When Johnny Gates left Nashville in 2015, he had no idea what the future held. He only knew he had to be true to himself. After exiting a high-profile deal with a major label in town who had signed his band, Runaway Saints, Gates packed up his apartment and headed for the West Coast.
Although his band didn’t survive the move to L.A., Gates’ love of country music did. Schlepping his guitar around Hollywood, he set out to carve a niche for himself as a solo artist in a place where no one knew his name.
California may have provided a fresh start for the gravel-voiced singer, but the Rhode Island native still carried a torch for Nashville. When he started writing songs apart from his former band and began collaborating with songwriter, producer and WILD guitarist Tyler Thompson, his unique brand of country music came pouring out like microbrew on tap.
“I feel like Music Row is where I learned how to write songs,” Gates says. “The music that was coming out naturally and the songs that were coming out naturally, they were Music Row songs.”
His new song, “Buy You A Beer,” was one of those tracks. The modern country pop jam, premiering exclusively today on Sounds Like Nashville, unfolds in a dive bar as a young gun centers his attention on a girl in a denim jacket. An innocent pick-up line turns into a committed relationship in the second verse where the established couple reminisces on that fateful night when one question set their love story in motion.
“I wanted this song to exist in a world that me and my friends lived in—something real,” Gates shares, citing East Nashville watering hole Mickey’s Tavern as the setting he envisioned when writing the song with Thompson and Lauren Luiz. The trio wrote and recorded the propulsive track all in the same day in a small bedroom in L.A.’s Highland Park.
Once he and Thompson had developed an arsenal of songs he believed in, Gates followed his heart back to Music City. “Once I finally had a handful of songs, that’s when I decided to pull the trigger and move back,” he says. “I always had this lingering thought where I kind of came so close to ‘making it’ the first time, and it was like, I can’t just let it end like that in Nashville. So this is my next attempt at crossing the finish line.”
Since moving back last year, Gates has signed a publishing deal with Deluge Music and now—despite the pandemic—has a full slate of regular co-writes. “I’m way more comfortable when my calendar’s booked,” he admits. “If I have five writes in a week, for me, that feels good, and it actually helps bring out my creativity.”
Gates’ creativity has peaked during this season of social distancing. Most mornings you can find him at his kitchen counter writing songs via Zoom and quietly tracking guitar and vocal parts on his own, all from his apartment in Germantown.
He even reworked his song “Loretta Lynn”—a longtime live favorite—during quarantine by recording vocals in his closet before sending them off to Thompson, who still resides in L.A. The first official recording of the ode to the coal miner’s daughter, Gates’ self-described “breakup letter to Nashville,” also releases today alongside “Buy You A Beer.” The two tracks preview the nearly 20 new songs Gates has already stockpiled. Yet, amidst all the new music he’s recently finished, “Buy You A Beer” stood out as the clear frontrunner. “I wanted to come out of the gate with a single that could fit radio,” Gates says, “but also felt like me.”