Drew Holcomb of the acclaimed Americana act Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors and husband-wife duo Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano of folk group Johnnyswim talk about their latest collaborative EP, Goodbye Road.
Americana artist Drew Holcomb collaborated with Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano of the husband-wife duo Johnnyswim to produce the new collaborative EP Goodbye Road. With songs that reflect honestly on the times we’re living in, this is inspirational stuff.
From the energetic and exhortative “Ring the Bells” to the sorrowful but hopeful “Goodbye Road,” the EP is food for the soul.
Now Holcomb, Ramirez, and Sudano, along with Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke of the folk group Penny & Sparrow, are taking their uplifting and reflective tunes on the road.
We caught up with three of them at the start of their Goodbye Road tour in Little Rock, Arkansas, to talk about the new record.
Cowboys & Indians: How did you all get together for the new collaboration? Was it something you’d wanted to do for a while, or did it all just fall together?
Abner Ramirez: Amanda [Sudano] has known the Holcombs for a long time and we’ve been on each other’s radars forever, but I’ll never forget the first time our booking agent said, “Man” — we were playing Hangout Fest in Alabama, just outside of Mobile, right? — And he said, “Hey, there’s this band, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors.” We’re like, “Yeah, we know them.” “They’re playing as well and I’m trying to get their booking agent to bring them over to your stage to hear you guys play. I think it could be a really good idea to tour together.”
And it was literally — and I don’t use that sarcastically or any way other than its real form — the worst concert we’ve ever played in our life. I was yelling at our manager in the crowd. “Hey, I need toilet paper. I can’t hear anything.” And I plugged my ears with toilet paper to be able to hear better. People, oftentimes for Amanda and I, they’ll be like, “Kiss, kiss,” when we’re on stage. And it’s, you know, beneath us to perform kisses for their pleasure, but that day we did. That day we just kissed. We did whatever we could to not play music because it was miserable.
Drew Holcomb: Yeah. I walked up right as they were making out on stage. I actually did see part of their set. I thought it was really great. Over the next, what, like three years we just crossed paths a lot. Played a festival in Colorado the same day and we played a college show somewhere in Virginia. I host a music festival in Memphis and we booked these guys to come play and it was really fun. We eventually just ended up getting lunch one day, a little over a year ago, in Nashville to talk about maybe going on the road and really, just to hang out.
Abner and Amanda were having this kind of secret show in Nashville that night. They were giving away tickets on Instagram and it was really cool. People were coming to get tickets from the table for the show — all these different people from social media — and they kept being excited that we were hanging out together.
Ramirez: They were freaking out. They were like, “We came for Johnnyswim tickets, but Drew Holcomb’s here — oh, my God!”
Holcomb: Kind of a good omen. And then we’re like, “Well, if we’re going to maybe do a tour together, maybe we should write a song.” And then we did, and it was really awesome.
C&I: How do you think Goodbye Road differs from your other projects?
Ramirez: What’s really fun about the way Drew makes music and the way we make music and the way we treat it and the way it comes out of us is it’s always a picture of us now. It’s a portrait of who we are right then. I really believe that. Whatever things are happening — whether it’s political or just in our family or personally — you’re going to hear it. If not specifically narrated in a song, you’ll hear it in tone. So I think that the biggest difference between this EP and the other projects we’ve done is, this is very much the now us.
Holcomb: There’s really two creative pieces of it: One is the songwriting. ... I flew out to LA, where these guys live, just to hang out for a couple days and see what happened. It was two days after Charlottesville and the white-supremacy rally there, so that was sort of the soil of the song “Ring the Bells.” It was cool to get together and have a lament and also say to people, “What are we going to do about it?” Let’s say something. Let’s try to unify some people around a thought while also saying some potentially tough things at the same time.
The second creative part was the recording, and that, for me, was really different. I typically record a long time in the studio, and we recorded all four songs in two days at a pace that I’ve never [experienced]. There was a really significant amount of trust that was happening between the three of us and between the producer and the folks that were playing on it. It was really lightning in a bottle — whatever the metaphor is for that, I can’t remember. It was pretty magical.
C&I: Speaking of, you guys wrote the EP during an emotionally charged year. Were there any other specific stories — some maybe that you read on the news or a blog item maybe — that inspired other lyrics or songs?
Amanda Sudano: I don’t think I read it on the news but definitely in our own personal experiences. I think at some point while talking, Abner mentioned that growing up in the South he always got called “boy,” and Drew was like, “Oh, I was always called ‘son.’” And that was a poignant moment of realization of what you grew up thinking is normal and what you grow up, in some ways, embodying. That made it into the song, for sure. But I think it was a mix of what was going on generally and then how we related to it personally.
I remember driving down to Nashville as a teenager and seeing Confederate flags in a car behind me and physically getting nervous and scared and shaken. Being like, “Oh, my gosh … I hope they don’t try to stop me. Hope they don’t mess with me.” And that’s something that a lot of my friends in high school never experienced. I think the whole situation brought up a lot of stuff individually that hopefully we put into the song.
C&I: You all covered “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. Was there a specific reason you chose that song? What was it like making it your own?
Holcomb: In the same way that we wrote those songs after an intense moment, we recorded them three or four months later, right after the Vegas shooting. That was on a Sunday and we were in the studio on Tuesday, and the Monday in between is the morning that Tom Petty died. So we went into the studio with, again, the sort of urgency of the moment. I think everybody really loves Tom Petty, but for me, he’s one of my absolute favorites. I had just seen him at Red Rocks for my 35th birthday the previous May, so I was wrecked, honestly, by his passing. We recorded the three original songs and those were sort of wrapping up. ...
