Beyond Faith

It’s 7:30 on another Monday morning. But with the Americana Music Association Awards three days away, most practitioners of the grayest genre in the world are already over-scheduled and trying to fit whatever they can in whichever cracks they can find. Or so it is for the industrious, the committed, those artists who know when you work beyond easy genre definitions making a career work means always being adaptable.

Tucked in a private booth in the back of a bustling downtown restaurant, a man with an impossibly dark, impossibly thick beard sits thoughtfully, if not affably, over his coffee. If 7:30 in the morning isn’t a very rock & roll hour to be getting down to the business of discussing his artistry, he is passionate enough about his work to not just be there, but to arrive early — and awake

Immediately following, there’s a photo shoot at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, where he will headline on Dec. 23. He has “the hat,” the one he’s known for, in the car; but for now, he is once more a man of a certain age, having breakfast and talking about the things he’s passionate about before the work day begins. Only Drew Holcomb’s passion is his work.

Indeed. Holcomb is the oddest kind of artist: someone not only willing to do the work, but someone invested on a cellular level in the music he makes. For the Memphis-born, -raised, and -honed singer-songwriter — and leader of the East Nashville-grounded band The Neighbors — his career is in large part built by tens of thousands of miles driven in a Volvo wagon, myriad songs written on the path to songs like “Live Forever,” which became the anchor of TNT’s 2011 Emmy-winning NBA commercial Basketball Forever, and selling out the hallowed Ryman Auditorium earlier this year.

Success didn’t just happen. It wasn’t some momentum supernova. Drew Holcomb showed up, and showed up, and showed up. Just like this morning. In spite of glaring early morning sun, horribly tangled traffic, and the theoretically un-rock ‘n’ roll hour, he showed up. And — for a man whose music leans to the melancholy and whose resting countenance suggests a strong bent towards taciturn — he’s happy to be here.

“When I was first planning on being a musician, I told my father I was going to be a traveling singer-songwriter, and he said, ‘Are you going to work hard at it?’” Holcomb offers, sweeping away any notion he’s put himself out, doing an interview at such an unglamorous hour. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Well, OK then.’”

Holcomb’s voice drifts off. Not because he pinched off some piece of the story he didn’t intend to tell, but to consider the weight of what giving his word meant all those years ago as a boy from Memphis going to the University of Tennessee and trying to find his place in the world.

His dad was a dentist, who got bored and started a financial services business. “He was a risk taker, but he showed me you can do what you want. You just have to do it. And to this day, if I’m playing Nashville or Memphis, he’s there — and he’s bought 10 tickets. He’s very social, and he’s always inviting people to come to the show. In Memphis, it’s why my fan base skews a little bit older.”

Holcomb understands that careers that last are built slowly, often through the process of grueling self-examination and the willingness to show people who you are beneath the bravado. Scrape away the obvious, see what’s left. It’s the soul search in the music that makes it matter.

For a kid playing covers in a Memphis bar, trying to cobble together “the life,” music was also a way of finding out who he was — and music as road to self-discovery is part of the reason his plain-spoken lyrics have found such connection beyond the sizzle of the more established record business.

“When I was young, there was a pressure to be cool, maybe 21 to 25 years old,” he confesses. “You know, stay out late and create a story that really wasn’t who I am. I was in Memphis, and in some ways, you’re always that person you were growing up.”

Playing music where your friends come out and drink beer can, indeed, arrest one’s development. Somehow, though, the young man recognized without knowing there was more to it than being a hero in your hometown.

Opening a four-week residency for Cory Brennan at the P & H Café, billed as “The Beer Joint of Your Dreams” on its own website, clarity struck the young songwriter still seeking his voice. If he wanted to make it work, he was going to have to change his game, get a focus and an anchor.

“When I decided to move back to Knoxville, to try to convince Ellie to marry me, I was like ‘What am I doing?’ And that’s when it started to change.”

Ellie. Daughter of producer Brown Bannister, music lover, fellow UT student, soon to be a creative pivot in Holcomb’s life, both as a member of his band The Neighbors and as inspiration for the songs, as well as the woman who’d become the mother of his children and eventually the 2014 Gospel Music Association Dove Award winner for Best New Artist, Ellie Holcomb provided a great anchor as well as the wings for this story of a true working-class musician.

Back then, with a badly broken heart, knowing her friend’s intention, the young English major who received her Masters of Science in teacher education a year later — as well as creating a thesis entitled “Singing Shakespeare: Music Inspired by the Master of the Word” that provided a way to teach the Bard through cross-disciplines — was not ready to embark on a romance with the darkest brown-eyed man. So like all the great Shakespearean plays, Holcomb found himself bound to this woman he loved by their shared love of music.

“I wanted to teach history, and I met Ellie through music. We were both music junkies in college, going over the mountain to see Damien Rice at The Orange Peel — Nickel Creek, Rilo Kiley, Guster, Pat Green. We took a class together in Appalachian folk music, which required a few road trips. We were friends for years; she was singing with me whenever I’d play Knoxville.”

