I was road tripping to Pennsylvania one day with my friend Jesse Krauss. We had the tunes all lined up and he said, “You have to check out my friend Jeff Holbrook.” We put his record on Spotify and let it run. I was completely blown away by the vocals, the lyrics, and the music. After a couple of songs, Jesse turned down the radio and began to tell me Jeff’s life story. I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the most amazing and inspiring life stories I’ve ever heard. A couple of weeks later, Jesse reached out to Jeff for me to get him on the podcast. This is my first time sitting down talking to Jeff. I know this is going to be an unbelievable episode.
Listen To The Episode Here:
Beauty from Ashes with Jeff Holbrook Blue Grass Band
Please welcome Jeff Holbrook who frontlines The Jeff Holbrook Bluegrass Band.
Thank you very much, Kevin.
What’s going on Jeff?
Not much. Just up here in PA, recharging the old batteries.
Where are you from?
I’m from New Jersey.
We’re at New Jersey.
What did you like doing growing up? What were you involved in? Were you involved in music at an early age?
No, I would sing when I was younger but sports was always my thing.
What kind of sports were you into?
I was a hockey goalie. I lost a couple of brain cells doing that, that’s for sure. I got hit in the head a couple of times with one too many pucks by Jesse Krauss. Thank you, Krauss, for that. That was my youth.
Where did you end up going to high school? Somewhere in Allentown?
Yeah, my freshman year, I went to the Hun School of Princeton.
Did you play hockey there?
Yeah, I did. I played hockey there for a year and then I went to the Allentown Public School after that for my sophomore through senior year. Instead of playing high school hockey, I went on to play Junior Hockey.
Your first junior team, was that the Titans or you went somewhere else?
That was the Titans.
Jeff, can you please tell us about this angel you met? Was it in high school? Can you tell us about Sarah and how you met? Did you go to the same high school?
Yeah, we went to high school together. Her dad is one of the maintenance guys there. She was from Florence. She wasn’t even supposed to go to Allentown. We ended up meeting through mutual friends. I was really focused on hockey and this and that.
*This was your junior high school? *
That was my senior year. I met her in my senior year. She was a junior. She was awesome. The Sarah that I knew before everything happened, she was a very nice person and very down to earth. It was everything that a young woman should be. We hit it off. It was the first time that I had ever really fallen for anybody, if you want to say that. It was that young love kind of thing. You know what that feels like. You get lost in it a little bit. That was the introduction to meeting her. We probably started dating halfway through my senior year. It was the best timing in the world and the worst timing in the world.
What were some of Sarah’s attributes? Was she a blonde, brunette?
She was blonde.
How long was everything going well for?
Everything was going well for about eight months, maybe a little less than that, and then I moved away. I had made a junior team in Maine. I was playing on the Portland Jr. Pirates that was throwing with the AJ Junior Hockey League. Immediately after we started dating, I moved away.
When you say that eight-month period was good, were you together for that eight months or you were up in Maine and doing a little long distance thing?
We were together for the beginning months.
Then you went up to Maine?
Yeah. Distance is a funny thing. I don’t really blame what happened on her so to speak. I remember we wrote each other letters every day. I wrote her 50 something letters and she would always write back. We would keep contact on the phone. I started to find myself falling into the whole love felt good. It felt good. It wasn’t like a game. It was easy. The long run, I started to lose focus on my hockey. I started to lose focus on that and I ended up getting traded. I ended up getting cut from the Portland Jr. Pirates.
What made you lose focus? What was going on there?
The way that I see it is that things happen for a reason. God has a plan for all of us, which I believe that. I wasn’t necessarily having all that much fun up there because it became a job. Hockey became a job.
You see that happen to a lot of people. The love of the game just gets lost somewhere along the way. It’s just not enjoyable anymore. It’s a shame to see but it happens.
It sucks because you don’t expect it to happen. It just happens. The wheels start coming off the tracks. Before you know it, it’s really hard to get the wheels back on the tracks. I was never able to. I got traded from Portland, Maine. I got traded to Walpole, Massachusetts, played on the Walpole Express for a little bit. I was back up. It was fun. I met a lot of really, really good dudes. I played with Tony Valentino there. From there, I got traded again to Cranston, Rhode Island down in the B League. That’s where my career faded out.
