Tony Cummings spoke to the frontman of DREW HOLCOMB & THE NEIGHBORS about his life in music
Since their formation in 2005, Nashville-based Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors have grown and grown in popularity. The fact that recently they have performed alongside Mumford & Sons and John Hyatt is an indicator that God is smiling on their activities. Their latest album 'Good Light' marked the group's highest debut on The Billboard 200 and hit number one on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Chart. Wikipedia described the fivesome's music as "alternative and rock" while others have suggested "folk" or "Americana". Admitted Drew, "The genre of our music is always a cloudy one, so many different classifications I guess. I think the Americana one or the singer/songwriter genre is the most appropriate. We are a band that builds our reporting and our touring around songs. Having said that, whichever genre will have us we are ok with. We just want to make the best music we can."
31 year old Drew grew up in Memphis, Tennessee but now calls East Nashville his home. In 2006, Holcomb married his long time friend and singing partner Ellie Bannister and relocated to her hometown of Nashville. Ellie's father Brown Bannister is, of course, one of the major behind-the-scenes figures in US Christian music having produced and engineered albums for Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Third Day, CeCe Winans and dozens more. However, although both strong Christians Ellie and Drew decided not to enter the world of CCM but to strike out into the mainstream. With friends guitarist Nathan Dugger, bassist Rich Brinsfield and drummer Jon Radford they formed The Neighbors. Drew spoke about his view of Nashville's CCM scene: "I have a great respect for many of the songwriters, producers and artists who make records in that world, and Ellie herself has some friends there as well. I used to be fairly judgmental of it, seeing from an ivory tower, and thought it was not so good. But I realised that there is an audience for that music, helping them get through the day, and so it's not my place to judge. I could have a critical opinion of it but it doesn't mean I can state it is not valuable. For the music I write I would say I see things through the light of faith and I definitely feel like there are times at least when the light seems clear to me and it feels like it is pointing me in the right direction, and points me in the right direction in relation to my songs. Other times it feels like the dark is staring at us and saying, 'Where is the light?' and I think, 'I know where it is I just can't find it'."
In 2005, Drew earned a considerable following after the release of solo-credited album 'Washed In Blue' released on Istra Records. The CD met with considerable success gaining exposure on several US TV shows including Lifetime's Army Wives, Showtimes' United States Of Tara and A&E's The Cleaner. I asked Drew how 'Washed In Blue' sounded compared with what The Neighbors are now performing. "I think it would be recognisably us but definitely would sound like a younger, less refined, more sonically distracted version of myself. At the time I recorded 'Washed In Blue' I was listening to a lot of David Gray so the production is much more modern whilst I am singing much more with a pronounced and Southern accent as I was trying to sound like one of my idols, Steve Earle, with a little bit more of a twang. It was really natural for me. When I go back and listen to the songs, I am still really proud of them. There is a batch of three of four records that I will always be proud of. 'Washed In Blue' sounds like a young 24 year old making his first record."
In 2007 the 'Live From Memphis' album was released followed a couple of months later by 'A Neighborly Christmas' after the group had signed to Magnolia Records. A heavy touring schedule, headlining regionally in the Southeast, and opening for national acts such as Susan Tedeschi, Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, Jon McLaughlin, The Avett Brothers, Robert Earl Keen and Marc Broussard kept the band on the road. Holcomb & The Neighbors were featured on Paste Magazine's November 2009 Sampler CD plugging their 2008 album 'Passenger Seat'. The following year Magnolia released the stripped down project 'A Million Miles Away'. Remembered Drew, "We recorded that all in one day, no drums, no bass, just three guitars and three vocals. We still do some acoustic shows so I don't think we're far off from that. You know, the thing that really changes the most over time is, I think, I have really come into my own as a singer. I used to only think of myself as a songwriter, but now I believe my voice is much better than it used to be. I think you will find a little bit of the vocals lacking in those records. Songs are still from the same family tree."
In 2010, the band switched too Dualtone Records releasing in February 2011 the 'Chasing Someday' album. But it was their hard gigging which more than anything else kept The Neighbors in the public eye. Drew admitted, "I would say we would average something like 150 gigs for each of the last nine years. I learnt something from my grandfather, you work hard, you can play hard, so we worked really, really hard on the road and in the studio when we get off the road, that allows us the freedom and to play hard and do the things we really enjoy. Not always looking over our shoulder wondering what is coming after us. And then we can focus on the other parts of life that really matter." As well as the band gigs, Drew has somehow found time to do some solo ones as well. "Last year I went out with John Hyatt on the west coast. Every now and then Ellie and I will do a duo show, but I would say the greater part, say 75 or 80 per cent, will be with the band."
In 2012, Drew and Ellie saw the birth of their first child, daughter Emmylou. Commented Drew, "You know, you hear repeatedly from people when you have a child and you start to understand good things about God's love for his children, I always thought that was kind of hokey till I had a child. As soon as she was born a year ago, the way I describe it is I felt like I found out there was a part of myself, a part of my heart that I didn't know existed that came alive. It helped me understand what my parents always used say, 'You'll never know how much we love you until you have your own child'. I have always been more of a doubter than somebody with a resolved faith. I feel like God's always trying to show me how much he loves me. Something about being a dad all of sudden gave me a little bit more of an understanding about that. I can't exactly pin point it other than to know how I feel about her. I think that is the biggest lesson I have had in the last few years."
Parenthood will clearly have an effect on the band. Explained Drew, "Ellie will go into more of a part-time touring role with the focus on being at home more. She does a lot of writing as well, so that way she will kind of have to pick and choose what she can do." Ellie and Drew wrote together one of the outstanding songs on the 'Good Light' album, "Another Man's Shoes". Drew explains the song's genesis: "We have spent a lot of time on the road and had got to the point in the States where we had quite a few fans. Sometimes the days can be a little bit of a dehumanising wall between the artist and the audience and I think for me that song was about humanising our band - they are people with their own hopes, dreams, aspirations, disappointments and frustrations. I think any great songwriter, or aspiring one, has the trait of empathy, to be able to think about somebody else's point of view and empathise with that. I think it is not just for a songwriter but for any living and breathing soul to be able to see somebody else's point of view."
Another standout on 'Good Light' is "Nothing But Trouble", currently getting airplay on the Cross Rhythms radio, while the track "Tennessee" has gained considerable US airplay. Drew's personal favourite though is "What Would I Do Without You". Commented the songsmith, "You know, you make a record and kind of have guesses about what song will be most popular and I would have guessed that song would be at the bottom of the list. It doesn't really have a chorus, just a very simple short song, very personal, yet surprisingly in the States it is the most popular song, not really on the radio but in terms of what people buy. For me it's a song about how we need each other, as we all walk through some pretty dark places."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.