showcasing the variety of songwriting and the variety of musicians we have and what we can do with our little set-up in the studio. If I think about it from an outside standpoint it’s pretty impressive that we managed to string all these different sounds together on one record.”
With a light touring history, Lee — who studied at Belmont University in Nashville and the University of Indiana in Bloomington — is anxious to get on the road soon to raise some Honky Tonk Hell. While he waits, however, he’s playing around Nashville and also keeping up his “side gigs” as a bartender who, by his own estimation, is pretty cool with the cocktails.
“I like making a classic martini,” Lee — who favors a whiskey neat himself — says. “People can be picky about those, and even though it’s a really easy drink, not a lot of components to it, a lot of bartenders mess it up. So I like to do that, or an Old Fashioned. I probably make 50 of those a weekend.”
Listen to “Heartbreaker’s Smile” below.