Drew Holcomb’s musical remedy.
It took Drew Holcomb some time to find his voice. On his new album, Medicine, which comes out January 27, the Americana tunesmith sounds quite comfortable in his own skin. He says that’s come from more than a decade on the road, playing by his estimate 1,700 shows, but during a recent phone interview the Tennessee troubadour recalled a time when he learned a valuable lesson about being true to himself.
At 22, when Holcomb was a green upstart playing for small crowds, he was covering a Ryan Adams’ tune during a short set at a coffeehouse in New York City, when Adams suddenly walked in the door. Holcomb felt an understandable rush of nerves but managed to finish the song. Adams, who was there to see a friend play at the venue later in the night, ended up chatting with Holcomb at the bar after his set and even complimented his sound. But Adams said he noticed Holcomb was taking some obvious cues from his heroes like Steve Earle, and he encouraged the burgeoning songwriter to embrace his own identity.
“At the time I was singing with this alt-county drawl, and I even had a bandana wrapped around my wrist like Steve Earle,” admits Holcomb. “He (Adams) offered me a lot of kindness and grace in that moment. He said, ‘you’ve got a great voice, don’t try to imitate other people.’”
As the night progressed, Adams was coaxed on stage by the crowd, and he invited Holcomb to sing with him on his “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” It was a big confidence booster, but since then Holcomb has seen his own star rise. Backed by his versatile band the Neighbors, he’s toured with the likes of John Hiatt and the Avett Brothers and sold over 100,000 albums. On his upcoming tour to support his new effort, he’ll be headlining big theaters, including Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium. He also has Southern dates in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.
A native of the Volunteer State, Holcomb grew up in Memphis but now calls Nashville home. During college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he started writing songs and playing small bar gigs. At school he also met his wife Ellie, a singer who became an integral part of the Neighbors (though as a new mother she no longer tours with the band). Holcomb and the group have released seven albums, but a breakthrough came with 2013’s Good Light, a critically lauded effort that hit number 5 on Billboard’s Folk Album chart.
Holcomb says Medicine is an extension of the progress he’s made comfortably incorporating his smooth vocal delivery within a range of musical styles. He fills the new album—recorded in a fast eight days in East Nashville with producer Joe Pisapia (Ben Folds, KD Lang)—with optimistic ruminations as he moves from poignant ballads like the opening “American Beauty” and “You’ll Always Be My Girl” to the soulful rockers “Shine Like Lightning” and “Sisters Brothers.”
“I spent most of my 20s trying to figure out who I was as an artist and what kind of records I wanted to make,” Holcomb says. “With Medicine we really took that to a whole new level. Something about stepping into my 30s and settling domestically with my wife and a kid gave me more freedom to make music that I wanted to make without listening to other voices. There was a purity to the approach, and that brought me back to what made me love making music in the first place.”
More everyman than outlaw, Holcomb never lets his lyrics revel in darkness. That’s kept his independent-minded country-rock catalog extremely accessible, landing Holcomb songs on over 40 TV shows, including How I Met Your Mother, Parenthood, and Nashville. Even though he’s experienced plenty of tragedy, including losing his brother to a debilitating illness at age 14, he says his songs have always kept him looking to the bright side.
“Music has always been a balm for sadness,” he says. “For me to sing a bunch of songs about really intense painful things would be a little bit dishonest, because that hasn’t been my personal experience. That’s a lot of what this record is about—finding my voice and becoming comfortable enough with it and not try to be someone I’m not.” •
WINTER BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL
No need to wait for the warmer months to hit your first bluegrass festival of the year. Bluegrass First Class is an annual three-day picking bash that’s taking place February 20-22 at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville, N.C. Held for the past two decades, the fest brings a swarm of traditional bluegrass fans to the hotel for sets from a lengthy list of high lonesome heroes, this year including Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Lonesome River Band, Seldom Scene, Dailey & Vincent, and Flatt Lonesome. Also, certain rooms at the hotel are reserved for picking circles, so bring your instruments. BluegrassFirstClass.com