Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors Plant Seeds of Gratitude on Ninth Album ‘Strangers No More’

Most of 2020 was a wash for Drew Holcomb. Following the release of his eighth album with his band The Neighbors, Dragons, in 2019, Holcomb was at a loss for words, or stories, throughout the year as he settled into the pandemic lockdown.

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“We were really starting to hit our stride touring that record, and it was getting a lot of good traction,” Holcomb tells American Songwriter. “I was pretty bummed and sad not being able to tour more for that record, and I sort of felt creatively isolated, so I was not very fruitful in songwriting.”

Within the year, Holcomb was able to muster up two new songs with his wife Ellie when the couple took a 1,600-mile road trip through Tennessee with their three children Emmylou, Huck, and Rivers in an RV. In partnership with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, the couple documented their journey in a four-part web series and released two new songs together, “Hey Rivers,” inspired by their son Rivers, and “Feels Like Home.” 

By 2021, Holcomb started reconnecting with the band and scheduled monthly writing sessions. “I would just play everything that I had written that month and let them play along, and rearrange, and talk through the songs,” shares Holcomb. “This whole record came out of those sessions. The beginning of the pandemic was full-on survival mode because we had so much work canceled, but then once it settled in, there was a lot of time to digest life, digest why you do what you do, what you love, and how you want it to look going forward.” 

Eventually, Holcomb began jotting the things of utmost importance, the bigger picture, which gave him the framework for a ninth album Strangers No More, a meditation on gratefulness and the often overlooked circuits of connectedness. 

“The songs, they convey feelings and emotions that are essential to the human experience, making for a clear connection with anyone who’s simply trying to pursue their path through life and hopes for the encouragement and affirmation needed to make it through,” stated Holcomb in a previous statement on the album. “It’s genuine and sincere, a kind of pathway to positivity that’s often so lacking in these days of difficulty and divide.”

Reconnecting with producer Cason Cooley (Ingrid Andress, American Authors), who also worked on Dragons, Holcomb began carefully arranging the 11 tracks of Strangers No More. He worked at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, North Carolina, with the band, guitarist Nathan Dugger, bassist Rich Brinsfield, drummer Will Sayles, and keyboardist Ian Miller.

Everything opens on the pensive finger-picked ballad, “Fly.” The lyric includes contemplations on the passing of time — I’m a boy at the window / As the summer sun sets / An old man in winter / Nothing more, nothing less. Holcomb originally wrote “Fly” in January of 2020 and it was one of two tracks (along with “Dance with Everybody”) that helped set the trajectory of Strangers No More.

“I just knew immediately that this is one of those songs that’s me being as honest and as vulnerable as I can be with myself,” shares Holcomb. “It’s a song about the strangeness of getting older since I turned 40 while we were making this record. At the same time, ‘Dance with Everybody’ was about how much we miss the audience, and how much we love and respect the audience and are grateful to be back in the room with them.”

He adds, “It’s about this idea of “What is music for?” It’s so we can connect, and feel, and understand our lives better, and have a place to put away our troubles and go out and have a great night.”

That levity is something Holcomb says he and the band are embracing more these days. “I used to really want to be seen as this serious singer/songwriter, and that is a lot of who I am, but it’s not all of who I am — not all of who the band is,” shares Holcomb. “We’ve allowed ourselves to lean into that and set ourselves free, to have fun with everything in front of us, and to see how our chips fall.”

Strangers No More is their guidebook to freedom, ensuring that those closest are the best people in the rallying “Find Your People” and midway in on “That’s on You, That’s on Me.” On plaintive “Troubles,” Holcomb addresses the loss an innocence and said he wrote the song in the wake of the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. He adds more introspection with I want let go of all the ghosts I’m finding on the album closer “Free (Not Afraid to Die),” co-written with Natalie Hemby.

Along with Hemby, Holcomb rounded out the stories with a number of writers, including Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show co-penning the pensive ballad “Gratitudeand the more spirited “Dance With Everybody.” He also revisited an older song he had written with Dave Barnes in 2018, “All the Money in the World.” 

“In this batch of songs, there was just a lot of energy with songs like ‘That’s on You, That’s on Me,’’ ‘Dance with Everybody,’ ‘Find Your People,’” says Holcomb. “There were these big songs like ‘On a Roll,’ which has a big sonic landscape, and the slower “Gratitude.’ Because of that mix, we were getting exploratory and allowing the band to dig into all these musical places that we hadn’t really put on wax before, and ‘All the Money in the World,” fit that mold.”

Most of the songs on Strangers No More are more universal than Dragons, says Holcomb, with the latter album centered around more personal renderings of his kids and his grandfather. 

“This one was about bigger things, about getting older, about isolation, and friendship,” says Holcomb. “And this is the first record I’ve had where there’s not a particular song about Ellie.”

Referring back to the ballad “Gratitude,” it’s one that holds more of the overarching meaning of the album for Holcomb, who began listing all the things he was grateful for while on the road in 2018 and 2019. 

“This record has a lot of that [gratitude] in it,” says Holcomb. “It’s a meditation on friendship. Within that lens, ‘Gratitude’ is about being grateful for all that gets taken and all that remains.”

Holcomb continues, “It feels like a record about coming out of years of terrible isolation, and incredible division. And I want to push back against both of those things and my music is my way of doing that. It’s aspirational, not necessarily just descriptive. It’s what I want for my music and what I want for the record. It’s what I want for the world my kids are gonna grow up in.”

Photo: Ashtin Paige / Courtesy of Stunt Company PR

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