- May 2014 -
HAVE A BEER WITH DREW HOLCOMB
Since releasing their first album, 2005’s Washed In Blue, Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors (Ellie Holcomb, Nathan Dugger, Rich Brinsfield) have established themselves as a formidable indie act, selling more than 75,000 records, playing more than 1,500 live dates, selling-out headline shows and touring alongside such varied acts as The Avett Brothers, Ryan Adams, NEEDTOBREATHE, Marc Broussard and more. The band’s sixth album Good Light, peaked at No. 1 on the iTunes® Singer/Songwriter charts and No. 7 on the Overall iTunes® chart. The album also debuted in the Billboard Top 200, No. 5 Folk Albums, No. 14 Independent Albums and No. 23 Rock Albums. And now, after years on the road visiting thousands of cities across the country, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors are coming back to their hometown of Memphis, Tenn. for the first annual Moon River Music Festival on June 7 presented by Southern Sun AM.
The festival, hosted at Levitt Shell in Memphis, will feature a full day of music, activities, famous Memphis food and more. A Beer with the Band chatted with Drew about the making of the festival, the meaning behind it and why it's important to celebrate.
Drink of Choice: Single malt scotch
Kristen from A Beer with the Band: You’re currently living in Nashville. Why Memphis as home base for the Moon River Festival?
Drew Holcomb: I grew up in Memphis. That’s where I moved back after college and that’s where I got my start playing music. I played a variety of places around town…malls, pubs, clubs, regular gigs playing cover songs at one bar in particular. I started building my own fan base around original songs at a place called the Hi-Tone Café, which is a pretty intimate rock club in Memphis. It’s been there quite a while. I moved to Nashville because at the time, my wife Ellie, got a teaching job there. But Memphis has always been home to me and it has always been inseparable from my story as a person and as an artist. Nashville is a great city, but I don’t have quite the same soul connection to Nashville as I do to Memphis. I’ve always wanted to do a festival...It’s a long-time dream that I’ve had—to give back to the city that gave me so much.
Kristen: I saw you’ll be donating some of the proceeds from the festival to local non-profit organizations.
Drew: Yeah, three actually. The first one is called the Levitt Foundation. The venue we’re doing the show at—The Levitt Shell—is actually a non-profit that puts on concerts about sixty days. We wanted to thank them for letting us use their space…It was our way to say thank you for their partnership, and we’re going to sponsor one of their shows. The second is St. Jude. We wanted to have a local non-profit partner that was nationally recognized. One of the brightest things about Memphis is that it has the preeminent children’s cancer research hospital. It’s a big part of why Memphis is a great town. And the last one, which I’m probably the most excited about, is a scholarship for The Soulsville Charter School, which is a charter high school that’s a partnership between the city and the old Stax Records facility, where music was recorded back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. For that reason, the school is partially music-focused. We’re doing a scholarship for a rising freshman in college currently enrolled in Stax Academy at Soulsville that will help them go to college. It’s a one-year scholarship for a music student. A lot of the students that go there are underprivileged and it’s really an amazing school that develops the students as citizens and musicians. Actually, one of the acts on our lineup is a group of Stax Academy alumni—now college students—who are going to be doing a soul show.
Kristen: That’s amazing. Obviously planning all of this took a significant amount of time and effort. How do you balance all of this? You’re a musician, you’re a dad, you’re a husband…How do you find the time?
Drew: About five hours of sleep a night. It’s funny, but it’s not really a joke. But in reality, it’s a couple of things. One: I was born with a lot of desires to do a lot of different things. I love touring but it can be a little monotonous, you know? Every day is the same. You drive all day, you unload, you play, you pack up, go to a hotel and do it all over again. A festival is more of a community builder. The bands that are playing the festival are all friends of mine, and I want to introduce them to my audience and their audiences to each other’s audiences. That’s the thing about going to a festival. You go to hear one or two bands you like, and you discover two or three others. I’ve always wanted to curate that experience for my own fans. The other thing is…I’ve got a great team. My management—they’re all dreamers. Dreamers and doers. It’s key when you have a dream to be able to make it happen. And as a musician, I’ve learned to wear a lot of hats over the past decade. So, why not add festival promoter onto the list?
Kristen: I’m sure a lot of it has to do with timing, too.
