Drew Holcomb Draws Friends to Memphis Music Festival

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Drew Holcomb got his musical education in Memphis. That’s where he heard his father tell stories about being at the car dealership when Elvis Presley bought Cadillacs for strangers. That’s where he first heard Otis Redding, Johnny Cash and other Stax and Sun records superstars.

It’s also where he slipped into his first show.

“I was 18 years old, and some friends of mine snuck in to see this new band at the Hi-Tone,” he recalls. “It was only their second show, and I remember that sweaty, barroom experience of listening to a band play live.”

That band was Lucero, then just starting out, and the show left a huge impression on the young musician.

“That was my first ‘aha!’ moment,” Holcomb said. “That was when I first became a fan of live music.”

Fifteen years later, Holcomb is a veteran live performer himself and frontman for the roots act Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors. Even though he moved east on I-40 to Nashville, his heart remains in Memphis. So when Holcomb decided to start an Americana festival, the Bluff City was a natural setting. The first-ever Moon River Music Festival will take place at the historic Levitt Shell in Midtown Memphis on Saturday (June 7).

CMT Edge: Where did the festival’s name come from?

Holcomb: It comes from my years growing up in Memphis. My first love as a child was fiction, and Huckleberry Finn was a favorite book of mine. I loved reading this adventure of a kid who had an incredibly realistic point of view on life. He was sailing down the Mississippi River, and I was in Memphis, and there was a real romance to that. The song “Moon River” is about Huck and Jim. It’s a classic American standard, but more importantly, it’s the lullaby I sing my daughter to sleep with.

What were the criteria for choosing artists for this inaugural event?

Almost everybody on the bill is a friend. We toured with Judah & the Lion. Will Hoge is a good friend here in Nashville. I’m a huge admirer, and we’ve played a lot of different festivals together. The guys in the Dirty Guv’nahs are all from Knoxville, and we went to the University of Tennessee at the same time. Dwan Hill is the keyboard player for Jonny Lang, but he’s also the brother of my drummer, Marcus. They both grew up in Memphis. The only person who might be a stretch to call a friend is Holly Williams. We have some mutual friends, though, and her record last year was a favorite.

Also listed is your wife, Ellie, as a solo performer.

She released her own record back in February, and we thought it would be pretty stupid to do a festival and not have her do a set. It’s pretty different from what the band does — much more gospel. She’s the only act on the bill in that world.

Ellie was in the band for seven years, but she’s been off the road this year. Technically, she’s a band member emeritus. She turns up at random shows, but especially with our daughter and her solo record, she wanted to be home more. After she had spent so many years in a band with five guys, we felt that was a fair request.

You’ll also have performances by students from the Stax Academy.

Being from Memphis, I wanted to have a nonprofit tie-in with what we’re doing. The Stax Academy is a charter school in the Stax Museum. We’re having their alumni band do a set, and they’re hopefully going to play with us during our set.

Could you have held this festival in another city besides Memphis? Would this have worked in Nashville or Knoxville?

We probably could have done this festival in Nashville, and it would have been a runaway success. But for me, the setting is inseparable from the festival for many reasons. I’ve always felt like Memphis is such an underappreciated place. Even though I married a Nashville girl and moved here, I’ve always considered myself a Memphian, so one of the big philosophies for the festival is to try to get our fans to come to Memphis and see what the city is all about.

Plus, we wanted to give locals another great thing to be proud of, hopefully. So the festival really wouldn’t exist, at least not in my mind, without Memphis as the main character.

The Levitt Shell is an incredibly historic venue. Every major Memphis musician has played there — Elvis, Johnny Cash, Rufus Thomas, even Big Star.

I looked at farms and other places around town, but I really wanted something more in the center of town. The Shell has an incredible series of free concerts all year — something like 60 free shows starting in early May and running into the fall. It’s just great act after great act after great act. I just assumed it wouldn’t be available for us. On a whim, we called them up, and amazingly, they said yes. Apparently the board members were all fans.

Also, it’s in the dead center of town. It’s literally a stone’s throw from the Hi-Tone, where I snuck into that Lucero show. It’s down the street from the P&H Café, where I played a lot of shows when I was first starting out. So my entire musical chops were developed within a mile of that place. Actually, when I was in the seventh grade, I was in my church’s band, and we played the Levitt Shell. So there’s a little bit of personal history involved, too.

What’s your favorite Memphis music?

I probably listen to Booker T & the MGs more than anything else, but my favorite song is “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” by the Staple Singers. I think the older I get, the more I love Stax. It feels Southern. It feels hot. It feels sweaty. The way they sing, the ache in their vocals — if I could ever get one performance that emulates them, it would make me pretty proud.

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