That must have been a blow?
It definitely was.
Did you see it coming?
At that point, I was dealing with a lot with Sarah-wise. There were some kids back home that I didn’t really necessarily want her to hang out with. I wasn’t doing it to be jealous or to be controlling. I just knew that if she got with these kids, nothing good was going to come from it.
Was she ever able to come up and visit and watch some games?
Yeah. She came up. She ran away from home. She left her parents a note one night and she drove all the way. This was when I was in Maine. She drove all the way up. She was going to surprise me. Her parents called me and she was in Connecticut or something like that getting gas. Her parents were, “Listen, Jeff, we’ve tried to get her to come back but she’s pretty held bent on coming up and seeing you. Just make sure that she gets there safe and tomorrow morning just send her back on her way.”
You must’ve been pumped though then that she was coming up, right?
Yeah, I was excited. The fact that my roommate’s up there, they had all planned this out to surprise me, it meant a lot more in a team sense too that these guys they had my back and they wanted to see me happy. It just meant a lot. I remember that day up until very recently, it was probably one of the best periods of my life. It was only a twelve-hour period that she was there and then she had to turn back home. She went back home. It was amazing. It was really something. I don’t think her and I would have ended up working out because as I tell the story, you’ll figure it out. I wish she could’ve seen some of the stuff that I’ve done since then, but that’s all right.
I guarantee she’s up there watching. She knows.
I always know she’s watching over me when the sun comes out. There are certain times when I get this weird feeling like she’s guiding me in the direction that I’m supposed to go and I’m meeting the people that I’m supposed to meet. It’s really an eerie feeling a little bit.
That’s funny you say that about the sunny days because my dad passed away on one of the sunniest days of my life. It was so bright out that day. Anytime I have a day like that, I can feel it. I feel like that’s what you’re talking about, maybe not the sunny day part but there are certain moments, certain days where you just feel their presence around you.
You know exactly what that feels like. We all go through different things but I believe that things affect us, human beings, in the same way. Whether it’s your dad or whether it’s your girlfriend or whoever it is, it’s always going to hurt your heart. If you were able to harness that hurt and turn it into something good then it puts a little extra fuel in the tank.
You sent her back home and what happens after that?
We continued to talk for a while.
Did you get the feeling that it was fizzling out a little bit or it was still going really strong?
By that time, it was going pretty strong. It wasn’t until I played with Walpole. They were the shit. Walpole Express, they had Jacob Brightbill and Max McKay and a couple of those guys were just phenomenal. To play behind them, I only get to play twice. I got to play in two third periods. It was a dream to get to step behind the wheel of that team. Up until Walpole, it was going well. But then I started to realize that my hockey career was starting to go to shit. I realized that I had to do something. Part of that, I ended up letting her go. I let her go because I was such in a weird spot in my life. We broke up halfway through my Walpole experience all the way through my Cranston and then I moved home. When I came home, I just had this feeling I had to go and see her. I had to make things right. I get used to things. When I get used to something, I don’t let it go easily.
How did you end off? Just not talking at all or you had reached out to her every now and then?
From the first time that we had broken up, we cut it off. That was mostly me. I don’t necessarily know if she wanted it. I don’t really necessarily know if that’s what I wanted. It’s something I had to do to save everything that I’ve worked for up to that point. We left it off that first time. She went her way and I went my way. It was tough. It wasn’t easy. It really wasn’t.
That’s your first girl. It’s tough to let go. You got back home. What happens now?
I came back home. I remember I drove to her house. Her dad was outside fixing his truck. I asked him if she was home. The Townsends are super nice people. Mr. and Mrs. Townsend are really, really genuinely nice people. I confided in them and I believe that they confided in me too. I think they did. I like to hope that they did. I remember Mr. Townsend told me that she was at the Columbus flea market getting groceries with her buddy or something like that. I waited. I gave Mr. Townsend my phone number and later that night Sarah called me. For that next little bit, we ended up seeing each other for, I would say at the most, two weeks, something like that.
