by Whit Hill
I was sitting in a downtown coffee shop, coasting merrily along as Drew Nelson sang "Lovely Day" his paean to the simple joys of spring, love, friendship, and impending fishing when it struck me: this guy reminds me of Greg Brown. And then, almost in response, came the lyric "Greg Brown singing on the radio . . ." and I thought, well, that's a fine influence to have.
But Nelson's very much his own influence. He catches uncomplicated stories from his own life, universal stuff that makes pretty much everyone smile in recognition, and releases them into the rippled pond of his facile Everyman language, smart percussive guitar, and gruff/sweet voice. The night I saw him, he sang a lot of songs off his new CD, Immigrant Son, which sparkles under the creative baton of producer Michael Crittenden. Nelson was born in Grand Rapids and raised in a religious conservative family from which he rebelled by secretly drenching himself in rock 'n' roll. After a stint in the navy during which he got to see the world he moved back to the area, and his songs are tied strongly to images of rural Michigan ("Summer Rain"), cities ("Wealthy St."), and sprawl (the wacky, infectious "Wall-Mart V2.0"), somehow without becoming simply "Michigan songs." It takes a certain skill to find the universal core in place-inspired songs, and Nelson has it. These views, these portraits, they could be of anywhere, and this is probably a big reason he's getting such wide acclaim.
Nelson's been a Kerrville Music Festival New Folk finalist and won honorable mention at this year's Telluride Troubadour Competition out of 600 applicants. He's also developing a devoted fan base in Europe, where, it seems, people pay more attention to American roots and folk music than they do here. He comes to the Ark for a free show on Tuesday, June 27. Here's your chance to hear him play without the hiss of the cappuccino machine in the background.
[Review published June 2006]