A couple of months ago, as Drew Holcomb was working on his new album, someone asked him for his thoughts on what purpose music served. The Nashville, Tenn.-based songwriter summed it up in one word: "medicine."
"For me, music has always been the thing that has helped me make sense of whatever circumstances I've found myself in," Holcomb said. "And I thought that was an appropriate title for this record because that's what I'm trying to offer: a gamut of musical and emotional stories and moments for people to kind of let into their lives."
Holcomb's fans can look forward to hearing those stories soon. Scheduled for release on Jan. 27, 2015, Medicine features some of Holcomb's most thoughtful writing, as well as smooth, confident performances from his folk/country-rock backing band, The Neighbors. The album's lead track and first single, the bittersweet ballad "American Beauty," was featured in Paste Magazine and CMT Edge. What's more, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors will bring a mix of their old and new stories to Boise on Friday, Nov. 14, when they play the Neurolux with Austin, Texas-based folk-rock group Penny and Sparrow.
Holcomb's musical career has gone much farther than he'd thought possible during the past decade. Inspired by artists like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Patty Griffin, he began writing and performing while attending the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
"When I first got started, it was [in] these little clubs, kind of like a lot of the ones you play out here on the West Coast," Holcomb said. "The first time, when I was in the South, it was like, 'If I could just play one of those rooms and sell it out, I will have arrived. Or I will have done what I wanted to do.'"
One of those early gigs gave him a huge surprise. He was playing in a bar in New York City when one of his idols, singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, stopped by.
"He just walks in, and I'm like, 'God, that guy looks really familiar.' And all of a sudden, I realize it's him," he said. "And I was actually right in the middle of covering 'Oh My Sweet Carolina,' one of his songs. It was this very eerie and strange but really cool moment. He walked up to me after I played and said, 'Nice cover.'"
The encounter didn't end there. Around 1 a.m., the crowd persuaded Adams to go onstage and play a number.
"He gets up there and plays the song," Holcomb remembered, "and then he says, 'The craziest thing happened to me tonight; I came in here and this kid from Memphis was playing my song.' And he said, 'Drew, you wanna come play with me?'"
Holcomb would eventually tour with Adams and other acts like John Hiatt, the Avett Brothers and Needtobreathe. His album Good Light (2013) hit No. 5 on Billboard's Folk Albums chart and No. 1 on iTunes' Singer/Songwriter chart. Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it "a gently insinuating, casually charming collection designed to fit into the rhythms of your life because it so clearly reflects the rhythms of its creator." This past June, Holcomb organized the one-day Moon River Music Festival in Memphis, Tenn., which featured sets from Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank Williams), Judah & the Lion and other acts.
For all of his material success, Holcomb takes the most pride in listeners making his songs part of their lives.
"It's when you see people singing along or somebody tells you that they had a song in their wedding," he said. "Or we got this really intense but beautiful email from a girl recently who was on the verge of suicide. And this song we wrote, she said she heard it and it made her change her mind. That's the kind of stuff that I just don't even have a paradigm for or category for. It's really a great honor to have created something ... that goes into the world and it means something to people."
You can hear that gratitude and yearning to connect throughout Medicine. The anthemic, Petty-esque rocker "Shine Like Lightning" gives shout-outs to his fans and Ellie Holcomb, his wife of eight years (who also plays with The Neighbors and has her own solo career). Other songs like "When It's All Said and Done" and "Tightrope" meditate on hardships and the loved ones who help you get through them.
The bonds that Holcomb has made should serve him well in the coming months. He'll finish his current tour on Nov. 22. After the release of Medicine, he'll tour the U.K. and America from January to April. He also hopes to throw a second Moon River Music Festival in 2015.
Thinking about his career in the long run, Holcomb still draws inspiration from his favorite artists.
"Plenty of the bands that I still look up to and respect, they're still making records," he said. "They're still being creative, and they're still offering something to the world."