Did you still feel it or was it a little off?
I felt enough to stick around but I felt like something was off. My sister was in the same grade as her. My sister was telling me things and I didn’t really want to hear it. I don’t really want to get into detail what I was hearing from my sister. It was enough to make me question what was going on. I remember my buddy Derek had came up to me and told me that she was doing cocaine. I had never touched that and I never will because first of all, it’s not good for you. It doesn’t really get you anywhere in life. Second of all, it’s a very sensitive subject when it comes to my heart. We saw each other for those two weeks. I remember I called her up one night and I asked her if she was doing anything like that. She said no of course, and I kept asking her. Eventually she admitted to it.
I remember telling her that when we first started going out, I said, “You can smoke weed if you want or whatever. That’s your thing. I’ve got nothing against that, but if you do any hard drugs, that’s it. I’m done. I’m not dealing with any of that. It’s just too much to deal with.” When I found out that she was using, it hurt. It hurt a lot because you put a lot of time on those things and it really wasn’t my place to come back and be as far as I was because I had let her go. As a friend, it hurt me. I remember the last time I saw her was she left her lunch break and I met her at an eye doctor there in Allentown. There was a parking lot behind the building. That’s where we met. That was the last goodbye. I wish she would have said more than what she said.
Why did you choose to meet there? Was it just like a timing thing?
It was a timing thing. I didn’t really want to invest anything more than I had already invested in it. I just kept my walls up. I was looking out for myself at that point, which has been the struggle that I’ve had internally for the past six years, that I didn’t do enough to help her. We all know that you can’t blame yourself for stuff like that and what she did. It was the last time that I had seen her. I never really guessed. It’s funny, usually the last time you see somebody or the last time you do something, you never really know that it’s the last time until it’s too late. That was the last time that I’ve seen her and all that went down.
You’re not playing music at this point? You’ve never picked up a guitar?
No. I sang in the locker room after games. That was about it. When the boys were getting a little rowdy in there, I used to sing then but that was it. I was the lead in my sixth grade play. At that point, I don’t even know if you know that you can sing at that point, which is funny because I still do but it’s not that bad, I used to stutter when I was younger. Singing was my way to fluent speech, if you will.
Whenever you were singing you weren’t stuttering, it was just flowing out?
It’s just straight up flowing out. I had never sung up until that point. I remember the last time I saw Sarah, it was a month later is when she committed suicide. It was about a month later. I remember I got a phone call from a detective at 10:00 in the morning or something like that. He asked me if I knew where she was. I didn’t know where she was. I wish I knew where she was. We all know where she was now. She ended up getting involved with somebody that was from her past. He didn’t have a problem with doing those things with her, doing coke with her. That pumps the shit out of me because he should’ve known better. As a young man, he should’ve known better. She ended up passing away.
I remember that day. It took them five days to find her body in a lake. She OD-ed on cocaine and drowned in the lake. There were a lot of unanswered questions that I don’t have the answer to. I wish I did. Her car was still running when they found it. The door was open, the engine was on. I don’t know what it feels like to do cocaine but I’m guessing that she did it, walked in the lake, next thing she knew she was drowning. Like I said, I’m not sure how that happened. I’m really not sure how it took them five days to find her body in the lake. The lake, if you see it, it’s called Sherman’s Pond, if there’s one place that is hell on earth, it’s that place. I went there once after that. It’s hell. It’s not a nice place.
Where did you go from there? What was the next couple of years like?
Depression, severe depression. I still battle with it. I just started taking medication recently. I refused to take medication for a long time because I just didn’t want to get hooked on things. I used to be very straight-laced. I still am pretty straight-laced. The next couple of years, it was tough. A lot of battle with myself, with my family, and my friends. By the time I moved home, I ended up playing for the Titans again. I remember, not to name any names, I remember the owner of that team, I was sitting outside the locker room and I remember he was saying that I was a head case and I didn’t have it in me anymore and this and that. The only person that stood up for me in that room, and I’m sure that you know him, is Ryan Elsbree. He is my best bud for sure. He’s been there for me; him and my buddy T.J. Wilson. I know you don’t know him, but TJ went to Allentown with me. Those two guys were there for me whenever I needed them. When I was going through tough times, they were there. Without them, I probably wouldn’t still be here because I was that low.
