Johnny Gates made the move to Nashville after hearing Taylor Swift on his local radio station in Providence, Rhode Island. “I heard that song ‘Tim McGraw’ for the first time and I was like, oh this is cool. She was young and she was doing country music,” he tells us. “A lightbulb went off and I was like I should find out who she works with.” He found Nathan Chapman’s information online, sent him an email, and made up a story that his band was in Nashville meeting with labels. “We definitely weren’t,” he says through a smirk. “We had never even been to Nashville. But he wrote back and we drove to Nashville the next day.”
Gates grew up listening to a wide array of music. He listened to Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, and Aerosmith before getting into rock bands like Taking Back Sunday and Dashboard Confessional. It wasn’t until high school when he actually started to play his own music. “I was a fan of music and then somebody asked me to join their band and we were in a band for like 15 years,” he explains.
While in the band, he was making a record in New Jersey and at the time, was interested in the country band Whiskey Town. He also liked some of the music his grandma listened to from artists like Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. “The producer we were working with was like, ‘Dude, do you like country music?’ And I’m like, ‘Kinda, I mean I listen to it.’ He’s like, ‘Some of your stuff sounds country,’” he exclaims. After that conversation, Gates bought LPs by Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts and did a deep dive into the early 2000s country music scene, and eventually immersed himself into the music in Nashville.
His latest EP East Music Row was released last week. The entirety of the project was made over quarantine as Gates says, “We wrote a lot of it on Zoom, and then we wrote a lot of it in empty offices on music row and in an empty LA.” His producer was living in California at the time and although most people had a hard time adjusting to the big change of working virtually behind a computer and away from fellow collaborators, it felt natural for Gates. “I felt okay being like, okay I’m gonna go record a vocal in the closet and then I’ll send it to my buddy in LA, and then he’ll send it back, and then I’ll do a guitar in the kitchen, I felt comfortable doing that. It kind of brought me back to my old days too which is kinda cool.”
Photo by Alex Berger
The title comes from his time spent in music row as well as his roots in East Nashville. When he speaks about the city and the two very specific places he references, he images the river that separates it. “Something really cool happens when those worlds blend and so that’s what we tried to do on that record,” he tells us. “I wanted to have some songs that sounded more like my singer-songwriter vibe, but then I wanted stuff that kind of showed more of a rock side and then the country sound.” He was inspired by the music of country artist HARDY, Ruston Kelly, and the way he mixes country and emo influences, as well as the descriptive lyricism of indie-folk artist Phoebe Bridgers.
Out of the eight tracks, he connects most to the song “Loretta Lynn,” which on the surface sounds like a normal breakup song, but the meaning behind it is much deeper to Gates who wrote the song completely alone six years ago. “We [his band] had just asked out of our record deal which was really hard,” he explains. “It was a little difficult to get co-writes after I didn’t have a major label backing me so I found it hard to be in Nashville. And so I decided to move to LA, but I wrote Loretta the night before I moved because I was sick of people telling me, ‘You’re not country enough,’ and the country that I listened to, felt more country than the stuff that they wanted us to sound like.” His introspective feelings before leaving Music city inspired the hook of the song that goes, “Cause I miss you like the radio misses Loretta Lynn.”
Over the next couple of months, Gates plans on playing three shows in three different cities in Southern California. He’s also opening up for Sam Grow in Nashville in November. To keep up with Johnny Gates, follow him on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook.
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