Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors challenge self-imposed rules with the release of Strangers No More
By Andrew Leahey
It’s mid-morning in East Nashville, and Drew Holcomb is walking around the neighborhood he’s called home for the better part of 20 years.
“I need to get some exercise while I still have the chance,” he says, staring down the five-month tour that looms on the horizon. With gigs stretching from Bonnaroo to Boston, he’s spending the second half of 2023 on the road, playing amphitheaters as Darius Rucker’s opening act and headlining his own shows in support of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors’ newest record, Strangers No More. Right now, though, he’s more tour guide than road warrior, pointing out personal landmarks as he travels from block to block.
To our left: East Nashville Magnet School, where his wife, Ellie, taught 8th grade during the couple’s first year together as Nashville newlyweds. To our right: the corner of 14th and Eastland, where Holcomb was jumped during his fourth day in town. Up ahead: the stretch of Porter Road where the Holcomb’s’ first home once stood.
Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors held their first band practice on that block in a small house that was bulldozed years ago to make room for townhomes. The year was 2006, and Holcomb had been married to Ellie for two months. He’d been playing shows, too, strumming his acoustic guitar for small crowds at 12th and Porter, Mercy Lounge, and the original Sutler. At the time, pop-minded songwriters like Josh Rouse ruled the roost in East Nashville, and Holcomb’s brand of American roots music had yet to generate much support. When an offer arrived — somewhat bizarrely, he now admits — for him to open a summertime show for Tone Loc and Digital Underground in Oxford, Mississippi, Holcomb figured he had little to lose.
“Besides, they were paying $2,000, which was a fortune!” he adds. “It was more than twice the amount I’d ever been paid before.”
Flush with cash, Holcomb pieced together a proper band for the occasion. Ellie, still several years shy of launching her own career as a Dove Award-winning solo artist, was on harmony vocals. Jon Radford, a Clarksville resident who regularly commuted to town to play Broadway gigs, was on drums. Belmont students Nathan Dugger on guitar and Rich Brinsfield on bass were rounding out the band. “Everyone plugged in, and once we were done with the first song, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, these Nashville people really know how to play,” Holcomb says. “I immediately felt like I was in the right place.”
Nashville wasn’t always the right place for Holcomb. Born and raised in Memphis, he grew up avoiding the city altogether during family road trips across the state.
All the way from Memphis ...
“I come from a big family that’s deeply rooted in Memphis,” he explains. “My parents were UT grads, and we always went to a Tennessee football game every fall. Just to show you how deep our apathy toward Nashville was, we drove from Memphis to Knoxville for 18 years, and we never once stopped in Nashville during those 18 years. The only time I can remember going to Nashville as a kid was when I visited Opryland with my youth group.”
After graduating high school, Holcomb made his own pilgrimage to Knoxville, this time to enroll at the University of Tennessee as a recipient of the Peyton Manning Scholarship. (“The scholarship was for academics,” he clarifies, pausing his morning walk to catch his breath. “It certainly wasn’t for athletics, as you can tell.”) Even so, his pride was stung when he received a C+ for a paper he wrote in his American Revolution class during freshman year. The professor eventually took pity on him, teaching Holcomb to improve his writing by focusing on consistency, clarity, and narrative. By the end of the semester, he’d begun applying those lessons to songwriting, too.
“I wasn’t the sort of musician everyone thought was gonna give it a go,” he admits. “I was just that guy who played guitar on the front porch of his house. Every college town has a few of those guys. It wasn’t an obvious career path at first.”
I was just that guy who played guitar on the front porch of his house. Every college town has a few of those guys. It wasn’t an obvious career path at first.
To Nashville’s music industry elite, Holcomb’s songwriting didn’t represent an obvious career path, either. When he moved to town during his early 20s, he was met with blank stares from strait-laced executives who didn’t understand his refusal to play the game. “I had so many weird meetings,” he recalls. “I talked to a lot of label heads — I had friends who called in some favors to get me in the same room as those guys — and they’d all want me to change whatever I was doing. They’d say, ‘You need me to be more country,’ or, ‘Maybe you should go do The Voice.’ I wanted to prove them wrong.”
“If you grow up in Memphis,” he adds, “it’s part of the standard narrative to have a chip on your shoulder when it comes to Nashville. It’s sort of silly, but it’s also part of the reason my career has gone well, because even after I moved to Nashville, I refused to do things the ‘Nashville way.’ All the producers wanted me to use studio players, but I was like, ‘No, I’m using my band.’ That’s what you do in Memphis. People wanted me to cowrite everything, too. They wanted me to sign a label deal. I know those things have worked for other artists, but I wanted to do whatever was going to work for me.”
What worked for Holcomb was learning to weaponize his outsider status. Joined by the Neighbors, he embraced the difficult-to-categorize sound of his music, carving out a mix of folk, Americana, and heartland country rock. The band toured relentlessly. Onstage, Holcomb was a roots-rock Everyman: average height, bearded, and affable, swapping harmonies with his wife one minute and leading the crowd in communal singalongs the next. Even without major radio airplay, the group’s audience swelled quickly.
Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors leveled up with 2015’s Medicine, a career-changing album that arrived in the wake of Ellie’s exit from the band. She and Drew had become parents of a young daughter, and they didn’t want their kid to grow up on a tour bus. Besides, Ellie had her own music to make. “She was everyone’s favorite member of the band,” Holcomb says. “She’s great onstage. Once she left, I knew we needed to dig deep and make the best record our lives, or it would all implode. So we made Medicine, and it worked.”
“Everyone in that band is such a good musician,” says Joe Pisapia, a musical jack-of-all-trades who had already logged years onstage with Guster as well as the Siss Boom Bang collaboration with k.d. lang by the time Holcomb tapped him as Medicine’s producer. The quick, hassle-free recording sessions took place at Middletree, Pisapia’s home studio in East Nashville. “They just sat at their instruments, and I pressed record,” Pisapia adds, “and that was the album. No fuss.”
When the Neighbors hit the road in support of Medicine, the shows were noticeably bigger, even if the band still felt like the best-kept secret in Americana music.
“I remember playing the Cayamo Cruise in January 2015,” Holcomb says. “We were on the boat with a bunch of people who had already ‘made it’ in music. Some were songwriters with really big cuts. Some were artists who were signed. Some were the heads of record labels. A group of those people came to see us play one night, and when they talked to us afterward, they asked, ‘When’s your next show in Nashville? Are you playing the Basement?’ I was like, ‘No, we’re playing the Ryman next month and it’s already sold out.’ It was a reminder that I was a still relatively anonymous artist who had a pretty good career going, even if a lot of people didn’t know me yet.”
... to Strangers No More
Eight years later, Holcomb continues to walk the fine line between celebrity and anonymity. He’s the busiest he’s ever been — not only at home, where his family has grown to include three school-aged children — but also on the road, where his schedule now includes yearly holiday gigs at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and headlining sets at his very own music festival, Moon River. He’s a dedicated husband, father, road warrior, frontman, businessman, and boss. At the same time, he remains more of a cult hero than a chart-topper. If there’s some high table of Americana all-stars, he has yet to be offered a seat.
Holcomb used to feel excluded by that. He used to feel like he didn’t belong. Lately, though, he’s learned to count his blessings.
“I moved to Nashville thinking that if I could sell out one show at 3rd and Lindsley’s ‘Nashville Sunday Night’ series, I would have made it,” he says. “And I did that a long time ago. My career since then has been so much icing on the cake.”
Perhaps that’s why Strangers No More feels so celebratory. Written in the wake of a tour that found the Neighbors playing arenas with Zac Brown Band, it’s the biggest, boldest album Holcomb has ever made, stacked high with songs that swing for the fences. “On a Roll” and “Possibility” could even be Bruce Springsteen tracks, and their larger-than-life ambition is balanced by softer numbers like “Fly,” an introspective folk song that finds Holcomb in classic singer-songwriter mode. Strangers No More does more than offer the best of those two worlds; it expands the Neighbors’ universe altogether, finding room for brassy soul (“All The Money in the World”), juke joint rock & roll (“That’s On You, That’s On Me”), and unapologetically pop-forward moments.
“Our first show with Zac [Brown] was at Bridgestone Arena,” Holcomb remembers. “We were excited but also hesitant, unsure if our music could translate on that scale. And it did! The experience gave me a framework for my own creative process. It was like, ‘Oh, we actually can write and perform big songs. Just because we’re mainly playing theaters, or just because we’re a songwriter band, it doesn’t mean we have to stay in one lane.’ It was a silly personal construct that I was finally able to shake.”
Shelby Park, East Nashville, Tennessee, April 10, 2023
Going against some of those self-imposed rules wasn’t easy, though. “The song ‘On a Roll’ is a synth anthem in a lot of ways, and I was initially afraid of it,” Holcomb admits. “Like, what if I fail and people think, ‘What are you doing up there, man? You’re not a star. You’re just a songwriter guy.’ But I believe in that song. Six or seven years go, I might not have believed I could’ve inhabited it, but after shedding some inhibition and shaking some mythology off, I realize this is our sound, these are our songs, and we can swing that bat.”
Back in East Nashville, Holcomb wraps up his walking tour and turns toward home, his footsteps echoing quietly off the sidewalks of Lockeland Springs. If he kept heading toward the river, he’d eventually see the large billboard that rises above the I-24 / I-40 split, advertising the release of Strangers No More to southbound traffic. On it, Holcomb stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his four bandmates, gazing past the highway and toward whatever lays beyond.
What he doesn’t know at this moment is that “Find Your People” — a campfire-friendly track about the bonds we build with our chosen family — is about to speed its way up the Americana Radio Singles chart. The song will peak at Number 1 in late June, giving Holcomb the first chart-topping hit of his career. This is more than a personal milestone; it’s a reminder that nice guys can still finish first, even if they’ve been in the race for years. This summer, as the afterglow of a well-received Bonnarroo performance gives way to the Darrius Rucker tour, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors will be the most played Americana band in the country. Strangers No More, indeed.
For now, though, Drew Holcomb is just enjoying the walk.