Featured photo: Ellie and Drew Holcomb
By Jennifer Sicking | Courtesy Photos
Ellie Holcomb is sure God has a sense of humor.
“I swore I would never be a musician. I swore I’d never marry a musician. I actually swore that I’d never marry my best guy friend, who everybody said I should get together with,” Ellie says with a laugh.
All that swearing proved for naught.
Because … Drew.
Drew Holcomb, who met Ellie Bannister at UT Knoxville. Drew Holcomb, who felt compelled to craft stories to music. Drew, who became front man for Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, an Americana band known for songs “American Beauty” and “Family.” Drew, who encouraged his wife to travel and perform with him.
Now, Ellie’s married to a musician and her best guy friend from those college years. She’s also a Christian singer/songwriter known for songs such as “Red Sea Road” and “Canyon.”
I Like to Be With Me When I’m With You
Growing up surrounded by music in a city steeped in music, Drew found a refuge in song as a teenager after his younger brother’s death to spina bifida. He listened to U2, David Gray and others to help him process that loss as a 17-year-old.
“Van Morrison was helping me make more sense of it than the Psalms were,” Drew says.
Music became his lifeline, and it’s one he carried with him to UT Knoxville as a Manning Scholar and University Honors student.
When Drew enrolled at UTK, he carried with him advice from his father: “Go to school and learn how to learn.” As a self-professed history nerd in high school, Drew found his place in studying the past and thought it might be his future.
“At the end of the day, a historian is a storyteller. It taught me what good storytelling is and how to make sense of our lives—past, present and future,” Drew says.
He also learned persistence in staying with a project until the end. That would transfer from his academic life to his love life and to a life spent making a music career.
Ellie, the daughter of Christian music producer Brown Bannister, picked up a guitar in junior high and began playing and writing songs. The Nashville native wanted to attend college in a different part of the United States, to see the world. Then she visited the UTK campus and the Great Smoky Mountains. The deal sealer came when Ellie, the 19th alternate for the Tennessee Scholarship, received it after 20 other students selected other schools to attend.
“I ended up meeting people from all over the world and all kinds of different perspectives and life experiences,” she says.
She also was experiencing the highs and lows of life. In the lows, she sat in the stairwells of Humes and Massey halls singing of her pain after heartbreaks.
“I was like a bad version of Taylor Swift,” she says with a laugh.
Yet, when she opened her eyes on those stairs, she’d find 20 to 30 girls gathered around her listening and crying because of their own broken hearts. In those moments, she learned that melodies and lyrics bridge gaps between people.
“It connects people’s stories,” she says of music. “It connects people’s hearts and joys and heartaches.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in education with a thesis titled “Singing Shakespeare: Music Inspired by the Master of the Word,” Ellie headed into the classroom, where she taught literature and would sing or rap Shakespeare.
“I sang all the way through my teaching career, so I always knew I would be a singer,” Ellie says. “I just thought I’d be doing it in classrooms, not on stages.”
She couldn’t imagine leaving teaching.
“I loved my education program,” she says. “I felt completely equipped to really teach because of the education program at UT and to call good things out of students that they maybe didn’t know were there.”
And Drew didn’t give up. Their friendship carried through attending concerts at the Tennessee Theatre, Blue Cats, Market Square and playing music together.
Drew graduated a semester early with a Bachelor of Arts in the College Scholars Program in Arts and Sciences and returned to Memphis to begin in earnest working to make his music dream come true. He worked at a studio, wrote songs and played gigs—putting in 70 hours a week.
Some gigs left Drew wondering about his decision to make music as people ignored him or yelled requests for cover songs.
“The first four years, 25 percent were dark nights of the soul, 25 percent were awesome, and 50 percent were putting in the work,” he says of those days.
In 2005, Ellie was teaching in Nashville when Drew’s persistence in love paid off. Ellie agreed to go with him to see Patty Griffin at the Ryman Auditorium for their first date.
The couple married in 2006.
Drew asked Ellie to go on the road with him. She knew if she didn’t, she’d always wonder, “What if?” But she had a back-up plan. She informed her principal they would probably be broke and she’d need to return to teaching in a year. The principal called after the first year and then the following four years to see if she was ready to return to the classroom.
“I didn’t think we would be doing music for long,” Ellie says.
Drew also made plans for a different future. He studied for his master’s degree in divinity with St. Andrews University in Scotland. The distance program required two weeks on campus, then classes online. Every six weeks he’d have to turn in a paper, which he wrote from the back of the van while touring. He wrote his dissertation on “Springsteen and American Redemptive Imagination.”
“It was sort of a strange time,” Drew says. “It was study for the sake of studying.”
The back-up plan of becoming a professor and writer faded into what might have been as theaters and other music venues filled with fans of Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors and the band’s Americana music.
Drew’s songs have been featured on more than 150 television shows and 20 commercials, but as he says, “We’ve never had a radio hit.”
