is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Wright Thompson and Drew Holcomb, only at Paste.
Americana songwriter Drew Holcomb was on the road, and needed a little light reading. He picked up a copy of Garden & Gun magazine, after noticing that the theme of the issue was “highways and roads.” Inside was a story by journalist and author Wright Thompson about the death of his uncle, and it hit Holcomb hard.
“I found myself in an airport, reading this article and sobbing like a baby,” Holcomb says, smiling ruefully.
In the story, Thompson describes a drive to visit his uncle one last time at the family farm in Greenwood, Mississippi. He sits by his uncle’s bed holding his hand and weeping, and then heads home. By the time he gets back, his uncle has passed.
Holcomb comes from a large family—he is one of 38 grandkids—and says that he was raised by his aunts and uncles. His great uncle, a World War II veteran, was particularly central to his childhood. Holcomb fondly remembers shooting gourds and tomatoes with a .22 at his uncle’s remote mountain home.
“When I was reading this thing, I remembered very clearly the first time I drove that road after he passed away, and thinking, this road is never going to be the same,” Holcomb says.
When Thompson heard that Holcomb planned to write a song in response to his story, he was surprised and a little anxious. Thompson is a longtime fan of Holcomb’s, not just of his songwriting but also his band’s roof-raising live shows.
“I was flattered, obviously,” Thompson says, “but also nervous, because obviously it’s deeply personal.”
The song Holcomb wrote is called “Slower than the Highway,” a plaintive, earthy ballad about love and loss. When Thompson heard Holcomb play it live, it was his turn to get emotional.
“Half a bar in, and I’m like, Oh, no … ” Thompson says. “I’m trying to be cool in front of the fucking country music singer, and now I’m going to cry, on Zoom?”
The two artists talked admiringly of each others’ craft and work. Both are fascinated by the capacities and limitations of the art forms.
“The thing that Drew wrote is more universal than the thing I wrote, which makes me crazy,” Thompson laughs, “So now I hate him.”
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.