Drew Holcomb: The Journey of a Musician from Memphis
Holcomb looks out the passenger-side window as the world blurs along. A thick beard obscures most of his face. If he had to go on stage tonight, the anticipatory anxiety would be worse than usual—a seasonal cold has deepened the undertone of his voice.
Holcomb’s first record, “Washed in Blue,” was released in 2005, and since then his career has expanded to encompass 100,000 records sold, more than 1,500 tour dates and nine subsequent albums released with his band, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors. The band’s latest record, “Souvenir,” was released in March 2017. The simple word is a lyric in two songs on the new album.
“Music is a souvenir—something you take with you to remind you of a time and place,” says Holcomb. His mother plays piano, and while growing up in Memphis she would rouse Holcomb and his three siblings from their slumbers with bouts of morning hymns.
His mother plays piano, and while growing up in Memphis she would rouse Holcomb and his three siblings from slumber with a bout of morning hymns. While his father and siblings aren’t musicians, one of Holcomb’s formative memories of falling in love with music includes all of them.
It was during a family road trip when he was in the seventh grade, and the kids had just been gifted with Walkman cassette players for Christmas. They stopped at a gas station, and his father permitted each of them to purchase a new cassette tape. Holcomb selected one of the “Greatest Hits” tapes for sale on the counter, a Joe Cocker record which had the song “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” on it.
“Joe Cocker has this voice that sounds like I sound right now. It’s deep and gravelly. There’s only piano and a string section in the song, and it’s about being in love with ‘the unattainable one.’ It’s beautiful. I remember sitting in the van with my Walkman on, looking out the window because I didn’t want my older sister to see me crying.”
Holcomb stumbled upon the David Gray album White Ladder during his senior year of high school, while driving down Highway 7 in Mississippi with a friend. “My friend was playing that record for me, and I just fell in love with the whole thing—the songs, the storytelling, the tone of his voice. Everything. I probably played that record 150 times that month. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I can make some music. I don’t know if I’ll ever do it for a living. But it’d be really cool to make music,’” he remembers.
After graduating from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he met his father at a coffee shop back home. “We sat down and I said, ‘Dad, I think I want to be a travelling singer and songwriter. What do you think?’ It wasn’t exactly the ideal thing to hear for a Dad. But he was so great. He said, ‘Are you going to work hard at it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘Let’s go to the guitar shop.’” His father bought him a Larrivee D60 that day, a much nicer guitar than the one Holcomb already had, which was, “a piece of crap,” Holcomb calls it. “That set the tone of my parents supporting me in this bizarre journey.”
Holcomb later brought the new guitar with him to a music camp in North Carolina, where it was stolen. He madly searched the auditorium where he’d left it, but to no avail. “It was gone,” he says. “Some drunk hillbilly stole it from the mountains of North Carolina.”
Holcomb had some moments of success after college, but in 2008 while touring with acclaimed Christian musician Ellie Bannister—who would later become his wife—he fought through the inescapable, timeworn fog of discouragement that often plagues artists. “It wasn’t going well. We were barely getting by,” he says.
Holcomb had made up his mind: he would quit playing music full-time and go to law school where he’d study something practical, like public policy. He planned to join the Marine Corps first to offset the high cost of tuition. “I was in training—I was really serious about it,” he says. “Around that same time, I released a song called ‘Live Forever.’”
The song changed everything. Soon after “Live Forever” came out, the song got picked up for the soundtrack of NBC’s hit TV series, “Parenthood.” It brought in enough money for the band to purchase a touring van, and suddenly they were playing at new venues in new cities. Large crowds accumulated to hear them play. “That’s when I really decided, ‘Ok—I’m going to do this for a long time,” says Holcomb. His music has since been featured on shows such as “How I Met Your Mother,” “Nashville,” “HOUSE” and “Justified,” to name a few.
He generally has some idea of the songs audiences will like, but more often than not it’s a crapshoot, ironically akin to how he got here in the first place. In 2013 he released an album called Good Light, with a song called “What Would I Do Without You.” The track is unconventional—it doesn’t even have a chorus—and almost didn’t make it onto the record at all. But Holcomb loved it. “I thought, ‘Let’s just put it on the record.’ And it’s like, song number nine, which is where you put songs that you don’t think people are really going to like. But that song is the runaway most popular song we’ve ever had.”
Today, there are fewer vestiges of his life as a struggling musician than ever before, but sometimes they do arise in his memory. “I didn’t have labels coming after me when I was young. I was making the records I wanted to make and selling enough of them to keep doing it, and playing enough shows to keep doing it.”
The new album, Souvenir, took nine months to write and only nine days to record. “We track everything live,” he says. “Most people who record these days will track drums for two days and then they’ll add on bass and then guitar. To me, that’s not very cooperative, because your players aren’t in accord with one another.” To record, Holcomb and the band work on only one song until they are completely finished, without returning to add anything back in later. A few of the songs took a full day of recording to complete, but two tracks—Wild World and Reality At Heart—were both recorded in just hours.
“Wild World” communicates Holcomb’s disillusionment with the political climate, written a few months before the 2016 US presidential election.
“I don’t know about you
But I like to tell the truth
But the truth seems to change every Tuesday.”
“Everybody was being really hateful towards each other,” Holcomb says of his inspiration. “I need to walk a fine line—people don’t listen to my music to hear my political opinions. But at the same time, as an artist you have this role to challenge and push people to change the conversation.” The lyrics broaden their reach with specificity, gathering together diverse elements. It’s one of Holcomb’s linguistic specialties. Broadening out, the song is both Holcomb’s own cathartic processing around the issues facing a divided country, but also using music as a means of expression where other vehicles fail. “When I look at some of my favorite songs that deal with a particular point in a historical moment, they do it in a way that doesn’t ostracize. They do it in a way that unifies people, to remind them that their enemies are people too. That’s certainly my hope with that song, and with my music.”
In framing each lyrical progression as a search for authenticity, something alive, and messy, Holcomb’s storytelling grasps at the grey areas between tragedy and joy, of suffering in happiness, of tensions between difficulties in life but how it is deeply worth it in order to live, how relationships are fragile but also incredibly strong and powerful. It’s these contradictions that are also alive in his personal journey of trudging, even when it feels like it doesn’t matter, that nothing is moving forward, that all is maddeningly stationary. Something like fatherhood, which has changed things.
“I want it to matter more than I used to want it to matter,” says Holcomb. “I think more than anything, having kids has made me want them to be proud of what their dad did with his life. My worries about the practical logistics of music are much less than they used to be. Because I’ve got other things I have to deal with that are more important. Like changing diapers.”
While Ellie has left the touring band, she has vocals on two tracks on the new album. They didn’t write songs together before they were married, but when Holcomb would be performing in Nashville or Knoxville, where she was living between, he’d invite her to sing with him back when he was a solo artist. “We also started having kids. It just became too difficult to tour with the whole family,” says Holcomb. They now have a three-year-old and an 18-month-old.
“When I started out, I wanted to be a bigger deal than I was. Now, I don’t search for that as much. I’m more ok—actually, thrilled—with the career that I have. But I’m also more ok with the reality that my music is not going to appeal to everyone.”
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 4, 2017. Purchase Issue 4 and become an ALIVE member.