Drew Holcomb is an interesting case study. Though he crafts readily accessible melodies, he doesn’t pander lyrically to the lowest common denominator. He’s not up there singing, “Oh, baby baby.” He’s singing about gratitude for a lost love, acceptance of personal vulnerabilities, and respect for life’s challenges. And that’s how he started his sold-out show at Ryman Auditorium last Saturday night, with the exquisite contemplation that is “American Beauty.”
Armed with six guitars, four basses, and some of the tastiest drum licks this side of the Mississippi, Holcomb — with guitarist Nathan Dugger, bassist Rich Brinsfield, keyboardist Grant Pittman, and drummer Jonathan Womble — delivered a well-paced, dynamic set that showcased why he deserved and how he earned his place on that stage in front of this crowd. From the folk-rock goodness of “Good Light” to the shuffling groove of “Another Man’s Shoes,” Holcomb invited everyone into the music, the performance, the night. It was a musical homecoming for all in attendance.
While Holcomb let his wife Ellie (a crowd favorite) take the lead on “Hung the Moon,” he also asked Needtobreathe’s Bo Rinehart out on “I Got the World, I Got You” and producer/lap steel player Joe Pisapia on “When It’s All Said and Done.” Scaling back to a trio for “You’ll Always Be My Girl,” Holcomb chided the audience, saying, “If you don’t like this, I don’t really know why you’re here.” After that, he went solo and off-mic for a hometown send-up of “Tennessee,” which he dedicated to his parents.
On songs like “Tightrope” and “Fire and Dynamite,” Holcomb comes off as America’s answer to David Gray. Then, on “Avalanche” and “Nothing But Trouble,” he seems like the second coming of Van Morrison. Either way, Holcomb is an artist worth listening to.
As the night’s opener, Holly Williams was great. She’s always great, no matter the venue. But seeing her at the Ryman was all the more fantastic, especially when she broke out grandpa Hank’s “I Saw the Light” as the penultimate number in her set. Prior to that, Williams offered up a slew of songs from 2013’s The Highway, with nary a new tune in the bunch. The beauty of that record is that it manages to capture the emotion of Williams’ live performance rather than relying on the performance to re-create the record. And with songs as memorable and moving as “Gone Away from Me,” “The Highway,” “Happy,” and others — not to mention Tom Bukovac, Annie Clements, Chris Coleman, and Ian Fitchuk as her backing band — Williams is doing things right.
Although Coleman and Clements have played with Williams in the past, Fitchuk and Bukovac were newcomers who needed a little coaching from Coleman to land their parts in the right places. But they got there, including Bukovac’s super-subtle guitar runs on “Drinkin’” and the rocking-funky groove Fitchuk laid down under “Angel from Montgomery,” a John Prine cover that Williams’ voice translates just wonderfully. After the cut loose of “I Saw the Light,” Williams switched to the other side of her family for “Waiting on June,” a song that is practically perfect in every way.
Taken together, Holcomb and Williams couldn’t have pleased the crowd any more than they did.