A year ago, Drew Whitehead was sitting across from me in the 100.9 The Creek sound booth, sharing a new song and gearing up for a set at JBA. Drew played that show– and then within a week, the bottom fell out of the world. COVID-19 and all its madness sent the country into a tailspin of sickness, unemployment, and shuttered windows, leaving live music venues in quicksand from the smallest mom & pop weekend stage to the most famous arenas in the world. The effect on artists and bands has been apocalyptical, but some have carved out a veiled opportunity for recalibration and creativity. In Drew’s case, a move to Nashville presented itself and though the pandemic is still closing more doors than it’s opening, he’s discovered a new energy and dedication to the craft. Drew returns to Macon on March 5th for the release of Solo, a digital EP that captures daily life and all the emotions that can conjure. Featuring friends from various Macon bands (as well as his fiance, Ashley, who also designed the EP’s artwork), Solo acts as a spiritual exercise and musical journal in uncertain yet hopeful times.
AI- I think it’s actually been not-quite-a-year since the last time you and I spoke. You were playin’ one of the last few shows at JBA before COVID-19 shut everything down. Where are you now? Are you actually in Nashville these days?
DW- Yeah. I’m living and working in Nashville. My day job, I asked for a transfer ’cause it was just time to see somethin’ else besides Macon. I was born and raised in Middle Georgia. We have a branch in Nashville, so I said, “Well, let’s go there!”
And I’m guessing the allure of Music City really made that what you wanted to do?
Yeah. I really wanted to be around other songwriters. I’ve got no ambitions of fame and playing big stadiums or touring for a living or anything like that. But I did want to be around like-minded people that are learnin’ the craft of music and songwriting. Not that that’s not in Macon, but like I said, I was born and raised in Middle Georgia and just felt like it was time for a change and that I would try my luck up here.
And is that what you’re finding? Are you finding that community that you were after?
Not yet! Mainly because of the pandemic, you know? I started playin’ at a church up here, playing guitar for them, and that’s been pretty good. I’m meetin’ some musicians that way. Most of them are kind of in that home studio stage of their life. Maybe they were road dogs when they were younger, but now they’re settled down a little bit. And to my knowledge, none are songwriters– or I haven’t talked to ’em yet. But a lot of my focus has been on improving my chops because I’m still pretty green compared to a lot of these guys and gals. I just sit at home practicin’, so when the opportunity comes, I’m ready to pull the trigger!
Let’s talk about them chops, man. The tracks that you have sent me for the new EP, there’s a lot of guitar work on there. Did you handle all the heavy lifting?
Yeah. On the two that I sent you, and in fact, on all but one of the tracks on this EP, I did everything– guitar, bass, lead. I did fairly minimal percussion. I’m not a very good percussion player, so I kept it to a minimum, but yeah, that’s all me.
Your harmonica work is strong too!
Oh, yeah! Forgot about the harmonica! Yeah, I did that!
Who was the other player on there?
There’s one track that I did not give you, it’s called “Busted”, and I recorded that on a small portable thing, a Tascam product. I wanted to do a project with all my friends before I left Macon. So what I did was, I recorded my guitar on that little device and the vocals, and I took it over to Caleb Melvin’s house, of Hindsight, and he did the drums for me. There’s this dude named Zach Matthews. He doesn’t really come out anymore but he was in a band about 5 or 10 years ago with Dustin Murdock. They were like a prog kind of thing. Xavii was the name of their band. He did the lead guitar work on that track. My friend Glenn Lewis from the Delta Moan, he did the piano on it. It’s the only track with any piano. And then my friend Michael Sanders, who was playin’ with Shy Company, and he also was the Delta Moan bass player for about a year, did the bass.
So these two songs that you sent me, “The Letter” and “Wings”, they’ve got the hallmarks of the pandemic. Are these songs that you’ve written since the big lockdown and since all of this has been goin’ on?
I actually wrote “The Letter” in 2019, and that song is about forgiveness. It’s about holding a grudge and carrying that burden around with you and how it can affect your life and keep you from living. So it’s not necessarily about the pandemic, but if you want to read it that way, then by all means. And then “Wings”, I actually wrote in December of 2019, and that was right before the pandemic hit. You know, we were hearing whispers of it. I started writing it then and I finished it probably in February. That was when my fiance, Ashley, and I were lookin’ for a place to live here in Nashville. That song, it started as a finding a home and it turned into sort of a vignette of us riding in a car. A stylistic thing that I’m tryin’ to do with my songwriting is give a small window into my life, especially with everyday things. Small ordinary things like ridin’ in a car or foldin’ laundry or waitin’ on the mail or sweepin’ the house or whatever. Those things can be a metaphor for larger things. The main thing is, I just want to give a small window into my life and hopefully, people can see somethin’ that they recognize in it and read it their own way.
Somethin’ that struck me in “Wings”, the line about not being to church in three months. That’s why it struck me as very quarantine, pandemic influenced. I know that you and your fiance both are very spiritual and have a home in the church. I don’t go to church, but the idea that so many doors were closed in the thick of the pandemic and even now, and how that could have created a hole in your life, that’s what I took from that song.
Yes. And you’re right. That actually was a reference specifically to the pandemic.
That balance of doing the worship songs and then playing the folk rock n’ roll– is that a balance that you enjoy maintaining or does it become a challenge at times?
It’s not a challenge for me. I like the blending of the two styles. I consider myself to be a country and folk and Americana artist. I think it was Willie Nelson who said that thing about three chords and the truth. I really take that to heart and try not to make somethin’ that’s so complicated. It really only needs to be three chords and the truth. The worship music, what I have learned to appreciate about that is the way that a worship band, particularly Hillsong and Bethel, they are able to create a vibe and create swells and this ocean of sound. They can go from just a small synth and vocals to this huge undulating thing. I really like that. And that’s somethin’ that I’m tryin’ to bring into my music from my experience in playing worship music.
You’ve done some streamin’ shows, particularly earlier in the shutdown. Is that something that you’re continuing to do? Or have you actually been able to perform live? I know you mentioned playin’ in the church band– is anybody doin’ anything in Nashville right now that you’ve been a part of?
The church is the only time I’ve been in front of people playin’, and that’s not about me playing guitar. That’s about findin’ a pocket and being a part of the thing for a worshipful experience. Other than that, I have not played live and I haven’t done any live shows. The reason for that is my guitar teacher, Terry Cantwell. I’m taking classical lessons from him. Around the time that I did that string of live shows, he asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer to it. He asked me, “What was your intention with that performance?” And I said, “Well, shit, Terry, I don’t know! I think I just wanted people to like it and maybe tip me a little bit.”
I did a little bit of soul searching and I realized that I was trying to get some validation and I was trying to make a buck– and that was not a good motivation to be performing. I want my performances to be a giving experience. I want the audience to receive from me, and then hopefully I receive from them and we can both connect and learn and grow and share an experience. So I have paused doing the live shows and stuff, partly because I was just workin’ on new material and then practicing, but mainly it was gettin’ my mind and heart right to where I wasn’t sucking from the audience. I wasn’t seeking validation. I wasn’t doin’ it just to make a buck or any of those other selfish motivations.