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Drew Nelson brings his stories home to downtown GR


This Sunday, Jan. 15, ArtRat Gallery welcomes storytelling songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Drew Nelson to Americana Sundays, ArtRat’s monthly concert series. The show runs 3-5pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $15; tickets available on Eventbrite.)

Drew Nelson performing.

A native of Kent City, Michigan, Drew “writes as a witness to the lives and journeys of those he has met along the way, mixing Americana and roots-rock with traditional folk styles.” 

Ahead of Sunday's show, he graced ArtRat with an interview about his process and literary influences.

At the top of your bio, you mention your Navy service. How did that part of your life influence your creative vision? 

I think being a veteran changes my perspective in so many ways. Seeing so many places and meeting so many people across the ocean from the small town where I’m from opened my eyes and heart to the larger world around me. Now, as an adult, it has once again opened my eyes to listen and hear from younger veterans about their experiences and struggles with what they’ve been through. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’m definitely a more compassionate person because of my military experience. 

Drew Nelson playing guitar.

Your life experiences and exposure to different places inform your storytelling. Can you talk about how you spot themes that inspire you? 

The great American writer Flannery O’Conner said, “A writer needs a great sense of space.” My favorite writers have a wonderful way of looking at the great big world through the lens of the geography they know. (Jim Harrison, Annie Proulx, Michal Perry and Mary Oliver are fine examples.) I’ve done my best to start my stories from this place in my heart. 

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic changed musicians' plans around the world. How did you adapt? 

COVID was so hard for so many people. I had stopped touring nationally a few years before, when my son was born. By the time the lockdown started I had two small kids, and we did our best to get through virtual kindergarten. I’m not sure I was very good at pivoting! (lol) The first gig in front of people with my band was like a big, wonderful sigh after a long day of work. 

Drew Nelson seated with banjo.

West Michigan is a thriving center for roots music. What makes it a special place for Americana? 

We in West Michigan are rich in Folk/Roots and Americana music for sure. That is definitely not the end of the story. There are so many great musicians from so many different genres. It seems like a magical place. I have no idea why that is, but I’ll take it! 

On Jan. 15, you'll be accompanied by Michael Robertson. What's the history of your collaboration, and what can the audience expect? 

Michael Robertson is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever had the privilege to hear, bar none. He is also one hell of a songwriter! When we play together I just do my best to get my part done, get out of his way, and let him have space to cast his musical spells. On a side note, he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I’m really so glad we're friends. Oh, the history of our collaboration: I was performing at the Noreast'r festival and saw Michael play with my friend Eric's band. The next morning I was having an early morning coffee with Eric, and just said, "I feel really bad for you." After he asked why, I said, “Because I’m stealing your guitar player!” (It was all in good fun.) 

What do you like about performing in downtown GR? 

I love Grand Rapids. I live downtown, and it’s just amazing how it’s changed in my lifetime. It’s so fun to be a little tiny part of that change. I’m so looking forward to playing at ArtRat! 

Reserve your tickets now for these Americana Sundays!

Feb. 19: Rollie Tussing. The award-winning finger-style guitarist performs timeless classic and country blues, dewy-eyed tunes of the '20s, and godforsaken songs of the 19th century. His own compositions are influenced by those same lonesome, haunted and abandoned melodies that we all forgot to remember. (Admission $15; tickets available on Eventbrite.) 

March 12: Aaron Jonah Lewis. Virtuoso banjo player and fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis has been elbow-deep in traditional American music since their first lessons at the age of five with Kentucky native Robert Oppelt. Their concerts take audiences on a journey through the back roads of American old time and folk music, with detours through ragtime and early jazz. Lewis has taken blue ribbons at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, WV, and at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, VA, the oldest and largest fiddlers convention in the country. (Admission $20; tickets available on Eventbrite.)

April 16: Chris Bathgate. Chris Bathgate is an American singer/songwriter born in rural Iowa, raised in rural Illinois and currently residing in Michigan. He began drawing attention as a solo artist in 2005 upon the release of his first album, Silence is for Suckers, after a slew of self-produced EPs / Singles and a stint in the short-lived (but much-loved) group The Descent of the Holy Ghost Church. (Admission $15; tickets available on Eventbrite.) 

May 21: Kyle Rasche and Dan Bracken. Kyle Rasche is a father, husband, and songwriter who has released his seven albums under the moniker Chain of Lakes. Kyle writes what he knows: family, friendship, and the beauty and strife that comes with an unflinching compulsion to sing about his feelings. Joining Kyle for the Americana Sundays series is songwriter and finger-style guitarist Daniel Bracken. Dan plays music informed by his rich history as a recordist and producer for Public Media, and as a performer in the US and Ireland. (Admission $20; tickets available on Eventbrite.) 

June 11: Hearth & Hymn. Celebrate Pride Month with Hearth & Hymn! Hearth & Hymn is a close-harmony, minimalist folk project produced by songwriters, song collectors and multi-instrumentalists Samantha Cooper and Elisabeth Pixley-Fink. Beloved artists in the Michigan folk scene, their masterful harmonies and seamless vocal blend capture a room. Raiding family songbooks and sharing old tunes, Hearth & Hymn reimagines songs that move them through a queer, feminist lens. (Admission $20; tickets available on Eventbrite.)