Drew Holcomb of Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors talks about the band’s new album, Dragons, and his upcoming Moon River Festival.
The latest body of work from the mega-popular Americana band Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, covers everything from grief to family.
Dragons, available August 16, is the most collaborative work from Holcomb yet and features co-writers on six of the 10 tracks.
Recently, we caught up with the Tennessee native to talk about the new record, co-writing, and his upcoming Moon River Music Festival.
Cowboys & Indians: You’re gearing up for the release of Dragons. What’s most exciting about having new music for your fans?
Drew Holcomb: More than anything, I’m excited to get it out there. I’m really looking forward to the release date [August 16]. In today’s world, you start leaking stuff out there. I’ve already gotten a really overwhelming response to these songs, maybe more than any other record I’ve ever put out, which is really fun. But even more than that, there’s the tour and playing these songs live. We started rehearsals about a week ago. It feels great to have new music and go out there and see which songs are resonating with people and have that intimate experience with people in the same room.
C&I: And this is a follow-up to your 2017 album, Souvenir, and your 2018 collaboration with JOHNNYSWIM, Goodbye Road, which you guys went on tour for. How you think this latest compilation of work compares to those two?
Holcomb: In a lot of ways, it’s definitely a complement. One of the things I loved about the work I did with JOHNNYSWIM was we had a different approach in the studio than I’ve done before, where we got everything down basic and then let the producer run with it. Souvenir was the last record I’ve done that was purist, in terms of the way we recorded it. We recorded everything raw and then added a few things here and there. But this record, I really let the producer captain the ship and go for a much bigger sound, which they started on that “Ring the Bell” song [from Goodbye Road]. So that really informs my approach to this record. I think it’s definitely sonically the most layered and biggest album I’ve ever released. Think that’ll be a change for our fans and, so far, they seem to like it.
C&I: You co-wrote “Bittersweet,” the closing track, with your producer, Cason Cooley. What was that partnership like and what did Cooley bring to the album?
Holcomb: Cason has been a personal friend for a long time, but we never really worked together. I’ve always been an admirer of what he does. He’s a little bit more known for being kind of the mad scientist. He just loves to hunker down in the studio and create things. We wrote the song “Bittersweet” not as a part of the record. It was just like, “Hey, let’s get together and write something and see what happens.” And I loved it so much — I loved what he did on the production end of it. That’s really what made me want to use him to record the record.
He just had a really big vision for the record. He mapped out, sonically, where he found things landing. On a song like “End of the World,” he came up with these unique sounds that he built out of a dulcimer and then a weird amplifier and then reversed them. He just brought a lot of creativity and ingenuity to the project that I definitely would not have had on my own. After we did that song together, I knew that there was something special with us working together, so he agreed to produce the record and it was a really good decision.
C&I: Along with co-writing a track with Cooley, you also co-wrote other tracks with friends and peers like Lori McKenna and Zach Williams. What did they bring to the tracks?
Holcomb: Natalie [Hemby] and Lori and Shawn [McConnel] are all very successful songwriters in the country world. Lori’s got two Song of the Year country singles — “Girl Crush” and then “Humble and Kind” — and so she’s a heavyweight. She’s become a friend through a show that she did with us at our Moon River Festival. She had offered to write with me. I took her up on it and went up to Boston.
I think the thing that was unique about those writing experiences is that those are people that know my music and know my voice, and so we were able to create for me but with their fingerprints all over it. There are just metaphors and melodies. The melody on “Maybe” — Natalie and I were wrestling this song out and it wasn’t going anywhere; then she came up with that melody and all of a sudden we were off to the races. That’s a fun thing about cowriting. Same thing happened on “End of the World” with Sean McConnell.
The collaboration that I experienced with Penny & Sparrow and JOHNNYSWIM [on Goodbye Road] kind of freed me up to go do a lot of co-writing, which I’ve never done before. I think allowing other really talented people to speak into your own creativity can be really satisfying if you’re operating out of a place of confidence, where you know what you’re good at and what you want to do and they complement that and help you find your way into new music.
C&I: Dragons covers a lot of subject matter. Is there a particular song you feel the most connected to?
