For fifteen years, Drew Holcomb’s been writing and releasing music as the leader of Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors (which featured his wife Ellie up until 2015), an Americana-style band based in Nashville.
Earlier this year, the band released Souvenir, a collection of heartfelt songs that fall somewhere between the midwest styling of The Wallflowers and the southern alt-twang of Whiskeytown. And, as has been par for the course throughout the band’s career, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors are putting many road miles on the band’s tour bus this year.
On Wednesday night, the band rolls into the Newport Music Hall with special guest Lewis Watson for the start of a short run of dates that will eventually lead to a prime opening slot this fall on the Willie Nelson tour.
I caught up with Drew on Monday night. While I originally believed he’d be calling me from home while packing for this leg of the tour, it turns out he was much closer than I anticipated.
In Columbus, our local newscasters always try to tie in a Columbus connection to national stories. So, here’s my tie in – and it’s not a very good one. You recently posted a photo of you with Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning is the spokesperson for Nationwide Insurance which is based in … Columbus.
I’ve got another one for you. I’m actually in Columbus today because I played the music for Jason Day – the golfer who lives here – for his charity event last night and so that’s my Columbus connection. His wife is a fan of our music and reached out through some mutual friends and asked us if we would come play. They flew us in last night and we played their event and it was great. They raise money for an organization called Stowe Mission which does medical, educational work in under served parts of the city.
So you hang with Peyton Manning and Jason Day. Have you ever put anybody famous on your guest list?
(Laughs) Every now and then. We just played this festival out in San Francisco and I look over to my right while I’m playing and there’s Robert Earl Keen, one of my favorite songwriters, who is standing there side stage watching the show. You do this long enough, you get to meet a lot of different people you look up to. I’ve gotten to meet John Prine and Don Henley and, you know, it’s always fun. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of athletes but as a musician the thing you really look forward to is getting to meet musician folks that you look up to. Whenever that happens, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to meet some of my peers – the Red Wanting Blue guys who are from here in Columbus. We’ve gotten to hang out with them a lot over the years at different events and festivals. It’s just fun to meet folks that do what you love and enjoy everybody’s different stories.
Looks like you’re doing this tour in week or two week runs, taking a week or so off, and then doing another week or two. Wash, rinse, repeat. Is that intentional or is that just how this particular tour worked out?
That’s about right. We typically do four nights in a row, Wednesday through Sunday or something like that and then come home for a couple of days and then do it again. Then take a week off between those two. It doesn’t always work that way. Like we were supposed to have last week off but then we got asked to play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival out in San Francisco and that’s not something you say no to. Our weekend off turned out to be us flying out to California. We do our best to be home half the time, at least. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
Is that something you’ve been doing for a while or something you’ve started doing as the band members are starting families?
I think it’s two things – one, it’s that we have families and I want to be a good dad as much as I want to be a great artist. With those aspirations, sometimes there’s friction and we figure out this sort of way of touring allows us to do that. Secondly, we’ve been touring for 15 years and I think it’s really important that when we’re on stage, we’re not exhausted and creatively uninspired. We want every show to feel like it’s the most important show we’ve ever played. It’s important for us to go home and recharge and not get too burned out on the logistical parts of touring but to be able to get energized and be able to get up there every night. It’s been a good pace for us to keep that creative energy and personal energy between each other.
Looking over the list of artists you’ve toured with, it’s very impressive. As both an opener and a headliner, you’ve been part of some great bills. I know that you did shows with some current bands that are a bit more mainstream – needtobreathe and Judah & the Lion. When you headline, how much input do you have on the support acts?
We pick them. Certainly sometimes there’s stuff pitched to us and that we sometimes choose from but this tour, we’ve had two different acts. We had this guy named Devon Gilfillian who’s a young Americana soul singer out of Nashville that I met. He actually came to see us play at the Ryman and he pursued our manager and asked, “Could you please just get them to listen to my stuff? I’d love to tour with them.” I did listen and I loved it. I hung out with him, went and got some beers and thought, “Man, this would be a great guy to take out.” He’s very new, we were like his first long tour. He was great.
Starting in Columbus, we have this guy from the UK named Lewis Watson who’s a young singer/songwriter that I actually heard because his album came out the same day as mine and I was looking around to see what came out that day. I clicked on it and really liked it and was like, “Hey,” to my manager, “can we see if this guy wants to open part of our fall tour?” Apparently he knew me and my music and thought it would be a great chance for him to come over and play. He’s doing shows with us and then some of his own headlining shows in cities we’re not coming to.
I checked him out and his stuff is really good. I was expecting an Americana act and he’s not really. It wasn’t what I expected but I’ve been listening to his album a lot.