Abner and I got on the phone the day before and said, “Man, let’s maybe think about doing a Tom Petty song, maybe if we can find something that sort of fits with it, creatively.” So we just went into this little side room in the studio and started playing the song but played it in that quiet, fingerpicking, melancholy way. The way that our voices all sort of came together in that, it kind of wrapped up the thought. It started with “Ring the Bells.” We go through this journey and end with a sorrowful but hopeful idea that we’re in this together and we’re not going to back down. It really felt like the missing piece, to me at least.
C&I: Does each of you have a favorite track on this record?
Sudano: Mine is “Just Your Memory,” which I can say boldly because I had no part in writing it. I just had every part in weeping the first time I heard it. But that’s still my favorite.
Holcomb: Mine is definitely “Ring the Bells.” The thing I love about that song — and it’s one of the things that Abner especially brings to the table — is that we can say something intense, but we can wrap it in this big anthem that is a call to solidarity and not just preaching at people. We are preaching, but we’re preaching to ourselves, too. I listen to that song, my kids listen to that song, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
Ramirez: Mine’s definitely, “Just Your Memory.” “Just Your Memory” is insane. I remember the first time we got the mixes in — we were on tour, Amanda and I. I remember we were on the bus, woke up to the email that the mixes were done, came to the front lounge, and I plugged in the phone and turned it all the way up. The first song I listened to was “Just Your Memory.” I think we were in Utah. I remember it was very Utah-looking and just being completely shook by the song and it stayed my favorite.
C&I: Is there a song on the album that you think encompasses everything that you wanted the EP to say?
Ramirez: It’s funny — it was like a good conversation. From writing to recording, it’s like one of those things: You sit down for coffee with somebody and you hope it’s going to be good, you know you like them, but it becomes this really revealing and beautiful time and conversation. It feels like the whole creation of this EP was the same way. We set it as well as we could from front to back, even with the Tom Petty song. The project itself says what we want it to.
C&I: Any good stories along the way of getting this album from concept to actual release?
Ramirez: I think my favorite part was my son was obsessed with Frozen and really was convinced he was Elsa. The two days we were in the studio, he was making ice castles that only he could see. That was one of my favorite parts.
My favorite part of the process, honestly, right now is the live show. We got together two days ago and started rehearsing, and yesterday the five of us were on stage, Drew, Amanda, myself, and Penny & Sparrow. I have never said this about a show before that we’ve ever done, never said this about any tour, but if you have a chance to come to this tour and you don’t, you’ve missed something special. That’s my favorite part: when we all got on stage. That was magic.
Holcomb: My favorite part was when we were recording “I Won’t Back Down.” We started with me just recording the guitar part and I had to leave early that day — I can’t remember why. And then the next morning I got to hear the vocals that Abner and Amanda did on the second half of the song. I was just a pile of emotions. I mean, these guys can freaking sing their asses off. I just was like, “I can’t believe how beautiful this thing turned out.” As an artist, you feel really protective a lot of times about what you do, and you get older and you get less protective and you start to be open to the idea of sharing what you have and offering it to other people, and vice versa. And that’s what happened on this project. It’s like 1 plus 1 equals 7 on this thing. That’s what I feel when I listen to it. I know that I would never have come up with this project if I was left to myself, so when I hear it that’s my favorite thing about it. I hear sort of a becoming creative moment for myself.
Sudano: My favorite part in the studio — I was kind of back and forth a lot because I was on Mom duty — [was] when we doing [background vocals] for “Goodbye Road” and we were all in the same room trying to find parts. It was the three of us and Penny & Sparrow and we were all just trying to figure out parts. Sometimes they worked out really well and sometimes they worked out horribly. Both times were entertaining. That was a super fun day. I’ll kind of reiterate. ... Drew left early because he had a show, so we kind of went in there and did what we were going to do: Set the vision, come and just play, do what we were supposed to do. And then it was left to Jonathan and Jeremy, who were producing it. It was awesome because you were in this whirlwind and then a couple days later you hear all the pieces put together and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s us.” You know, it was like a makeover show. It was cute, looked good. Everything was great and then it was like the hair got done, stepped in, and it was just like next level.
That was actually a really fun process because Abner produced our last two records that we have out. It was way intense, like every note, every space, everything was obsessed over. And this was like, we obsessed over it to a degree of just like, “This is our baby,” and we stepped away and got to just enjoy her beauty afterward. That was pretty pleasant.
C&I: Penny & Sparrow — Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke — did some impressive harmonies on the album. What was it like to have them featured?
Ramirez: First of all, just to have two handsome men like that in the room was very intimidating. Working with them — I guess I have to echo, again, what Drew said — the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Something really magical happened when they walked in the room and we were singing together. They were so passionate to be involved in any way, whether great or small. … [The album] made us all better and Penny & Sparrow have been such a big part of making all of us better.
C&I: What can we expect with The Goodbye Road Tour?
Ramirez: The goal with Goodbye Road — the whole experience, the EP, the touring — is this will be something we could do regularly. So there’s tons of places that we would love to hit that we haven’t been able to hit, that we won’t be able to hit this year, but hopefully next year and the years to come we’ll bring this whole roadshow around the country.
C&I: Any places that you’ve booked so far that you’re excited to play?
Holcomb: We’re playing Asheville, North Carolina. That’s always one of my favorite spots. A lot of the rooms we’re playing in [are] these really beautiful old theaters. We’re playing this room called The Lucas Theater in Savannah and The Orpheum Theater in Wichita. So it’s a lot of really great historic listening-room theaters. Those are always really fun because it feels like the room is sort of a part of the show. So that’ll be great.
C&I: Lastly, can we expect any more collaborations in the future from you guys?
Ramirez: One hundred percent.
Holcomb: For sure.
For more information on The Goodbye Road album and tour, visit the website.
For more information on Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, visit their website.
For more information on Johnnyswim, visit their website.