It’s funny when you’re that low, there are only a couple of people that will do that for you. A lot of people talk shit like, “Anything you need, I’m here.” It comes down to probably one, two, three people, if you’re lucky, that will actually be there at a drop of a hat and do anything you need.
Bree was that guy. He was my captain. That’s the way a captain should be when you play hockey. He should be there for you. That’s why we went to Nationals, the two years that he was involved with the Titans. He was there. Looking back through it all, I try to look at the positives because I spent enough time looking at the negatives and that gets you nowhere. Bree definitely was one of the things that I had come out from all that. I realized this guy’s got my back and I’ve got his back. He’s my best bud for sure.
When did the music come in?
Music started slowly. Do you know Buckley?
I don’t know, I don’t think so.
We were at McGinn’s over near Six Flags. Tommy Baz and the Bullzeye Band, they were out there playing. Lee Brice was actually there that night. It was really strange. Lee Brice was done playing at Six Flags. The owner of McGinn’s had got him to come back and have some drinks there. The first song that I sang, I remember Bree and Buck bought shots for the band. They said, “This is my buddy, Jeff. He sings. We just want to get him up and have him sing.” I was shitting my pants at that point. I’ve never done that.
This is your first time singing in front of people with Lee Brice there?
Yeah. Lee Brice was there. He might not even remember being there but he was definitely there, which was actually funny because since then Lee Brice lent his truck out to my roommate. My roommate was driving Lee Brice’s truck for a little while. It’s funny how things come around full circle. I ended up singing Josh Thompson, I forget the song. It was one of his big songs, something about being in the sticks, something like that. I remember I got up, I sang.
What made you pick that song? Is that the song the band was playing or you wanted to sing that one?
Bree and Buck picked that song out for me. I don’t think I had an option. I don’t know if I had known the words to it. I think I only sang the chorus to be honest with you. I just sang the chorus every time the chorus came around. After that, I’d hit it off with Tommy Baz who was the front man of the band. He took me under his wing. He really did. He let me sing between their sets from then on. I get up and I started writing music because I was never really much for singing covers because music comes from such a personal spot in my life.
You can feel it in your songs; powerful songs. They strike a chord, every single song.
Thank you very much. That means a lot. On the EP that I put out, I wrote five of the six by myself. I wanted it to be like that because I believe that when you write your own stuff, there’s a certain natural feeling that only I can convey or only the writer can convey when they sing it.
Before you get any further, I don’t know if this is right or not, but did Sarah get you your first guitar?
No. I bought my first guitar. I remember it was the Ibanez Cutaway.
Did it just come naturally?
No, definitely not. I struggled for a while. It took me a long time to be able to play a G chord, believe me. The guitar became an outlet. Part of me still, the way that I play and the way that I would go about my guitar playing these days is very much, was at least her voice. I believe that when I picked it up, that was her talking, that was her way of communicating with the world. I still look at it that way. I’m just somebody that holds it and puts in the work. As long as I keep working at it, there will be a voice other than mine. That’s what I believe. I’ve always believed in that.
You started playing in between sets and everything. Where did you go from there?
When I played in between sets, I always sang my own songs. I sang odd songs. Sometimes people don’t really get them and I don’t know if I necessarily would have gotten them either in the beginning days.
Good for you for putting yourself out there.
It was tough but it was a lot of fun. I met a lot of people that have pushed me. Dawn Heist, she was a woman that would always come to watch Tommy Baz. She liked my music, I guess, and she pushed me. She got me my first own gig. Remember the Boston bombing, Jeffrey Bauman, the kid who lost his legs. It was a benefit for him. It was in South Jersey somewhere. I met a lot of people that pushed me to go on to the next. I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for them. I really wouldn’t have. You need help with those beginning stages. The fact that I was 19 and had never played a guitar before was really intimidating to me.