We take it very seriously because it’s what’s given us a platform in a lot of ways, getting to open for a lot of people. We’ve opened for bands like needtobreathe, I’ve opened for John Hiatt, Amos Lee, later this fall we’re going out with Willie Nelson for two weeks. We’ve made a lot of fans that way and so we want to give another artist that opportunity but also, when people pay $15 or $20 to come see you play and they have to sit there for an hour and see somebody else, you want to make sure they like it.
You seem to be very business savvy when it comes to not only the band but other music-related things. On the road, are you constantly in business mode or is that when you can just be Drew Holcomb the artist?
Oh, I definitely get to be the artist like 80% of the time. I’ve got a great tour manager and a great manager. We’ve definitely got a good rhythm. I mean, I have to be the final say on stuff sometimes but I definitely get to think about … I’m spending five times more time working on setlists and songwriting than I am on tour budgeting and figuring out payroll. You put the right people around you, it lets you do the thing you want to do which, for me, is focus more on the artist side.
But you also curate a vinyl club, you organize a festival and holiday shows. That’s more than just being an artist.
Well, but they are all part of the artistic spirit. For me, curating the musical part of the vinyl club is awesome because it keeps me pay attention to new music so I do that so I can stay inspired and keep my ear to the ground. It helps me not feel like the veteran who’s gotten cynical.
The festival, the same thing. I just love live music and playing festivals and putting that together has been really fun.
Same thing with the Christmas thing – my wife, who used to be in the band, loves Christmas music. That was part of her leaving the band, she was like, “Can we still do these Christmas shows every now and then?” It’s just a fun way for us to reconnect musically.
All those things, even though they sort of require some business acumen, they exist because they creatively stir me.
Would you ever have interest in opening a record store or a live music venue?
I don’t know. I think that would require me to get off the road which, right now, is my favorite thing. I don’t have any plans for that right now but you never know. Never say never.
As a family man, I know road life can be a bit tough when you’re away from the wife and kids. This may sound trivial, but are there other things you miss while being on the road? I’m thinking selfishly, but my decision on coming to your show is based solely on whether or not the Indians beat the Yankees tonight (Note: Looks like I’m watching the Indians game). Do you find stuff like that where, because you’re on the road, you have to miss out on things like football games or TV shows or concerts?
I guess the question you’re asking is, is there a cost to doing this outside of just being away family and the answer is a definite yes. But, at the same time, I think the benefit of doing it outweighs it.
We’ve gotten to do things in our career that, when you’re a kid, you don’t even have the knowledge or experience to dream. Like, playing Red Rocks and the Greek Theater and literally sitting at Red Rocks 48 hours after my son was born. I made it home for the birth and took off two days later for the show. I was sitting there with the band and the crew was loading out all the gear and we’re sitting there on the Red Rocks stage smoking cigars, celebrating my son’s birth. Did I wish I was home that day to help my wife settle in? Yes but my mother-in-law was there and was sort of able to take my place and I was home a week later for 10 days.
The thing that’s cool about our job is that when we are home, we have total freedom to do whatever we want. So, if I’m off the road for 10 or 15 days, I can go to a Preds game and I can show up at a buddy’s workplace and bring him some lunch and hang out and talk about whatever, talk about baseball, go get beers. There’s definitely benefits to it that I think outweigh the difficulties.
I think a lot of young artists, when they sign up to be musicians, they don’t think about how much time they’re going to spend away from home. Whether you have a family or not, not everybody is built to sleep in hotel rooms and eat crappy breakfast for every morning for 20 out of 30 days.
But, even like today, I’m a big golf fan. Because of music, I just got to hang out with one of the top 3 golfers in the world and spend some time with him and his friends and play golf in his tournament. That wouldn’t happen if I was hanging out in Nashville.
Speaking of life on the road, you’ve got some upcoming dates with Willie Nelson. I’m sure you’ve talked about this quite a bit but how excited are you? Is this the first time you’ll have played shows with him? Any expectations?
No, this will be our first time. He’s a top bucket lister for me. I definitely hope we get to hang out. He’s 84 so I don’t have any expectations on him but I have hopes that we’ll get to hang out so I can tell him how much his music has meant to me and get to hear some stories. But also try to play it cool and not be too big of a fan so that he doesn’t want to talk to you for the rest of the tour.
Everybody in the band and crew is really excited. He’s an icon and there’s very few icons in music, especially ones that are alive. And here’s a guy who has rewritten the rules many times over for what it means to be an artist. It literally is the definition of what it means for a dream to come true.
I got into Willie’s music as an adult but find now that I can throw on just about any of his albums and just get lost in the music. He’s a tireless workhorse, releasing multiple albums a year, so it seems.
