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Gabe Lee has been collecting stories for years, both onstage and off. "I used to bartend," says the Nashville based songwriter, "which means I was also a cheap therapist for whomever happened to be sitting on the barstool. Whether they were there to celebrate or drink away their problems, I heard about whatever they were going through. It was my job to have that face-to-face interaction — that connection. Being a full-time musician isn't much different." With critically-acclaimed albums like 2019's farmland, 2020's Honky-Tonk Hell, and 2022's The Hometown Kid, Lee created that connection by delivering his own stories to an ever-growing audience. His fourth record, Drink the River, takes a different approach. This time, Lee isn't offering listeners a peek into his internal world; he's holding up a mirror to reflect their own.

Rooted in the bluegrass influences that have always simmered beneath the surface of Lee's music, Drink the River is an acoustic album about the shared human experience. These songs are true-life tales of heartbreak, love, overdoses, and resilience. They're stories about the highs and lows that bind us all together. Lee collected some of those stories from his family and friends, while others arrived as he crisscrossed the country over the past decade, playing show after show, meeting characters from all walks of life. "There's a lot of raw, personal emotion on my first three records," he explains, "but I love singing about other people's stories, too. On Drink the River, I'm drinking from the river of human experience, through which all our collective stories flow. That river is probably a little dirty — it isn't purified or sanitized — but that means it's real, too." Arriving on the heels of The Hometown Kid — whose robust, amplified sound earned praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and Billboard — Drink the River marks a back-to-the-roots return to the folksy, stripped-down music that Lee created during the beginning of his career. He captured these nine songs with a series of live-in-the-studio performances at Sound Emporium Studios, accompanied by three of his longtime bandmates: dobro player Lucciana Costa, bassist Tim Denbo, and drummer Dave Racine. Fiddle player Jason Roller and mandolinist Eamon McLaughlin also contributed to the sessions, with both musicians taking a break from their regular gig as members of the Grand Ole Opry house band to join Lee in the studio. The group worked fast, finishing the bulk of Drink the River in two days. The instrumentation may have been acoustic, but the energy was electric. "Merigold," with its minor-key melody and gorgeous vocal harmonies, sketches the picture of a married couple ripped apart by cancer. Lee first met the couple's widowed husband at a show in Merigold, Mississippi, and was moved by the story of his late wife's passing. Mortality weaves its way throughout much of Drink the River, showing up once again in songs  like "Lidocaine" (a gorgeous folk song inspired by an Uber ride in which Lee learned his driver had been diagnosed with dementia at 40 years old) and "Even Jesus Gets the Blues" (whose deceptively bright textures are contrasted by darker lyrics about a friend's overdose). Drink the River also offers moments of humor. Lee took inspiration from his girlfriend's father — a deer farmer in Alabama, eager to keep trespassers off his private land — for the light and limber "Property Line," which he describes as "a salty-old-redneck, country-justice type song." Finally, the title track reaffirms Lee's status as a classic songwriter, pairing nimble fretwork with a timeless storyline about love, loyalty, and the people who lure even the most dedicated road warriors back home again. "I can't drink the river to dry the land / Bury the ocean beneath the sand / But I can love you until the tide pulls me under, by and by," he sings, his voice flanked by mandolin and acoustic guitar. Storytelling has been an anchor of Lee's music since the very beginning. Raised by Taiwanese parents in Nashville, TN, he left home during his teenage years and headed to Indiana, where he obtained college degrees in literature and journalism. Lee launched his career as a genrebending musician after returning to Tennessee, quickly progressing from dive bar gigs to high profile opening slots (including shows with Jason Isbell, Los Lobos, Molly Tuttle, and other artists who, like him, blurred the lines between roots-rock, country, and other forms of American folk music) to his own headlining shows. Throughout it all, he drew upon the narrative skills he'd sharpened as a student. If albums like Honky-Tonk Hell and The Hometown Kid often unfolded like autobiographical entries from his road journal, though, then Drink the River shows an even broader range of his storytelling abilities. Lee isn't just writing songs about himself; he's writing songs about all of us. And maybe, in doing so, he can bring us a little closer together. "People need a reason to connect right now, more than ever," he says. "The common ground between us seems to be fading rapidly. If there's a fundamental aspect to that proverbial common ground, it's human spirit and raw emotion. We've all experienced joy, despair, love, hurt, and loss. We all understand how those things feel, and I believe it's a responsibility for people like me to share those stories. I'm feeling very inspired by the shared experience of others. I just want to pass it down the line."

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“I knew I would meet my demons in prison and that one of us would die. I just didn’t know which one of us would walk out of there alive.” 

