LowellArts has launched a new music program for 2021 called the Featured Artist Series: Connecting You with the People Behind the Music. This monthly feature offers audiences a personal, insider view into the current music scene from the perspective of West Michigan’s talented performers. Check back on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month for a new article or interview from the featured artist. The September artist of the month is the Drew Nelson.
Article by Sue Clements
West Michigan songwriter Drew Nelson draws inspiration from the people who live around him, the everyday people. Drew grew up somewhere between Kent City and Casnovia, in farm country, dotted with orchards. His music, and more importantly, his worldview has been informed and influenced through the lens of that boy growing up in a small town farming community. Drew spins his tales to offer others’ perspectives through the landscape of that young boy.
Sharing a little bit about his growing up, Drew remembers going out to the orchards when his dad didn’t have work, the whole family gathering apples for the extra money it would bring in. The young ones picking up the drops. He recalls riding home from the migrant camp with his bicycle basket full of tortillas. He was young, but noticed the differences between his playmate’s migrant housing and his home. He says, “the little Woody Guthrie in me grew up.”
He did grow up. One of the first things he mentioned was in regards to his sobriety. “Today is my 9-year sobriety date. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’m better for the pain and living,” Drew shared.
While his roots are in small-town Michigan, Drew has toured both in Europe and throughout the U.S. He has opened for well known artists like Melissa Etheridge and Josh White.
Drew describes his music as Americana and goes on to say that he really sees himself as a folk musician, and definitely more of a storyteller. That’s what I see too. Listening to his music I am drawn into the narrative. He does not sugarcoat his characters or their struggles. Still, despite the hard times, we find a sense of hope in his words. Living an authentic life, things happen, we struggle and endure. We find a way.
Ellen Stanley of Red House Records describes Drew’s 2021 Tilt-A-Whirl beautifully. “Together this ensemble of musicians brings Drew’s sad and beautiful working class tales to life. Speaking to today’s hard economic realities, Tilt-A-Whirl illuminates people’s struggles to hold onto their hopes and dreams as they spin through the wild carnival ride of life.”
To answer the question, when did you start writing? Drew shared, “Since I could talk. It’s all about stories. Blood memories. I learned to play so that I could write these songs.”
I asked if he has ever felt driven or compelled to write a particular song or tell a story. He shared that with his ADHD, “I have now and not now. So if a story needs to be written, it’s now.” He continues on to describe the process. “Going into a room, closing the door and pacing. You want to get all of the ideas out. Get rid of the editor. Don’t throw anything away.”
His stories combine the perspectives of that young boy with a bike basket full of tortillas, and the man he is today. Everything that it has taken him to get here gives a sense of beauty to his music. Drew talks about it as a sense of place, but I wasn’t sure what that was. One of his favorite authors, the great Flannery O’Connor (as he calls her) felt that to be a great writer one needs a sense of space. Drew describes this as writing through the perspective of his own geography.
As far as I’m concerned, Drew’s songs offer that sense of place. I like the way Lousie Erdrich describes the concept, “a new story and an old story, a personal story and a collective story…” When I listen to Drew’s songs – “Promised Land” and “Highway 2” for instance – I feel a personal connection, and others do too. Something we share, but each in our own way.
Drew’s creativity does not stop with storytelling and music. Honey Creek Woodworks, Drew’s small furniture company, recently entered a bench and chair in The Festival of the Arts competition in downtown Grand Rapids, and they won three awards!
We talked just after Drew returned home from a tour. He said it was wonderful to be on stage performing. He was struck by the fact that he got to tell his stories, play his music, and once more see people and their smiles in the audience. He talked about looking forward to getting back out there and, at the same time, being mindful of masking up. “I’ve got two little kids that can’t yet get vaccinated,” he says.
Spend some time listening to his music. You deserve it and will be so glad you did. Drew shared that he is looking forward to making another record – no further details yet. You can see him perform at a LowellArts Gallery Concert on October 16th. He’ll also be playing January 9, 2022 at the Ark in Ann Arbor.