Born on May 13, 1982, Drew Holcomb wasn’t around when Van Morrison released Tupelo Honey in 1971. But it’s that kind of timeless music Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors strive to create.
“It’s one of my favorite records because my parents introduced me to it,” Holcomb said during our CMT.com interview with guitarist Nathan Dugger and bassist Rich Brinsfield. “We’ve never been a single-driven band. You can put out a song every couple of months, get one to hit and that’s what happens. But we make records. We want to make a body of work. We don’t want to write a bestseller. We want to write a classic — not that we have — but that’s our aspiration.”
That’s the best part about Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. They continue bring out the musically curious in every fan they make.
They are song people, and that showed during the group’s two-night stand at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium recently. While the band filled the hallowed hall with live originals, fans listened intently in the pews and sang along to the music spanning the group’s 11 years together. Their latest album Souvenir was released in March.
“They’re not coming for the light show,” Holcomb said of the group’s loyal following. “We want to get better and push ourselves with records, but we love the work we’ve already done. I think the big difference with so many artists, instead of seeing music as a progression, they make a change and reject their former artistry. And that to me is when you lose fans, which is fine. I don’t think we’ll ever do that.”
The Tennessee band’s No. 1 goal from project to project is to make timeless music they would want to hear decades later. To achieve that with Souvenir, Holcomb for the first time in the band’s history relied on song contributions by Dugger and Brinsfield.
Together they co-wrote three of the album’s 11 songs including “The Morning Song,” “Black and Blue” and “Postcard Memories.” Holcomb’s daughter Emmylou is the inspiration behind the Dugger and Holcomb-co-write “Mama’s Sunshine and Daddy’s Rain.” Brinsfield and Holcomb co-wrote the anthemic “Fight for Love,” while Dugger is behind “Yellow Rose of Santa Fe,” a plaintive country ballad about a love that got away.
“I was emotionally and physically out of gas from all the touring to support Medicine,” Holcomb said of the time following their 2015 album. “We did almost 200 shows on that record, and I sort of hit a creative wall. So we’d start collaborating every Monday here in town and they brought some unbelievable songs and ideas to the table. It stretched our whole sound and made me learn chords I’ve never played before.”
CMT.com: How did the collaborative experience bring out the best in your art?
Brinsfield: I think we kind of push each other, for sure. Everybody would bring a song to the table, and that would make somebody want to go home and write something else. It snowballed from there.
Holcomb: What’s interesting about being a band together for almost 11 years, we weren’t writing songs for random artists. We were writing songs for us. They know my voice and they know my point of view, so there was a lot of intentionality in the writing.
With “Fight for Love,” “New Year” and “Wild World,” there are a lot of themes of hope and love on this record. Was that an intention going into the studio?
Dugger: It was necessary. I don’t know if it was intentional, but it was necessary.
Necessary for the world?
Holcomb: This moment in time is sort of confusing and sort of hopeless in a lot of ways, especially as it relates to American politics. It’s a strange time to see so many of the things that you care about be thrown away in terms of institutions and points of view. Songs like “Wild World” and “Fight for Love,” I think, sort of dealt with that.
Some of the songs on the record are about dealing with the grief of getting older and time passing. “New Year” is about that. “Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing” is about a close friend who has been dealing with addiction and rehab. It was written specifically for him.
With “Mama’s Sunshine,” Nathan came to me with that chorus and was like, “I started a song about your daughter.” She calls him Dug-Dug. They’re buds. So it was really fun to write a song about a particular moment for me as a dad with my daughter, but it’s also hopefully timeless. Hopefully in five to 10 years, another person in my shoes can listen to that song, and hear, “That’s me also.” Maybe it was them 20 years ago. It’s where time and nostalgia cross paths. That’s a cool thing that happens in music.
Dugger: We let our songs pretty much dictate how they’re going to sound and how their presentation is going to be, which I feel like gives them shelf life. There’s nothing to date it really in that way. Things that are striving to be popular you can kind of peg them to a specific time, and it won’t necessarily last forever.
When we look back on this time in music, will you be OK if the songs are remembered as being bigger than the band?
Holcomb: Oh, yeah! I’d love it if people were singing one of our songs and say, “Who is that band? Because I love that song.”
Dugger: I feel like that’s the goal. Everybody knows who the Beatles are, but they wouldn’t know who they were without the songs.
Holcomb: Our sort of mythology is that we’re normal family men who make music that we love. Rich has two kids. I’ve got kids. Nate’s married. Everybody’s sort of happily domestic but still very musically ambitious. That’s an uncommon narrative in popular music.
One thing we struggle with, especially as it relates to press, is that we don’t have some big melodramatic story that’s like, “Drew got addicted to heroin and went to this mountaintop, and got the 10 Commandments of the next record from God.” But that’s what so many bios sound like. And I’m not saying they’re not true. But I know plenty of people in that world where sometimes the narrative is a little embellished.
To me, that’s the most inspiring part about your band is that guys like you achieving success, it shows that anybody can do this if they have the drive and determination. But it’s not an overnight success.
Holcomb: The angle we took was let’s just tour, and tour, and tour, and tour. We don’t have to wait around on radio, or press or TV or film placements. We can go tour. We can control that. We can go work and that’s how we did it. We’ve been through a lot of vehicles.
Brinsfield: We started in a Volvo.
Holcomb: When it died it had 357,000 miles on it. I had it for five or six years. A lot of it was when I was solo touring out of Memphis and Nashville. But then we’d do regional shows and we’d pile in, go to Birmingham one night, go to Atlanta and then drive home. We’d all pile in a Motel 6 and then we upgraded to a van once Live Forever happened. On our last tour, we went through three trailers in three weeks — broken axles.
Dugger: We always break down on a Sunday when no one is open. Whenever young singer-songwriters ask our advice, I always say, “You better be ready to work.”
Holcomb: It takes a massive amount of ego to play confidently to an empty room when you’re starting out.
Dugger: And then that show may be the best show of your tour.
Brinsfield: Those are also times that help you grow and get better as a band, too. Going through those times that are tough makes you stronger.