Drew Holcomb on Nashville, Life on the Road, and the Ultimate Travel Song
"We’re definitely a touring band." Holcomb says, "And we love meeting people from all different places and hearing about their cities and the places they love. Sometimes that even makes it into our music."
Read on for Holcomb's take on travel music, his hometown of Memphis, and Nashville's growing popularity.
Tell me a little about the music scene in Nashville. What do you think makes Music City, Music City?
It’s actually changed quite a bit in the decade or so that I’ve been here. When I got here it was mainly a country town with some other stuff sprinkled in. Now that whole story’s been completely rewritten with guys like Jack White moving here and the Black Keys and homegrown artists like Kings of Leon, Mat Kearney, the whole singer-songwriter, Americana genre. The thing that I love about it is there’s a great, friendly community of people who make music for a living, but also still love music.
The other thing I really love about it is how the song is king. No matter your genre, focus is definitely on the song first and not necessarily the image first, which is a really cool way to start making music. For me, I found friends that are in bands and people that are songwriters. There’s a normalcy to being a musician that’s nice. You’re not necessarily the outcast, if you’re a musician in Nashville. But you might be somewhere else.
Do you think the music scene is being impacted by the city’s growing popularity and its growing population?
I think it’s kind of the other way around. I think the city’s growth is, in a lot of ways, being spurred on by the fact that so many musicians have moved here over the last couple decades. Like what’s happening in a lot of cities, neighborhoods that have turned to rust, in a way, are being totally revitalized, and some of the first people that moved in were musicians looking for cheaper rent. I think that what follows that are cool restaurants and coffee shops and independent retailer,s and then those things become attractive to businesses that are looking to relocate. We live in East Nashville, and one of my favorite things about the neighborhood is just the diversity and symmetry of the historic homes and these new, walkable neighborhoods. I think those are the kind of things that people are really drawn to.
What would be your perfect day in East Nashville?
We’d wake up and have coffee at Ugly Mugs or Barista Parlor and then go for a walk or a bike ride in Shelby Park. I have a little girl so we like to go to Splash Park, which is this new park right by the Titans Stadium and is a total blast.
And then, for us, the ideal dinner is definitely Lockeland Table, which is a neighborhood joint, and then depending on what kind of drinks you’re looking for, you could either go to Rumours for wine or Holland House for good cocktails or 3 Crow for local beer. I think the main things to do in East Nashville are eat and drink, so you can fill up your whole day just hopping around.
How would you say your hometown of Memphis differs from Nashville?
They’re very different towns. Nashville, at least in my experience, is very Southern, but it’s very cosmopolitan. There are people from all over the country, all over the world that move here. Memphis has much more of a family feel to it. It’s a place where people grow up, and they stay, and they invest in the city. One of the things I always say is people move to Memphis to give to the city, not necessarily to see what they can get from the city. It’s an acquired taste. It’s a city that requires you to commit to it before it’ll give you back. I love that about the city. It’s like that friend you meet that you don’t really know what you think about him when you first meet him, and then you get to know him and you realize he’s one of your favorite people.
The story of your Ryan Adams encounter is pretty incredible. Do you have any other moments from being on the road that stand out to you?
There are so many moments. We played Bonnaroo a couple years ago, and I have a daughter, and at the time she was six months old. We took her on the bus, and the night after we played, Paul McCartney was the headliner. We sat in the very back of the field, and we put these headphones on her, she fell asleep in our arms, and we watched Paul McCartney play his whole set. It was kind of an overwhelming moment of not believing that your career is taking you places you didn’t even know that it would, and your at this festival watching him play these songs that are just completely timeless, and you’ve got your daughter in your arms. It was a pretty overwhelming moment.
And then another one for me was this year we headlined the Ryman Auditorium, which is somewhere I never even dreamed we would play, and it sold out six weeks in advance. Just coming out on the stage and having friends and fans fill the big old 2,400 capacity room, and to get to play my songs on the same stage as everyone from Death Cab to Kris Kristofferson and Flaming Lips to John Prine. To get to share the stage with those kind of folks was a pretty magical moment for me.
Do you have a favorite music venue?
I’ve got kind of a top five: the Troubadour in L.A., WorkPlay in Birmingham, The Ryman—I’d say that would be my number one—and we’re playing Red Rocks in December, which I would imagine that will jump quickly into my top five. Then the last one is the Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is where I went to school, and where I met my wife and it’s this beautiful, historic theater and I’ve played there probably ten times. It’s home.
What do you think makes a good travel song?
I think Tom Petty is the ultimate travel music, especially if you’re in the car. There’s something about a great band and the imagery that he writes is all very big and has this wide-open feel to it, like you’re going somewhere. You’re either running from something or you’re running to something, which I love ‘cause that’s really the story of their band. They left Gainsville, Florida and moved to L.A. as kids. They drove across the country to try and make it happen, and they did, which is a great story. And then, the other thing for us as a family is we love to listen to Motown. I grew up traveling—I visited 42 states before I graduated highschool, most of those were by car. Every summer we did a road trip where we tried to hit as many states and see as many different things as possible, and my parents were big Motown listeners, so that’s kind of nostalgic for me and passing the torch on to my family.
Name a few things you always take with you on the road?
First, my detroit tigers baseball cap. I’m a watch guy—so I always travel with a watch, and my current watch is a Bell & Ross, "Never go without a watch" is what my dad always told me. Let’s see, I have a vintage H.H. Brown suitcase that goes with my everywhere. I travel a lot so it’s pretty beat up at this point. A physical copy of a book—even though I have a Kindle, I always bring a book. Right now I’m reading a book called Empire of Sin: Sex, Jazz, and Murder for the Battle of Modern New Orleans. It’s fantastic. One other thing I love: I try to take—if it’s one of the cities—a Wildsam Field Guide, which is a modern take on the travel guide. I almost always have one of those in my bag.
For more information on Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors, their new album Medicine and dates for this summer's tour, head to drewholcomb.com.
Caroline Hallemann is the associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure. You can find her on Twitter at @challemann.