How did you end up in Nashville?
That’s a funny story. I don’t know how the hell I ended up in Nashville but I did. I’m glad that I did. It was a long process. Hockey ended completely for me. I didn’t really have a purpose in life anymore. The only purpose that I had or that I could think that I had at the time was to play music and to sing, especially with my speech as a young kid, I was very self-conscious of it. Singing to me was a no brainer. I can get up on stage in front of people and sing and not stutter and not have social anxiety. I still struggle with that quite a bit but I’m getting used to it.
How do you like living in Nashville?
I love Nashville. Obrielle is my girlfriend now and I met her there. She’s made me happier in the last couple of months living there than I’ve been. She’s the first person since Sarah that I’ve ever taken it this far with. There were a lot of walls that I had to break down. She is there and she is here now. She is sitting across the table now.
She sounds like an angel.
She is an angel for sure.
Is she also a singer, musician?
She says that she can sing some opera music but I’ve yet to hear her sing. She has yet to sing for me. She’s a closet singer.
Another thing I wanted to ask you, Jeff, was where does your love for Montana come from? I want to go there so bad. I’ve seen pictures. It looks absolutely beautiful. There’s a bunch of references on your EP to Montana and everything. What’s that all about?
My reference to Montana was it was a friend that I had met. Her and I were friends for a little bit. She came into my life and she went real quick. We were friends and she was moving off to go do her own thing. We were buddies. The whole thing was, I picked the place and she picked the date kind of thing. Everything on the EP is true. Flatpickin’ is the only one that we fabricated up a little bit but the ones that I wrote by myself, they’re all true. You meet people that you think you’re compatible with, in certain ways you are but in ways you’re not. The girl that I had met that Montana thing came from, I realize now that we’re just meant to be friends. That’s awesome.
I love how you say the timing wasn’t right but you left off in good terms. That’s just a beautiful thing because timing is literally everything.
Timing is everything.
You’ve had so many great people in your life that have gotten you to this point. That’s just unreal. What’s your band like? Who’s in your band? How did you meet these guys?
Ken Perkerwicz is the bass player. Jon Galletti is from Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Jon Galletti plays pedal steel, mandolin, banjo, guitar. He’s my utility player. It’s funny because when we’re playing sometimes I forget words and that’s because I’m getting lost in whatever John’s playing. I’d have to remind myself that there’s a second verse coming up. My banjo player is Lockwood Bar. It’s a young girl out there. She’s awesome. She sings the harmonies for me and makes me sound good. They all make me sound good because without them, it would just be me playing the guitar. I had met them by doing the EP. I wanted to do something to make music. I knew I wanted to be Bluegrass because I have this love for Vince Gill’s music. I don’t know if you’ve listened to Vince Gill.
I haven’t, but I’m definitely going to listen after this.
Vince Gill is my favorite. He’s my favorite musician, my favorite writer, my favorite artist. The way that he carries himself when he’s offstage, I really look up to the way that he does everything. He’s the top of the top. A lot of my music has similarities to his just because I believe that somebody has to carry that torch. I would like to have that torch be passed on to me. He’s got the most Grammy’s out of any male vocalist. He’s got 21 Grammy’s or something like that. That’s insane. You’re lucky if you get one. The EP with the band, Ryan Newman is my producer. He had put together this group of guys and girls. That was the group that I went into the studio with and cut this. We cut it all live. It’s all press-recorded and just go. It was all one take. They crushed it and I just held on to reigns and followed suite.
When you do play live, is it just by yourself or do you bring those guys with you?
I started to bring them. I started to do with the Bluegrass Band a little more. I was doing that for a while. I still am doing that. I just haven’t really gotten around to book any more stuff with them because I’m starting to focus on my next venture, which is trying to fuse Bluegrass with like what Dierks Bentley did with Up on the Ridge CD; his Bluegrass-y CD. I love that Telecaster twang, that country twang, the drums. If I can add those with Bluegrass music, that’s what I would like to do next.