He’s one of those artists that, unless you dive in, you sort of only know the few hits that you’ve heard on the radio and in movies. But when you dive in, it’s like a treasure trove. And you start to learn about his influence – he was a songwriter in Nashville and had a couple of big hits like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” but he couldn’t really find his footing as a Nashville artist with the clean cut thing and the cookie cutter songs so he was like “Screw it” and moves to Austin and records Red Headed Stranger which is probably, by most accounts, considered the best country music record of all time. The story of his career is beautiful and inspiring and that’s why he’s so well loved. He’s got more energy than I do.
Obviously, music listeners were dealt a punch to the guy with Tom Petty’s passing but having read interviews with you in the past, I imagine this may have been one of the toughest deaths you’ve personally experienced. You’ve posted a bit on Facebook and Instagram – and maybe other places – but can you tell me your memories of first discovering his stuff?
I do remember. It was in middle school when I was experiencing music for the first time. I think it was the Wildflowers album that came out around that time and I went and bought it at Cat’s Music because a friend of mine played it for me and I fell in love with it. Next thing you know, I’m buying the greatest hits and all the stuff.
His music is one of those things that you don’t do a deep dive but you live your life in America and you’re like, “I know every single one of these songs.” They are just everywhere, they are ubiquitous, they are all around you.
In my opinion, there’s no one who did more with fewer words than Tom Petty. You take a big hit like “Free Fallin'” and you kind of dive into the lyrics and it’s just like, “Man, he just said a ton with very few words.” His voice, and the way his voice goes over his band, it’s like this nasal, earnest thing he’s got going on. It’s amazing and I was absolutely gut punched.
Obviously it was partly because of what happened in Vegas, just the overwhelming insanity of the world right now. But to have Tom Petty die that same day on top of it was just more than I could bear for a couple of days.
Switching gears – your new album is called Souvenir and I was wondering, are your kids old enough to expect dad to bring home souvenirs from the road? If so, is there something special you like to bring them?
Oh man, that’s the first thing my daughter wants when I get home, for sure. It’s just something, it can be a magnet or a t-shirt. Sometimes if I forget, it’s just a matter of grabbing the shampoo out of the hotel room. It doesn’t have to be something, they just want a relic of your absence. It doesn’t matter what it is. My son is only 2, so he doesn’t care. My daughter does. It can be anything from … like, this week it’s easy because I played this event for Jason Day and they gave us all this swag so I’ve got this cool pillow that I’ll take home and give to them. They just want something. Like, “Hey, dad was gone, what do I get for him being gone?”
Did you collect anything as a kid?
I collected all sorts of stuff. I was in scouts and I collected all the patches from all over the country. I’m still a collector of things, I’ve got 12 to 15 guitars only a third of which I ever use. My manager and I both have gotten into collecting rare whiskeys, bourbon and scotch. My wife laughs, we’ve moved 5 times since we got married and every time I always need an office or a place to write and she’s like, “Okay, all your trinkets go into that place.” The thing I enjoy collecting most is, about ten years ago, I started collecting rare books. I’ve got some really good first edition rare books of people like Steinbeck. I have a pretty good collection of first editions, some of which are signed.
Because this is an interview to promote the show in Columbus on Wednesday, what can you tell me about the set? You’ve got a new album out but a wealthy back catalog of material. How do you determine a setlist?
There’s three parts of the set to me – the first is, I am the artist that is going to play the classics that everybody wants to hear. There are seven or eight songs that we’re going to play no matter what – songs like “Live Forever”, “What Would I Do Without You?”, “Tennessee”. Then there’s like, okay, you’ve got to play some of the new stuff so there’s six or seven songs from the new record. The rest of the set changes every night. One of my favorite things we’ve been doing this year is every night at soundcheck everybody in the band picks a song they want to play that night and I have no veto power. Every night there’s four new songs that get recycled. The only rule is they can’t be the same songs two nights in a row. It keeps us really fresh and on our toes. And then there’s always people yelling out songs at the shows and sometimes I pay attention, sometimes I don’t. If it feels right and it works out in the set, then I’ll sometimes let the crowd dictate where we’re going to go.
And, is there anything special about Columbus that you remember or are looking forward to or is it another stop on the never-ending road?
The guys in Red Wanting Blue are good friends of ours, they historically have come out and hung out at shows. Columbus is not a place we have a long history in, I think we’ve only probably played here three or four times. It’s a place that obviously has a lot of cool venues and it’s a college town and also a city. It’s a place we’d love to keep coming back to, but it’s sort of a new place for us. We didn’t start coming here until four or five years ago so we’re still building a fanbase.