“I love to ask fans how they first heard our music,” he says, because it’s often not found on radio stations. Instead, they saw the band perform at Bonnaroo or open for Willie Nelson or through a Spotify playlist.
When the couple had their first of three children, Emmylou, in 2012, she went on the road with the band at 2 weeks old. By the time she was 6 months, she had traveled to 32 states and Canada. When Emmylou started to walk, Ellie made the decision to stay at home. Their sons followed, Huck in 2015 and Rivers in 2018.
But she couldn’t quit music.
In Ellie’s songwriting, she wrestles with her doubt, pain, fear and sorrow—and so she continued to write songs that she imagined were for herself.
“We all have a choice with how you can respond,” she says. “For me, singing is a way of holding on to hope. It’s been so beautiful because a lot of being human is being broken.”
Then Drew and her father encouraged her to release her music.
“It sort of felt like an invitation. What if you went and were just real and honest and authentic? What if you went first and sang these songs of working out your faith for people? And I was like, ‘Oh no. I do not want to do that.’”
But, again, she began to wonder, “What if?”
A Kickstarter campaign raised the necessary $40,000 in two days to record Ellie’s first solo album.
In 2014, Ellie received the GMA Dove Award for New Artist of the Year.
What Would I Do Without You
In 2016, Drew spent nine days in the hospital battling meningitis. Left exhausted by the illness and touring for a record that didn’t seem to resonate with fans, Drew again thought about walking away from music. He contemplated what it would mean.
“It sucked all the creativity out of me,” he says of the illness.
Songwriting became his salvation. He had only written songs with Ellie and his bandmates, but now he reached wider to other songwriting friends. In the writing, he found healing. It also resulted in the albums Goodbye Road with JohnnySwim and Dragons with the Neighbors.
“It had all ground me down,” he says. “But then I was reminded what I love about this business: songwriting.”
For Drew and Ellie, to be songwriters is to share their lives and to travel internally to vulnerable places where hurt and pain mingle in a soul bruise.
“I think that’s the job,” Drew says, referencing “Never Leave My Heart,” the song about the death of his younger brother 20 years before.
But his songs also reflect reality to which listeners can identify, such as in “Family” with the taking a vacation on the credit card or “You don’t choose ’em, you can’t lose ’em.”
Or he writes of his heart toward Ellie in “What Would I Do Without You”:
“You got your sunshine, I got rain clouds
“You got hope, I got my doubts
“So, what would I do without you?”
To be vulnerable means to go first, which builds connection when others whisper, “Me too.”
“I think that’s a lot of times what artists do, they say, ‘I’ll go first. This is hard or this hurts or this confuses me or I have this longing that’s not met. I’ll go first,’” Ellie says. “If you’re brave enough to go first, the beauty that happens in the wake of that makes the scariness of the vulnerability well worth the risk.”
And then, again in a concert, the audience cheers and sings along.
“You get this beautiful reminder that it hurts to be human, but it’s really beautiful to be human with breath in your lungs, as well, and let’s breathe it out together and sing together and let our voices mingle,” she says.
In her song “Sweet Ever After,” Ellie explores the fear she felt when a tornado rocked her Nashville neighborhood and yet the hope that remains “in the wake of that disaster.”
“There’ll be a lot of blessing by a life well-lived/As you lose what don’t matter,” she sings.
In “Constellations” she tackles loneliness: “How many miles does my soul have to drive/Before love can collide with the mess in my life?” As she looks to the night sky, she finds her answer and her peace in her Christian faith:
“Pinpricks of glory strung out across the sky
“Memories of darkness undone by the light
“Reminding me You are right here by my side.”
Feels Like Home
Gathering and singing together at concerts took a pause during the first year of COVID. In response, Drew and Ellie invited fans into their kitchen via social media livestreams for Kitchen Covers.
“Drew said, ‘Songs have always been a balm to the sorrow and the chaos and confusion of being a human on this crazy, beautiful, broken world. So we’re going to sing. We’re going to sing our way through the sorrow,’” Ellie says.
At first nightly and then more sporadically, for more than 60 nights, Drew or Drew and Ellie sang songs by their friends or those they toured with such as NeedtoBreathe, Patty Griffin and Willie Nelson, and then it branched out to include other songwriters including Bob Dylan and Beyonce.
Drew mourned with a John Prine cover when the master songwriter died from COVID. Then there was the joyous, dancing-with-the-family performance of Justin Timberlake’s song “Can’t Stop the Feeling.”
“No one knew how to make sense of their lives, and it helped to escape,” Drew says. “We covered a lot of emotional ground.”
As musicians take people through the highs and lows of life, it becomes the soundtrack to listeners’ lives lived.
“We need music,” Ellie says. “Neither of us studied music, but I think we were inspired at UT by what we studied—by English major, history major, religious studies major. I think music has a way of weaving people’s stories together, and we got a really great dose of learning about stories, not only from the education we got at UT but from all the people and the stories we encountered while we were there.”