I’m just pumped that you’re doing what you love and you could see it and you get animated about it. Not many people can say that. I had a friend text me the other day. He was like, “I’m in a rut. I hate my job.” A lot of people just stay doing that. You have found a way to do what you love and you’re very passionate about it and you’ve taken your heat struggles and you’ve made a beautiful thing, beauty from ashes. That is just a beautiful thing.
Thank you very much. It’s funny now because anybody that has gone through anything like that and they try to turn it into something positive. I’m going through this stage right now in my life where I’ve found somebody who makes me happy. I don’t necessarily want to write sad songs anymore because I’m not depressed anymore. I feel things as if they were new. When you’re depressed, you lose that. You lose that sense of being a kid again. I’m starting to feel that. I’m just taking some time now and really putting pen to paper and focusing on my guitar playing because that’s what I want to be good at. That’s what I struggle at the most and that’s where I want to get better at the most. I’ve been really focusing on that and putting the time doing a lot of woodshedding. I’m just enjoying time with my girlfriend and going back and picking up where I left off all those years ago. I missed out on a lot of years. In order to write things and effect people, you have to go through those yourself. I have to put myself through those situations in order to make you feel something or make somebody else feel something. I realize that. It’s a lot of hard work. A lot of people move to Nashville and think that they’re just going to make it and it’s not the case.
There’s an authenticity to it too because it’s your music and you could feel it when you’re playing. You’re not just writing songs to write songs. It’s coming from a place.
It’s a place that you don’t want to deceive people. You don’t want to sing about something that you don’t feel. I know that when I listen to music, when I listen to Vince Gill’s music, it made me cry. A lot of it made me cry and a lot of it made me feel something in my heart. I knew that he felt what he was singing. Sometimes you hear stuff nowadays, and I’m not going to get into that. There’s a lack of emotion. You can still find it, it’s still out there. There are guys out there making great music that that have feeling, they’re doing good for themselves. They may not be mainstream on the radio but I believe there’s a path for everything. If that’s the path that I have to take, less mainstream, more just being me, then I have no problem with that because I don’t want to fake it. I really don’t. That’s not what it’s about.
When you are doing your own thing, you attract the right people. You attract the people that are real to you. You cut out all the bullshit that people you don’t want around. That’s awesome. There’s no fakeness to it. You can’t take that away from you.
It’s the one thing that you have to hold on to when you move to that town because everybody thinks that there’s a format, not everybody. When you move to town and you’re naive about things, you tend to think, “Every song has to have three choruses. It has to have two verses and a bridge.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. You can have four verses and one chorus and it could be a song. As long as you’re pulling across and it’s authentic and it’s real, then you’re not really faking it. That’s the best way to go about it.
Jeff, where can people find your music at?
It’s on iTunes. It’s on pretty much anywhere where you can download music. Just lookup the Jeff Holbrook Bluegrass Band and it’ll come up. This is a six-song CD right now, working on my next one. I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be called The Mountains Are Calling. It’s all about just finding myself as a person. I started music for Sarah. I started music doing it for her. Now, I’m at the point where I have to start doing it for me. That’s the next one is going to be, all about finding myself and hopefully connecting with people that have been through the same thing that I’ve been through and just trying to be real. That’s all I want to do. I just want to help people with my music and just ride it out as long as I can.
Jeff, thank you so much for coming on today. Thank you for not even really knowing me that well and just having faith in Krauss and coming on and just laying it with me. I really appreciate that.
You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. Thank you very much again for having me on.
Best of luck to you. I know you’re going to do big things. I can feel it.
Thank you very much Kevin. Good luck with all this, with the podcast and whatnot.
Thank you. Thank you everyone for listening. My private practice is located in New Jersey at Montclair Upper Cervical Chiropractic. If you have any additional questions about today’s podcast, other episodes or any questions about Blair Upper Cervical Chiropractic in general, feel free to visit my website at DrKevinPecca.com or subscribe to my YouTube channel @DrKevinPecca. Hope you enjoyed the show. Cheers.