Drew Nelson – seeking out the stories of the working man
When Drew Nelson first started going into schools to play his songs and run workshops for the students, the bookings came from the music department. But as time has gone on, he’s found that increasingly he’s getting called by English departments – and that’s where he feels more at home.
“At the end of the day what I am is a storyteller, more than anything else,” says the Michigan singer-songwriter, who is touring the UK this summer in support of his latest album Dusty Road to Beulah Land.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a great musician. I’ve taught myself to play the guitar, but it’s always been the lyric part for me. And I’m a voracious reader. I read all the time. Great writers read, they just soak it up.”
Nelson’s songs draw heavily on his blue-collar upbringing and on his observations of working life in America. His latest album includes the story of a Detroit auto worker trying to make ends meet after his job disappears (listen to that song in the audio with this article), the last thoughts of a trapped miner, and a farmer thinking watching the landscape disappear, as well as songs that reflect Nelson’s deep respect for the Native American culture and traditions, and mourns the threat to that way of life.
The stories come both from Nelson’s imagination and from talking to people, he says.
“They’re everywhere. That guy’s got a story, you have a story, the lady at the shop’s got a story. That lady at the post office that you only see when you drop off a letter, if you sit and talk to her she’s an interesting, amazing person. We all are.
“Lot of times you’ll talk to people and you’ll get a seed of something, and then the names are changed to protect the guilty! Ultimately my family all knows that sooner or later they’re going to end up in a song. Sometimes a song could be composite of a bunch of different people that I know.”
Songwriting for Nelson is a combination of hard work and waiting for inspiration to strike.
“A friend of mine whose father is a wonderful poet just sent me his thoughts on one of my albums. He said ‘I don’t know about songwriting but I do know about poems and it’s kind of like standing in a field with a lightning rod, but you can’t make the lightning strike.’
“To me it’s something that I work very hard at, and you practise what you do over and over and over again so that when the inspiration part comes, you’re ready for it. There’s still a little bit of that mystery there but there’s also just plain hard work and learning about song structure, especially if you’re going to write popular songs.”
Although Nelson always wanted to play music, he took a while to get there. He joined the US Navy after school and served in the first Gulf War. He also got married – probably too young, he acknowledges – and it was only when his marriage ended that he went back to music. He was 27 when his first record came out.
“At first I thought I was going to be a big rock star, and that didn’t come out very well. Then I signed a record contract with a group that they weren’t really interested in putting out the record, they were hoping to sell me to another label, so there was a little snafu in there. But in the middle of that stuff I started to find my voice as a songwriter and find the genre that I’m in. I was never a very good rock ‘n’ roll guy anyway, always a little more hometown than that.”
Nelson’s substantial tour of the UK began in July, took a break in August and resumes with another 15 dates in September. He’s performing solo.
“I love to play with a band,” he says. “I’ve got a band at home. It’s a whole different vibe when the band’s with you. But I do love the intimacy of just sitting down with a guitar with folks and just telling stories.
As for the audiences over here, Nelson is excited to play for them.
“They might not be as hootin’ and hollerin’ as they are in Texas, but they seem to listen on a whole different level. You’ll get off stage and somebody will come up to you and say ‘the third line in that second song you sang, was that -?’
“That to me is the greatest gift of all, somebody that gives attention to what you say. Plus I have this motto: go where people like you. And they really like me here so I’m gonna keep coming back.”
Nelson is working up to his next album, and also hopes to release a live album, as well as writing poems and short stories. As well as all that, he has a television project, entitled American Farm Hand, in which he will work with farmers and attempt to get to their stories.
“We’ve had a lot of great documentaries that talk about the big corporate farms, but still nobody’s talking about the everyday farmer,” he says.
“I’m trying to figure out who are these folks that year after year have faith in a seed that they can plant, and despite weather and rain, or lack of rain, or laws and economies and governments, expect that at the end of it they’re going to have a harvest.”
Drew Nelson on Backroads (including gig dates)