And like so many young dreamers, Holcomb was trying to put a career together, while trying to woo a girl who wasn’t having it. “I had friends at Auburn, Opileka. I did the open mic nights at Eddie’s Attic [in Atlanta], I’d play Knoxville and Memphis.”

Speaking, his voice is flat, easy. Like his songs, he eschews drama in the telling. Even keel, he knows in many ways none of this story is special. Except he’s here, and he made his dreams — of music, of love, of family — come true in a way that may defy America’s bigger/faster paradigm, but it is exactly as he’d hoped.

Patience. Perseverance. Showing up.

“I said, ‘When you’re ready for your first date, I think I’ve earned it,” Holcomb recounts of a courtship that started to be serious as he was getting more serious about chasing his music. “I was writing her letters every 10 days. I also hired David Mead to play a Knoxville show for her and her friends as a graduation present right after Indiana came out.

“At the Double Decker Festival in Oxford, Miss. — Emmylou and Buddy Miller were headliners — I pulled her aside, and said, ‘I’ve been thinking about our conversation, and is it time for that date?’”

Their first date was Patty Griffin at the Ryman in 2005. They sat in the back row. Five months later, they were engaged.

Newly wed, trying to make it happen, he did what so many do: hit the road, played his songs, made little records — starting with 2005’s Washed in Blue — and kept trying to build a foundation that would create a career.

“I’d been picked up by a little college booking agency — Wally’s World of Entertainment — and I was lugging my own tiny PA into a lunchroom at a little community college where kids would see me and put in their ear buds. Two and a half years, 250,000 miles.”

That’s a hard way to go. Missing his wife, he suggested she quit teaching or he quit music. His biggest fan, Ellie said, “Let me finish the school year.” In May, she was on the road, adding her distinct voice — an almost earthly, ethereal contrast to the solid earnest tone of Holcomb’s baritone — to his songs of longing, faith, love, and hardship.

He also looked at the songs he was writing — “Kings of Leon one day, Steve Earle the next: I was writing my influences, all these adulterated things — and started to wonder.”

Someone had told Holcomb, “When you write the right songs, they’ll do the work for you.” The songs that were populating his first few albums weren’t, even though he was sure they were. Frustrated that nothing was happening, Holcomb had arrived at the proverbial crossroads.

“I’m a hustler,” he explains. “I’ve always been able to scratch out a living. I booked myself for six years, probably 600 shows. Just call up, ‘Hey, Mr. Club Owner Guy, wanna book a show?’ I had a philosophy: try 10 things, if one worked, that was a good day.”

But getting by and growing are very different things, especially when your music matters to you so intensely. He began to think about the future, about the band that grew out of his East Nashville friends, The Neighbors.

“Ellie and I’d just had a conversation that it wasn’t really working,” he confesses. “I’d play Atlanta twice a year; we’d gone from 80 to 120 to 400. But where to from there? We decided we’d give it ’til Christmas.”

Things were changing, not the least being his writing. “Live Forever,” the song that went on to drive that Emmy-winning NBA campaign for TNT, poured out of him quickly. Written for his nieces and nephew, it is a song of hope and light, seeking faith without preaching and believing in what can be instead of the world’s obvious harshness.

“Live Forever” was that song.

Getting booked into the iconic 40 Watt Club in Athens., Ga., for the first time, Holcomb saw the shift. “It was a $5 show — and suddenly 175 people showed up. The song had been out a month and a half, but the response? It felt like Woodstock!

“We had a show at Stubbs in Austin. It was the same thing.

“I’d wanted to go to law school, and the only way I could do it was to join the Marines. I’d had a meeting with a recruiter. I was working out, getting in shape.”

He knows this, too, is an age-old story: dreamer runs out of road or gas or will, explores options. In most cases, dreamer walks away. For Holcomb, destiny stepped in. “For me, it was the kind of realization that just hit me. I felt like I’d been trying to force the issue, to try to break down the door. So deciding to quit, I was suddenly making music for music’s sake — and that’s when things changed.

“The songs were starting to work. We had Dualtone in our corner (for 2011’s Chasing Someday) and decided to go after radio. Suddenly, we had a team, and a booking agent came to us. Instead of calling people, they were calling us.

“There was still a lot of discovery on that record,” he says. “We still had a lot of work to do, but the songwriting was getting there — and that’s the important thing. It was coming from the heart, where the other felt more like it was coming from a sense of principles, how you’re supposed to do it.

“Looking back, it felt like you’re climbing in a fog, and you’re gonna turn back because it’s been a long time, and you’re not finding the peak. I narrowed my scope of what I was interested in; and when it started to happen, I found an incredible sense of relief, but also a sense there was work to do — and we could do it. Becoming clear, we were now forming our own identity, not just amalgamating all our influences.

“I have a really great band — and this was our own house.”