Drew: Yeah, we’re in that season of our careers where it feels like a lot of our work over the past year has really paid off and our careers are growing, so we’re really able to enjoy it in a lot of ways. Something my dad taught me as a kid was work hard and dream a lot, but don’t forget to celebrate. I think that’s a really good point of view. How often do you have these things that you dream about doing, and once you do them, you spend so much time trying to re-create them or do them again, but you don’t celebrate the fact that they happened?
Kristen: Especially now with how fast-paced everything in our society is, it seems like people check things off their list and move on so quickly. I like the idea of taking some time to stop and appreciate where you are and how you got there.
Drew: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s sort of what this festival is. It’s like, “Hey, we made it.” We’ve gotten to live our dream and hopefully we’ll continue to. We want this festival to be a time for our fans to come together as a family and celebrate. We are where we are now because of our fans. And we made the tickets really cheap—$25 bucks—so hopefully cost won’t be too much of an issue.
Kristen: That’s unheard of with festivals. They’re all well over $150. Was there a method to your madness for putting the festival lineup together?
Drew: There was a little bit of a method to the madness. Some of them are friends of mine that have some history of playing in Memphis. Will Hoge is a buddy of mine, and we met through this thing called The Rock Boat. We hit it off and had a lot of similar points of view on songwriting and performing. He’s a very earnest performer on-stage, and that’s the way we are, too. Everyone else is independent-minded. There’s no huge label-machine behind any of the bands performing. The Dirty Guv’nahs are guys I went to college with at the University of Tennessee. About seven years ago, we were actually playing a festival they were at, and it was their very first show as a band, so it’s pretty fun to have them on the lineup. Holly Williams is a songwriter I respect a lot. Her record last year is probably one of my favorite records of the year.
Kristen: She’s great. She has visited Chicago—SPACE in Evanston more specifically—a few times over the past two years. She’s an amazing songwriter.
Drew: Yeah, an amazing songwriter. And also for me, I really wanted to have bands that weren’t just friends of mine, but that also had a lot of musical similarities; they’re all mostly in the Americana genre. I also wanted to have some performers connected to Memphis. So, Rob Baird and Dwan Hill are guys who grew up there. Ellie is obviously doing a set and the Soulsville Alumni Band will do one as well. We wanted to have some Memphis flavor and some bands that would draw a good audience, so there was obviously a method to it in that sense. The goal for me is to do this for the next 10 or 15 years in a row. There are plenty of other bands and artists that we love and respect that we would love to get on the lineup in the future.
Kristen: I was going to ask you, where do you see the festival going in the next few years?
Drew: We would love to do it every summer. Year one, the goal is to break even financially. We’ve all taken a little bit of a risk putting this thing on. And luckily we’ve had corporate sponsors come on board who really believe in what we’re doing. The goal is that it becomes a stable thing that we can do every year to help bring people to Memphis and build a community around our music. I mean, even the name of our band, we’re The Neighbors. We never want to stand above our audience. We want our music to be accessible and this festival is a huge part of that. It’s kind of like a big family reunion.
Kristen: That’s a great way to put it. I’m curious about the name of the festival, Moon River. It’s from a famous song. Why did you choose to name the festival after it?
Drew: Two reasons. One is that I grew up on the Mississippi River and my favorite book as a kid was Huckleberry Finn. The sense of going out on an adventure, but one that was sober-minded. I love that book and I fell in love with that song (“Moon River” by Andy Williams) because of that book. The song is about the Mississippi River and the relationship between Huck and Jim. I loved that song so much that it became a lullaby for my daughter. With Memphis being on the river, my history with the song and the story, it just seemed like a perfect name for the festival.
Kristen: I saw your daughter is named Emmylou after Emmylou Harris. I love that. Her song “Red Dirt Girl” is one of my favorites.
Drew: She’s amazing. I love that record.
Kristen: We have some staple questions that we always ask. What is the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Drew: Play golf. I love to play golf. It’s one of my favorite ways to rest. Very un-rock-‘n’-roll of me, but I’m 32 years old and I just don’t care anymore.
Kristen: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Drew: Great question. The best advice I ever got was from my dad when I was trying to date my wife. He told me the best way to get her attention was to live a life that she would want to be a part of. And one other one, if I can have two. Never watch the third strike go by. Always swing at it.
Kristen: Do you feel like you’ve applied that to your life a little bit?
Drew: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve swung a lot of third strikes. You’ve gotta be willing to take a chance.
Kristen: Do you feel like you’re taking a chance with this festival a little bit?
Drew: Definitely. This is a big risk, but no risk, no reward.