There are at least two good reasons why Drew Holcomb named his band The Neighbors. For one, the members lived in the same area code. For another, Holcomb and company are a communal outfit, one that garners populist appeal through an embracing attitude that always extends to their audiences.
“That’s my job,” the Emmy-winning artist declared when speaking from his home in East Nashville. “I feel such gratitude, like I’m living the dream. It’s so great to connect with people, and have songs that provide that connection. There’s this cooperative relationship between the artist and the audience. That’s why I got into this, why I love it, and why I hope to do it for the rest of my life.”
Like most artists, the band was forced off the road during the pandemic. Seven months worth of bookings were canceled in a two-week span in mid-March 2020. “We were all sort of freaking out, wondering how we were going to pay our bills,” Holcomb remembered. “But we figured it out. When life gets confusing and difficult and chaotic, I tend to turn to the music that I love.”
The result was a series of virtual singles dubbed “Kitchen Covers,” regular remakes of songs by such disparate sources as Joni Mitchell, the Avett Brothers, John Mayer, Otis Redding, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, John Prine and Woody Guthrie, among the many.
“I started playing them on the internet,” Holcomb said. “It kind of blew up into this ritual, and then I started recording them. It was a way to help support the band when we couldn’t tour, allowing me to keep paying my folks.”
Then again, Holcomb has never remained completely idle. For the past six years, he’s curated his Magnolia Record Club, a monthly offering of various vinyl releases he handpicks for his fans. This month sees the return of the Moon River Music Festival in Chattanooga, which Holcomb founded in 2014 and continues to oversee in tandem with AC Entertainment. In addition to supporting numerous nonprofits, he toured nonstop prior to the pandemic.
One of his first upcoming gigs will take place at Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend on Thursday, Sept. 9.
“We’re still going to be touring, but I don’t think I’ll ever tour as hard as I did pre-pandemic,” Holcomb said. “I sometimes think that if you tour too hard, you forget why you love it and it becomes a grind. I’m old enough now where I want to sort of pick and choose where I play, and only play things that sound interesting or different. I want to try to keep it fresh if we can. When everything got put on ice, I realized how much I enjoyed spending time at home with our three kids. That was the thing I missed the most. So it was almost like a silver lining of sorts.”
Holcomb’s wife, Ellie, also has a singing career of her own. She was once part of the Neighbors, but in recent years, the two have confined their combined touring to once-a-year outings in February.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Holcomb’s devotion to making music is thoroughly engrained in both his mantra and his mindset.
“It’s just part of how I see the world and how I grew up,” he said.” I always associated singing with a community, whether it was church, or concerts or the idea of sitting around a campfire. To me, music is a way for people to share life and make some sense of it. I lost my brother when I was in high school, and I came to realize that life is short. We have to take advantage of the days we have. I think music is a way to grasp that mortality and appreciate the joy of being alive, even while you come to realize you don’t get to live forever.”
Holcomb names Bob Dylan, Al Green, Bruce Springsteen, David Gray, Patty Griffin and the music once heard on Top 40 radio as among his main influences, but he also admitted its hard for him to cite specific sources. “It’s impossible to know what all I’ve put in the crockpot and what I’ve come out it with,” he said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of songs and bands that have left a stamp on me in some way.”
At the same time, he tries to avoid tying himself to any specific criteria. The band’s most recent album, “Dragons,” was a stunning success, both critically and commercially, but he said that he won’t try the same tack when it comes to his next effort.
“At the end of the day, I just have to trust my creative instincts,” he said. “Every time I’ve tried to chase a formula, it’s always failed. Being true to who I am — as a writer, as a musician and as a bandleader — has always served me best. We do what we do for the music’s sake, and let the chips fall where they may. We let the muse take us where it will.”