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March 2019 - Drew Nelson

Big Stories of a Small Town Singer-Songwriter

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Drew NelsonAfter releasing his last record, “Tilt-a-Whirl” in 2012, Ada singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Drew Nelson’s life took a topsy-turvy turn. He was diagnosed with a rare disease, went through a divorce, and got sober.

“My life did a pretty good punch in the gut,” Nelson said. “It was hard and wonderful to go through that stuff -- it’s kind of the making of the real me.”

Nelson grew up in the tiny town of Casnovia, in a graduating class of 75 students -- joking he was one of four who didn’t have a John Deere hat. The storytelling songwriter and banjo player is more influenced by writers and poets than musicians. He cites Annie Proulx as an inspiration, and believes Mary Oliver is probably the greatest poet.

“Great author Flannery O’Connor said that a great writer needs a sense of place, and that’s something I really kind of try to do with the songs that I write, is talk about the world through the lens of my geography,” Nelson said.

Nelson often creates character-based lyrics, contemplating how different people would say things, outside of his own perspective. It’s a lesson he frequently teaches in songwriting workshops. “Songwriting 101 would be like you’re the only you that we have, and your voice is really important,” Nelson said. “No one can see the world from your perspective like you, so we really need you to write it. Songwriting 102 would be like ‘nobody cares about you,’” Nelson laughed.

“At first, people just need this sort of permission to write, and it quickly becomes this sense of catharsis. And then I think as we mature, as writers, we realize that we’re kind of trying to write more universal truths. Personal stuff can be scattered in there, but people aren’t that interested in your personal catharsis. They’re interested in how they can say, ‘oh gosh, I felt that way’ and this person happened to write it, or that resonates with me. That’s kind of a broader brush to paint with.”

The Michigander and fly-fisherman’s early music goals came true when he got to sign with Red House Record label (The Wailin’ Jennys, Greg Brown, Dale Watson). After meeting the labeDrew Nelsonl’s president Eric Peltoniemi at conferences, and ended up emailing him some of the recordings from the then-upcoming record, “Tilt-a-Whirl.” He’s played gigs in the UK, and opened up for Melissa Etheridge and Edwin McCain at major festivals.

“Basically, they just took the album that we made in Grand Rapids (at Mackinaw Harvest Music), and didn’t change anything,” Nelson said. “They had it mastered out in Denver at Airshow Mastering, which is a great Grammy-award-winning guy that mastered it. It was just tremendous the way that came about.”

That was 2012, but in the last seven years, Nelson has been busy living life. Outside of the studio or stage, he enjoys the pace of fly-fishing. “I think it’s helpful to my soul, and to me,” he said. “There’s something about being out in the world, knee-deep in a stream, and being a part of everything rather than just observing it from a far. Something about feeling that current push against you.”

Working fulltime on his woodworking business, Honey Creek Woodworks, building custom furniture. He also welcomed his first child into the world, alongside his wife, and quickly had his ego checked.

“There was a time in my life where I had a pretty good sized ego going on,” Nelson said. That same ego was kicked out when baby came into the picture. “A little tiny baby cannot even move, and it will point out every area in your life where you’re selfish; it’s amazing.”

It’s young people in Michigan’s vibrant music scene that are also paving the way, according to Nelson. He remembers Traverse City band, The Accidentals, playing the tiny Farmfest show, in a cafeteria.
Drew Nelson
“There’s so many kids coming up,” Nelson said. “I’m very fortunate to be part of this Wheatland community, and I see these young kids diving into old timey music with mandolins, and fiddles and diving deep. I didn’t even start to go there until I was in my 30s.”

Labeling the clawhammer banjo as “the coolest instrument ever,” the folksy instrumentalist can also rock it out with bandmates: Mark Shrock (bass), Drew Howard (guitar), Brian Morrill (drums), and the occasional Peter Madcat Ruth.

“Peter Madcat Ruth plays in my band sometimes,” Nelson said. “It always floors me -- he’ll call me and he’ll say, ‘hey man, I see you have a gig coming up here. Mind if I play with you guys?’ I’m like -- ‘you won a GRAMMY!’”

“What I love about it right now is there’s not one ego in the whole thing. Nobody has to show off, and everybody’s really good. It’s just about serving the song,” he said.

Sharing the stage with fellow musicians, and getting to play festivals with Michigan artists like Jen Sygit, Steppin’ in it, Jen Cass, Nelson is looking forward to playing Wheatland’s traditional arts weekend.

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