The rigors of the road took a toll on Drew Holcomb. Around the release of 2017’s Souvenir, the sturdy-voiced Tennessee troubadour — originally from Memphis, but now based in Nashville — was exhausted by the nonstop cycle of churning out albums, then touring relentlessly in support, and wound up hospitalized for eight days with meningitis. After a much-needed breather, he decided to ask friends for help. The result is the collaborative and restorative album Dragons.
“I was itching to create in a different way, and co-writing was a way forward out of that funk,” says Holcomb, an under-the radar Americana hero who has steadily built a grassroots following through incessant gigging and the release of nine studio albums, most via his own Magnolia Records.
As a fiercely independent artist known for his heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics, Holcomb had been hesitant to write with others but he eventually realized that gaining new perspective could be an asset. With contributions from top song scribes in the country and roots landscape, including Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, and Sean McConnell, Holcomb co-wrote six of the 10 tracks on Dragons and ultimately made his most poignant and sonically inclusive record to date.
Opener “Family” celebrates the endearing chaos of a happy home through a Paul Simon-minded world groove, while “You Want What You Can’t Have,” written with McKenna, is a twangy rocker that showcases Holcomb’s knack for crafting earnest heartland hooks. On a different wavelength, McConnell inspired Holcomb to take “End of the World” into the modern pop realm with sparkling studio flourishes.
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“They all really pushed me to do things a little differently,” Holcomb says of his new record’s collaborators. “We were able to establish a dialogue about me and my story and the songs still came to a very personal spot. I write from the present moment; who I am and where I am in life.”
Even with assistance, Holcomb didn’t stray from sharing intimate thoughts about coping with turmoil or family dynamics — the latter an increasingly common topic for the father of three kids. He often sings about private conversations or little everyday incidents that have bigger relevance in hindsight. In the starry-eyed folk meditation “See the World,” for instance, he imagines his young son’s future while reading him Shel Silverstein at bedtime.
Holcomb reflects on a different generation in the title track, imparting his grandfather’s wisdom with rustic strumming and a Johnny Cash-like baritone, as he sings, “Don’t listen to critics/Stand up and bear witness/Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way.”
“Drew’s got this spirit that’s intoxicating,” says Zach Williams, who co-wrote “Dragons” and added gospel-hued harmonies to the song’s uplifting chorus with his folk-rock outfit the Lone Bellow. “He boils down the mundane little thoughts that we all have and turns them into something worth wrestling with.”
Holcomb also memorializes his late brother, who died two decades ago from spina bifida complications as a teenager. The singer’s recollections in the somber ballad “You Never Leave My Heart” are extremely vivid — a final meal with his younger sibling at an airport, watery eyes in the family kitchen at his post-funeral reception. It’s a tearjerker for sure; a challenging listen and a song that wasn’t easy to record.
When Holcomb went to Echo Mountain Recording studio in Asheville, North Carolina, with his longtime band the Neighbors to make Dragons this past January, he told producer Cason Cooley he could only handle a few takes of his brother’s tribute, so the track sounds raw and live, intensified by a cathartic distorted guitar solo. After finishing his vocals, Holcomb immediately needed a break.
Even many months later, during a recent phone call, he chokes up, pausing briefly, as he discusses the session: “I don’t smoke, but I borrowed four cigarettes, left the studio and went on a long teary walk around Asheville to make peace with the moment. I would trade the song a million times over to have my brother back, but I think it’s resonated with our fans. We’ve been playing it on tour and people have been telling me their own stories. Everybody’s lost someone, but not everyone can put it into words. I think people were grateful I gave it a shot.”
Holcomb’s songs aren’t always this heavy. Since releasing his 2005 debut Washed in Blue he’s become better known for uplifting anthems that champion perseverance and optimism. Longtime setlist staples like 2013’s “Good Light” and 2015’s “Shine Like Lighting” soar with the feel-good bravado of FM heyday Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He’s not ashamed to accentuate the positive and hopes his plainspoken songs inspire people to “survive and thrive,” much like he has in pursuit of an audience.
While working at a Memphis studio in the early 2000s, Holcomb started playing in small bars on weekends and eventually found himself zigzagging across the South in an old Volvo wagon, putting nearly 300,000 miles on the car in five years. Initially he says he was barely making ends meet, “playing the most random coffeehouses and community college lunch hours — anywhere that would give me a little scratch to play my songs.”
A turning point came when “Live Forever” from 2011’s Chasing Someday landed multiple TV placements, and gradually Holcomb noticed larger crowds singing along with his songs. Opening slots for a generation-spanning variety of fellow roots-driven artists —from Willie Nelson and John Hiatt to Zac Brown and Needtobreathe —helped, too, and in the last few years Holcomb has accumulated a theater-filling fan base of his own.
As a Southern songwriter with country-rock leanings, Holcomb admits he used to struggle with artistic identity. He once aspired to be the next Steve Earle — bandana and all — but says he found his voice when he embraced his true self: more everyman than outlaw.
“People tend to say my music is inspiring and hopeful, and I used to be resistant and say, ‘No, I’ve got some darkness in there,’” Holcomb says. “But life is difficult. We all need a shot in the arm, and that’s what music is for me. I’m definitely not Steve Earle. I carry my own burdens, and I have to sing to my own experience.”
In early September, Holcomb wrapped up his annual Moon River Music Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by singing a heartfelt version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” with the evening’s headliner, Grammy-winning Americana star Brandi Carlile. The event started modestly, gathering a few bands at a small amphitheater in Memphis, but since moving to a scenic riverside park in Chattanooga two years ago, it’s grown to become a premier roots bash, featuring popular acts like Carlile, the Avett Brothers, and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
It’s also where Holcomb can showcase his side projects: Goodbye Road, a collaboration with folk contemporaries Penny & Sparrow and Johnnyswim, and the intimate duo act he shares with his wife Ellie —a singer and occasional member of the Neighbors. Much like other parts of Holcomb’s career, the event fosters a homegrown feeling that with patience and persistence has turned into something bigger.
“It’s been a slow roll,” he says. “We show up, do the work and let the chips fall—that’s the ethic of our whole band and crew. That’s how it goes when you build something from the ground up.”