A self-taught songwriter, frontman, label head and festival promoter, Drew Holcomb has spent much of the past decade on the road, building a grassroots following for his folk-rock band, Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors.
“It’s been, ‘Hustle, hustle, hustle,'” he says, talking to podcast host Chris Shiflett about his work ethic during this week’s episode of Walking the Floor. Recorded in Nashville – where the songwriter lives with his wife, Christian solo artist Ellie Holcomb, and two children – the episode covers an hour’s worth of touring anecdotes, songwriting tips, Tennessee history and everything in between. Listen to the full episode below, after our weekly list of podcast highlights.
There are changes in store for Holcomb’s Tennessee-based festival, Moon River.
Originally housed in the historic Memphis amphitheater where Elvis Presley played his first ticketed show, the Moon River Music Festival is moving to Chattanooga this year. Holcomb, who remains proud of the event’s “family-reunion vibe,” is looking to upgrade Moon River’s management, as well. “That’s the plan this year – to partner with a bigger promoter and sort of pass the baton,” he says, emphasizing that he’ll “stay involved in the curation side and hosting side, but let someone else manage the whole deal.” With a family at home and a yearly schedule of 100 shows, Holcomb’s decision to take a step back is a practical one. “It’s too much,” he admits.
But Holcomb remains loyal to his Memphis hometown.
“Being a musician was a reputable choice [in Memphis],” he says of the city. “That’s the thing that happens in these music towns, like Austin, New Orleans and L.A., where if you choose to be a musician, people say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.'” With the support of his parents, Holcomb dove into music as a high-school student, buying albums at Cats Music and, eventually, writing his own songs. Although he left town for Knoxville (and later settled in Nashville), he’s proud of Memphis’ recent renaissance. . .even if the rest of the country hasn’t caught on yet. “If a city starts to do a lot of neat things, it take the rest of the world three or four years to find out about it,” he explains. “The good news is, it’s happening.”
Holcomb’s crowds fluctuate by as many as 1,200 people on any given show.
“We’re in that weird place as a touring band where, because we’ve never had massive national radio success, we may be in one city and sell 1,000 tickets, and the next city we sell 200, and the next city we sell 1,500 and the next city we sell 400,” he tells Shiflett. “We get to see all shapes and sizes of clubs, depending on where we’re playing.”
Those numbers may stabilize during the coming years, with Holcomb eyeing a potential label deal.
“I’m ready to partner up,” says the independently minded artist, who has released the bulk of the Neighbors’ albums on his own label, Magnolia Records. “What’s basically happening is the business side [of running a label] is taking away from my creative capacity. As the music business has changed, I’ve had to dedicate more time to that side of it, and I want to spend more time on the creative side.”
Similarly, Holcomb has begun co-writing songs with his Neighbors bandmates.
“These are my songs [and] this is my creative vehicle,” he says, “but I know I have no legs to stand on if it’s just me.” Accordingly, Holcomb turned to his bandmates for songwriting help on the band’s most recent album, Souvenir. They’d get together for weekly co-writing sessions, steadily building a list of songs to choose from. “Sometimes it was just two of us,” he remembers. “Sometimes it was three of us. Seven of the 11 songs on the record are like that, and four I wrote alone. There was a lot of collaboration.”
Holcomb will often turn to other writers’ work for inspiration … including newspaper journalists and fellow artists.
“Sometimes I’ll sit down with a newspaper, and try to grab 50 interesting words, and write them down,” he says. Holcomb keeps the words in a journal, which he’ll later reference whenever he’s presented with a bad case of writer’s block. “When I’m really having a hard time writing a song,” he admits, “I have this trick that I’ll do, where I’ll take a classic song and I’ll print the lyrics out, and make completely new music to it. I’ll sing those words and create a melody and a musical idea, then I’ll can the words and then I’ve got a new foundation for a song. You take something like ‘Let It Be’ and completely rewrite the music to it, and make it something else, and then you chuck the words.”
For Drew Holcomb, being a musician is a lot like being a baseball player.
“‘Hustle, hustle, hustle,'” he says, listing some of the pillars of his own philosophy toward sustaining a career in music. “‘Tour as much as you can. Get lucky sometimes.’ It’s never a massive [kind of] lucky, but to use the baseball metaphor, ‘Hit a lot of singles,’ you know? I’ve never been a big home-run hitter.”