Holcomb: Definitely the title track, “Dragons.” In some ways, the anthemic quality of that chorus is really like a thesis for the whole project. For me in some ways, songwriting has always been how I have slayed dragons in my life — whether it’s like my brother’s death on “Never Leave My Heart” or something just as simple as the day-to-day reality of being a parent and watching your kid grow up and you can’t control their life and their struggles with songs to the world. It’s just a lot of personal touches on this record. That chorus, I think, is a thesis for what I want people to take away from it and how I want people to see themselves in the music.
C&I: Is there a specific song that’s really been resonating with audiences?
Holcomb: I’d say the two would be “Family,” so far, and “End of the World.” “Dragons” live has been going really, really well, but “End of the World” is the one that I’m getting lots of commentary on social media and friends reaching out and saying, “Man, it’s a new place for y’all.” Like a new step forward and people have been really complimentary.
And then “Family” is just a really fun song. Chip and Joanna Gaines just used it in their new commercial for their new TV network. People are sending me all these road-trip videos with that as the source soundtrack for their summer vacation. That kind of stuff just makes you feel really great.
C&I: You mentioned your music festival, Moon River Festival, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is already sold out for this year. How did you get involved with that project?
Holcomb: It was my idea from the ground up. We initially started in Memphis and we had it there for three years straight. Initially, it was almost like a musical family reunion for band friends of mine to come to my hometown and play at this really cool historic amphitheater there called the Levitt Shell. It sort of got out of hand and grew to a capacity that all of a sudden, my partner and I were out of our league in operating and running it.
So we’ve become good friends over the years with AC Entertainment out of Knoxville. They’re the ones who started and founded Bonnaroo and they promote a lot of our shows in the state. They just said, “We’d love to partner up with you and blow it out and make it bigger.” We needed the right spot for that. We wanted it to stay in the state of Tennessee, and Chattanooga has this really cool park. The city offered to let us come and set up camp there. I don’t know what, exactly, it was there, but something about that and the first year’s lineup with people like the Avett Brothers and The Head and the Heart and it sold out in a day. We were thrilled, but then we were just wondering if we could pull it off again. Then this year, we got Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell and it’s really just kind of grown into its own brand, its own thing, this really cool experience.
My favorite story from last year was after it was over, we found this group on Facebook that was all people who had come to the festival solo who had created a friend group and they decided that the next year, this coming year they [would all buy] tickets together and rent this big house. It was like 20 people all coming together and they all met at the festival. It’s a really neat thing. So my new goal in my career is to get someplace where I can headline my own festival again.
C&I: Tell us a bit more about what we can expect from the artists performing there. Are there going to be some collaborations, maybe with you guys?
Holcomb: I’m sure there will be. The biggest collaboration I’m going to be a part of is we’re getting the whole Goodbye Road group back together. So Penny & Sparrow, they’re coming to town; Abner and Amanda [of JOHNNYSWIM] and their band are coming to town. We’re going to have a big Goodbye Road show, a whole set that’s just Goodbye Road, which will be a blast. And then I’m sure, with this lineup, there will be some collaborations. Brandi’s a friend, and so I’ll try and talk her into bringing me up or vice versa. The Lone Bellow’s playing, so Zach [Williams] will probably come sing “Dragons” with me. So there’ll definitely be some cross-pollination on stage.
C&I: You’re the founder of Magnolia Record Club, which is a vinyl subscription program. Can we hope for a collaboration with the festival coming out with a festival vinyl?
Holcomb: We did. For last month’s vinyl we partnered last year with Songbirds Museum, which is a guitar museum in Chattanooga, and they recorded sessions of about 15 artists and we were able to pull 11 or 12 songs into the Moon River compilation. It was only available to members of the club and it was a huge success. People loved it. They were all 12 different acts all playing different songs acoustic and we only did it through the record club.
C&I: Are there any songs that didn’t make it onto Dragons that we can expect to hear later on down the road, maybe at the music festival?
Holcomb: I’m sure there are. I do know that Abner and Amanda and I are talking about writing something specifically for the festival, but as far as B sides go for the record, I’m sure there will be. We haven’t decided any of them right now, but there’s always a chance of the resurrection of a song or two from those sessions.
C&I: What’s next?
Holcomb: Launching this tour — hopefully it goes well. We’ll do some more touring in the spring. [My wife] Ellie and I will do our You and Me February tour again. We’re currently working on the dates for that. Obviously at the end of every tour [we] take some time off and write some more songs and see what happens. But right now I’m just focused on these shows and getting this record out into the world.
For more information on Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, visit their website. To preorder Dragons, visit Amazon.