Drew Holcomb: Nashville's Favorite Neighbor
Drew Holcomb is a national roots star disguised as Nashville’s favorite local bandleader. Part of the camouflage is his band’s name - Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors - which feels homey and small town. For years, Drew’s wife Ellie - now an accomplished solo artist - was in the band, and their kids sometimes star in their music videos, making the whole thing even more personal and warm. But over the past decade or more, Holcomb has been a steady presence in substantial venues around the country and on Americana and folk radio. And this weekend, he marks turning 40 with two shows at the Ryman Auditorium. How he got here is a story with many layers, and that’s what we explore in Episode 210 of The String.
“My career has so far out-kicked my dreams that it would be disingenuous of me to have anything much more than gratitude at this point. The fact that I get to play these songs and people sing them and they know him. They use them in their life moments. It's an incredible gift,” Holcomb says in our many-faceted interview. “I want to maintain that perspective, and I tend to have the gift of celebration. My wife always says you love to celebrate. So why not? Play a couple shows the Ryman to celebrate, you know, making it halfway through life.”
Drew’s dream when he first came to Nashville in the mid 2000s was, he says, to one day sell out 3rd & Lindsley’s Sunday night live radio broadcast show on radio station Lightning 100. So he was keeping his expectations in check. But he was serious about making music work as a career. He’d grown up in Memphis and attended college in Knoxville, so he arrived in Music City as somebody with experience in all three regions of Tennessee. About the same time, he married his college friend Ellie Bannister (daughter of a well-known Nashville songwriter) and started The Neighbors with friends Nathan Dugger (guitar and keys) and Rich Brinsfield (bass).
We talk about the long road toward sustainability with those companions, because Holcomb says around 2011, after a lot of miles and perseverance, the dream was on the rocks. He’d promised his (supportive) family back in Memphis that he’d know when to walk away. That’s what Drew, who had already pursued a master’s degree in theology, was pondering. “We had had five or six years of putting out a couple of records, doing all the work, doing all the right things, and it wasn't working. We were living hand to mouth,” he says. “And we hit a real bump in the road. We didn't have a vehicle. We were borrowing people's pickup trucks to do tours, five people in a pickup truck. And five people in one hotel room. Dragging my wife around the country sharing hotel rooms with the band is not ideal living. So the sustainability of it was sort of coming to a close.”
As he relates in a TEDx talk from Memphis, a single song helped turned things around. In a moment of sorrow when he learned that his sister’s family was moving abroad, he quickly wrote “Live Forever,” a downtempo but uplifting anthem. While it was not dissimilar to Holcomb’s life-affirming work, somehow this one caught fire. Venues where they’d drawn less than 100 people suddenly were at capacity, and fans were singing along. And “Live Forever” got placed in a key moment in the finale of the TV series Parenthood, providing much needed revenue to right the ship, or the van.
“That was really the beginning of the career,” he says. “And we basically made the same decision there. We'll keep doing this until it becomes unsustainable. And you know, here we are, 14 years later.”
We talk about the implications of coming from Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville, about the origins of his rewarding relationship with Ellie, about his history at the Ryman and about the album he and Ellie released in early 2022, Coming Home: A Collection of Songs. Also in the hour, a catch-up with old-time musician, historian and activist Jake Blount.