By Drew Holcomb
Years ago, I found myself at a small backyard gathering in Franklin, Tennessee, where Guy Clark was the guest of honor. He was sitting by a fire, hand-rolling a cigarette, silver hair slicked back and eyes narrowed because of the late afternoon summer sun. I was nervous to meet him as I had been listening to his legendary songs for many years. With a question prepared, I sat down next to him on the bench and introduced myself.
“Hello Guy, my name is Drew. I am a young songwriter here in town … and I have a question for you.”
“Hello Drew, nice to meet you,” he answered in a patient Texas accent.
“When you were my age, what songwriters were you listening to?” I asked. He looked at me for a few long moments while he took a drag on his cigarette, then said, “Me.”
It was the shortest possible answer, ripe with a lifetime of confidence. It was the genuine kind of confidence earned from years of experience rather than a youthful, naive kind of confidence.
When I was making my first record as a 22 year old, I was full of that youthful and naive brand of confidence. I had started writing songs while I spent part of my junior year of college studying in Edinburgh, Scotland. When I returned home to Knoxville for my senior year, I started playing shows and recording songs. My shows were two to three hours long as I fancied myself to be some sort of Bruce Springsteen. I mixed in covers, rehearsed very little and refused to abide by the “less is more” rule.
I knew a producer in my hometown of Memphis named Paul Ebersold. We met years earlier when I bought my first car from him. We had become friends because of a mutual love of duck hunting. When he heard I was writing songs and performing, he agreed to help get me started. He told me that the right songs would do the work for me.
In those early years of hustling for any gig I could get, writing songs that I thought were masterpieces — they were not, not even close — and feeling sorry for myself watching my peers get signed to record labels, land national TV placements and find themselves on tour with their heroes while I played another coffeeshop show at a local community college with sometimes fewer than 10 people in the audience, I did not believe that advice about the right songs doing the work. I thought I had the right songs. I started chasing success instead of writing from the heart. I tried co-writing with songwriters in the country scene. I tried writing just for TV. I let too many voices inside my head and heart as I wrote songs. Then, I almost gave up.
Our van that we toured in broke, and we couldn’t afford to fix it. My wife, Ellie, and I gave ourselves another six months to play the shows that were on the books and had started thinking about other careers. We had given music about five years, and it was not growing. We knew it was time to be honest with ourselves about our long-term prospects in the difficult landscape of the music business. But one night, the right song finally came along.
My sister called to tell me that she and her husband and their three kids were leaving Nashville to take a job in Panama. While excited for them about this international opportunity, I was devastated. My nieces and nephew were our grounding at the time, always reminding us there was something more important than our work. I got off the phone, picked up the guitar and for the first time in many months, wrote a song straight from the heart. It was finished in less than an hour. Three chords, and a love letter to those kids called “Live Forever.” I played it for Ellie, and as she joyfully wept, we knew something special had happened.
We immediately recorded and released the song. This was in the height of the iTunes era and the song went all the way to No. 1 on the singer/songwriter charts. The number of people at our shows doubled in a matter of months. Instead of begging friends and family to come to venues, we finally looked out and saw the faces of strangers who rather than hanging far away from the stage were clamoring for the front row. The right song was doing the work for us. Shortly thereafter, the song was picked up by NBC’s Parenthood for the emotional, closing segment of the show’s first season. We used the money to buy a new van so we could stay on the road. It was the beginning of a shift from naive, youthful confidence to the confidence of experience.
I wish I had written the “right” song earlier, but without the speed bumps, roadblocks and disappointments, maybe there would never have been the heart to write the “right” song at all.
Photo Credit: Dia Morgan