That band — guitarist Nathan Duggar, bassist Rich Brinsfield, and drummer Jon Radford, along with Ellie — helped not just excavate and define Holcomb’s sound, they were also compatriots in the career build that would matter. Weaned on Wilco, Tupelo Honey, U2, Thad Cockerill, Tom Waits’ Closing Time, OK Computer, Patty Griffin, Tom Petty, the Americana staples, Otis Redding, Motown, and Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, they melted those things down and emerged with a strong populist bent and an empowerment curve lyrically and melodically that made believers of those who listened.

Believing is also part of the magic. Opening for diverse artists Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Susan Tedeschi, the Avett Brothers, Robert Earl Keen, and Marc Broussard, there was an eye-opening stint with Needtobreathe that further focused Holcomb’s faith/music balance.

Growing up as part of Memphis’ Young Life, an organization that espoused a “come as you are” ethos more than a hard Christian environment of judgment and truncating a teenager’s evolution, Holcomb embraced its expression of faith. “This was a ministry where kids could smoke and wear their bikinis and have a good time, try to find their faith in their life. I went for six, seven years. And as someone leading singing, it’s Coldplay and Bruno Mars.”

From that perspective and watching Needtobreathe’s success, Holcomb took into consideration what he was writing, and dove deeper into his soul. Leaning forward, he explains in a solid tone: “I’d consider myself a man of faith, but not with a very concrete Evangelical way of it. I don’t get up onstage in a church and tell people what they should be thinking. But I can get up on a stage in a bar and tell people about my struggles and the path I’ve taken.

“Christian music is a genre, it’s not a point of view. I have lots of friends in that world … but I don’t want people to think my music’s in any way proselytizing — because I think your journey is a very personal matter.

“There’s so many things the church gets associated with that I’m just like ‘No thanks.’ For me, I want to get out of the way and let my music be the thing. Musicians have a reputation for ostracizing people where music is supposed to bring people together, to create a shared identity, a shared experience. Whether they’re dancing their asses off or listening to a Ben Folds’ ballad, crying in their beer, you want people to feel like they can — and you want them to feel less alone.”

Feeling less alone is what drew Holcomb to music. It is what drove him on, past the place saner men would’ve walked way. Not a Don Quixote blithely following a dream, looking for a windmill to tilt, he confesses, “Anybody’s view influences their music, but one of the paradoxes of my faith — it’s been defined by doubt.

“I was a pallbearer eight times before I was out of college,” he says. “My brother, a friend who died of a coke and Oxy OD, grandfathers, old dear family friends. As soon as my brother died, I spent the next six years asking God, ‘Do you exist? Do you care?’

“The defining moment of my songwriting — if you’re asking me to go there — was our fifth anniversary. Ellie and I hiked in the Alps, and before our trip, I was in a pretty dark place with my faith. I spent one long night, sitting on top of this mountain, asking God to talk to me. I sat there, and all I got was resounding silence.”

He doesn’t look sheepish, but Holcomb knows how those words could sound. The man who spent a good part of 2015 on the Tour De Compadres with faith-smearing rockers Needtobreathe, Ben Rector, then Switchfoot and Colony House realizes that cross-format (and faith) appeal can unite people.

“Music is a soundtrack that gives people hope,” he offers. “You look at Springsteen — and he’s a preacher in a different way. I’m not sure of a lot, but I’m sure of that. He tells his fans: ‘You’re not alone. You matter. I know your story’s hard, but you’re not the only one. We need each other.’ That’s the thesis — without buttering over the hard stuff, he makes people believe they can, they’re seen. He acknowledges what’s rough, but he gives them a kind of hope that matters.”

Not that Drew Holcomb thinks he’s Springsteen. He doesn’t. Beyond dialed into the reality, after a decade of chasing the dream, seven full-length releases, including live and Christmas projects, placements in several cable and TV shows, including United States of Tara, How I Met Your Mother, The Cleaner, and House, M.D., and playing shows ranging from the Ryman to Bonnaroo, he realizes where he is and where he hopes to be.

“I wanna be one of those guys who has a career as a well-respected singer-songwriter into my 60s, with a band and crew who’ve been there,” he says humbly. “Like Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Van Morrison. I look at Jason Isbell, and I think it’s so different from what I do, though we’re both Americana — and we’re both trying to say something that lasts beyond the moment.

“You live — and you see: death comes. It teaches you, especially through music, not to be afraid of it. Instead (music)’s about making sense of life. You have friends get cancer, get divorced, have stillborn babies. Those are all things that happen — and there are no words for it. But music is a salve for those things that happen in your actual life.

“Some critic says (about 2013’s “Good Light”) it’s sunny chaos. But really it’s about having nothing to hang onto that’s a low point of their life — and you get to the chorus, you’re telling somebody at their lowest point they matter.”

Holcomb pauses again, lets the contrast between what was written and what the song is doing sink in. “That’s not sunshiny, that’s something for people who need to think it’s worth it. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

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