News Column

Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors find sweet spot between mainstream gloss and stylized Southern comfort

October 22, 2013


Oct. 22--Maybe you've heard this one before.

College student returns home post-graduation after investing a great deal of time and money in a top-notch education, then decides to announce to his or her proud parents that he or she will be putting aside said education to navigate the turbulent waters of the music industry as a songwriter.

It's the sort of declaration that tends to cause daddy dearest to see red, leaving the peacekeeping mother to change the subject by recommending a piece of freshly-baked apple pie that's just come out of the oven or uttering something like, "Anyone want coffee?"

Surprisingly, Tennessee native Drew Holcomb's story reads a bit differently.

"Instead of having the typical, and usually justifiable response of, 'You know son, that's crazy. You need to get a job. Blah-blah,' my dad said, 'Well, are you going to work hard at it?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm gonna work real hard at it.' He said, 'Alright, well, let's go down to the guitar shop in the morning, and I'll buy you the best guitar I can afford,'" Holcomb said by phone last week during a day off from touring in Nashville.

"So that set in motion a somewhat, at least in the music world, countercultural perspective."

As a result, Holcomb -- who'll perform at the Kirk Avenue Music Hall in Roanoke this Tuesday with his Americana-minded band Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors -- said his songs often explore the romantic notions generally associated with relationships and family.

Since the release of their first album, 2005's "Washed In Blue," Holcomb, his wife and vocalist, Ellie, guitarist/keyboardist Nathan Dugger and bassist Rich Brinsfield have been picking up some steam in recent years, performing alongside the likes of quasi-bluegrass siblings the Avett Brothers and country rock's finest voice, Ryan Adams.

Following the release of 2013's "Good Light" -- the group's fourth studio effort, which toys with pop convention and finds a sweet spot somewhere between mainstream gloss and stylized Southern comfort -- they capped off a busy summer of festival gigs with a pair of sets on the sweaty stages of Bonnaroo.

The disc attests to the time Holcomb has spent honing his craft, from the cool groove on the sprightly "Another Man's Shoes" to the grateful gesture permeating through the more plaintive "What Would I Do Without You," a melancholy yet optimistic track about not being able to make it through life alone.

"This record, for me ... really is the culmination of a lot things," he said. "Becoming a dad, your perspective on what matters takes a whole new turn. You want to share some hope, I think, really just because you got this kid now who's gonna grow up and face the world someday. And you want them to have something to hold onto."

Unlike the Avett Brothers' searing confessionals or Adams' emotional directness -- both acts that are more than happy to bare their wounds loudly -- Holcomb conveys an undeniable allure by holding back just a bit, creating a kind of knowing intimacy that invites the listener to view the drama as a spectator first.

The slow burner "A Place To Lay My Head," starts with a plainspoken eloquence that's reminiscent of a rarely restrained Van Morrison before building into an impassioned crescendo where Holcomb unleashes the power in his voice with a gritty profession, "Out on the highway, dancing low/the thunder of a heartbeat and these weary bones/I need to a place to lay my head."

Other songs like "Wine We Drink" and "Tomorrow" have a gentle, effective magnetism, relying on subtleties and delicately placed harmonies to deliver the ethereal framework needed for tracks that find Holcomb speaking to someone (possibly his wife) without having to say too much.

"I heard Jack Johnson do an interview once about the way he makes music," Holcomb said. "He basically said, 'I love Radiohead. I love Coldplay, and I'm jealous of the records they make: big, epic records.' But he said, 'The songs I write and the music I make is front porch, sitting with your family or your friends kind of music.' He said, 'You have to know who you are as an artist.'

"So for this record, we were like, 'You know what? I'm a singer/songwriter. Let's make a simple singer/songwriter record.' And I feel like we did that, and we're real proud of it."


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