For most of us, these would be very sobering thoughts, the kind of thoughts that would scare a person straight and ready them for battle. But for JD Graham, well, his passion for long-lived self-  
destruction outweighed any fear he might have had right before the cell bars slammed shut. His 25-year long drug addiction was an ironclad “shelter” he could take with him anywhere…or so he thought. Those demons that he would, in fact, meet wore many different faces and he came to recognize each one as soon as it reared its ugly head. It didn’t take long for Graham to realize during that waged war that there was another force fighting alongside him, and that he was going to slay them all. “My faith is what got me sober and keeps me sober. I was raised in a Christian church and I was always a believer, I just never surrendered. I was disciplined in the dark, not the light. Now, I have reprogrammed my brain on how I see life. I have healthy boundaries and an accurate moral inventory I take each day. That’s what God and prison did for me.” 

Graham grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma where he spent the first 30 years of his life developing his skills in hostility and perfected duplicity. An anxiety disorder at the age of 11 introduced him to the wonderful world of drugs when he was prescribed valium, and by age 15 he was raiding every medicine cabinet he 
could find. By 18 he was a bona fide seller skilled in the art of harvesting multiple doctor prescriptions, and in the scientific breakdown of exactly how much drugs his body could take each day. By young adulthood Graham was deep into his addiction as well as his angst, which he showcased through reckless living and slinging guitar in several death metal bands. In 2010 he morphed into a more southern rock sound with his band Sour Diesel Train Wreck and released an album in 2012 to some national success and shared stages with Reckless Kelly, Stoney Larue, Cody Canada and The Departed, Jason Boland, Turnpike Troubadours, Shooter Jennings and Molly Hatchet. In true coming of age fashion, Graham met some new people and started going to shows and open mics. His introduction to bands/artists like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Brandon Jenkins and Jason Isbell started to calm the waters a bit by the sheer impact of the truth in their writing. Their willingness to lyrically “bare the soul” hit Graham deep, and that influence mixed with a lifetime of much needed confession cast its spell, and his inner songwriter was born. In 2007 Graham relocated to Arizona, and 10 years later a catastrophic car accident dealt him a 5-year prison sentence and a last chance to salvage his soul. Still the loyal addict, he pursued the score for drugs in the pen purchasing $500 in pills on his second day there, pills that were never delivered. Instead, Graham was delivered when some church folks visited him in his cell to ask about his music. He resolutely acknowledged that God was most definitely at work in his life, and at that point he made a decision to stop drugs forever. With only his refection staring back at him in a dark cell and his mind uncluttered for the first time in 25 years, Graham’s long burdened conscience began to speak, and by the time those confessions all had their say he had written 160 songs. His first ever sober writings, Graham made history at the Arizona State Prison when he was allowed to record his first album “Razor Wire Sunrise.” The title-track was the first song he wrote in prison inspired by the view from his cell each morning and all the decisions that got him there. By the time Graham walked out a free man 5 years later,  he had left behind a deep impact on the community there in the form of a very successful music program he started that is still being taught today. With an actual curriculum and over $20,000 in donations, the program sparked a year and a half waiting list for classes. 

“I saw all this prison programming and cognitive behavior programs, but it wasn’t working to change 
people’s lives. When I started teaching music, I saw many of those guys find a sense of purpose. I saw music get guys off drugs and change their entire approach to their daily lives. Guys who walked around with their heads down not talking to anyone were now walking around with a smile and expressing themselves through music. Music is power. It forces you to get in touch with yourself because it’s so damn honest. I made life-long friends with a few chords on a guitar.” 

In  2023, JD Graham officially entered his name into the songwriting annals with the release of his new album “Pound Of Rust” on June 23rd. Recorded at the Skinny Elephant in East Nashville and produced by Neilson Hubbard (Glen Phillips, Mary Gauthier, Kim Richey, Ben Glover, Amy Speace) and acclaimed songwriter Ryan Culwell, this spacious group of songs are the uninhibited testimony of a man with nothing left to lose. No bells and whistles, just Graham and his guitar, the album’s atmosphere is as raw as its telling captured in a live performance setting. The title-track is the hard taskmaster to which all the other songs fall into line. It’s a beast of a story that stares you down until you come to terms with your own accountability. The songs that follow are echoes of a well-worn soul who fought to have the right to see possibilities and experience reverence. Song after song the listener is seized and silenced as the weight of Graham’s sincerity welcomes you into this hallowed chamber. JD is 
what you call a songwriter’s songwriter, a man who keeps a crowd hanging on his every word. “Pound Of Rust” is an actual lifetime in the making, and it encapsulates the full culmination of the man who stands before you today. JD continues to put his faith and trust in God and live life on life’s terms. He continues his path fueled by faith, redemption and sobriety, writing poignant songs about his journey both past and present. 

His 2023 release “A Pound  of Rust” propelled him to the national touring circuit, performing in intimate listening rooms, songwriter festivals and beyond. He finished his highly anticipated new album in December 2023 that will release in Spring of 2024.

“My brother asked me what the goal was with my music and I told him connection, whether that was talking to someone struggling on a barstool after a show or telling my story through a song to a crowd of people and reaching a stranger’s heart. Human connection is all I want; I think it’s why we are all here"

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The 04 Center
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