How one group of college students is changing the Tuscaloosa music scene.
Mounted on the wall of Holden Keith’s college apartment is a worn, light blue six-string. Its vibrant koi fish strap hangs off the neck of the guitar, serving as a reminder of the storage room of a former gig from which it was stolen. Out of Keith’s thirteen guitars, that strap is one of the only pieces that hasn’t been refurbished or built from scratch entirely. Much like their lead guitarist’s collection, Five Card Draw is a band that thrives off of transformation.
At first glance, the four-member alt-rock group may appear stereotypical. Five Card Draw attracts crowds of (often intoxicated) college students to the bar scene with their high-energy covers of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fall Out Boy. However, it’s their eight-year history that separates Five Card from the rest of the local band scene. The group was first formed in 2015 as The Cards and they’ve been cycling through generations of members ever since.
“I want to be the band that never died,” Keith said. “Amidst musical differences, members leaving, disagreements, we continue to exist and that’s super unique. Not many bands can say that.”
Twenty-three individuals have been a part of Five Card Draw over the years, but the current lineup includes Holden Keith, Katie Prewitt, Dylan Meyer, and Murphy Smith. The evolutionary nature of the band presents a steep learning curve after every new member joins, and it wasn’t an instant fit. Recalling her first performance as lead singer, Prewitt described a mess of technical issues and nerves so bad she set her eyes on the bar’s top-shelf liquor bottles for the duration of their set.
“I felt like I wasn’t enough,” Prewitt said. “I had never sung in that capacity for that long and it was really a struggle. They were all so talented and I felt like I paled in comparison.”
The turning point came on Sept. 30, when Five Card Draw played their most memorable gig to a crowd of nearly 900 people at Druid City Social Hall. Prewitt sang through their whole set without concern over her vocals or endurance and a haze of professional lighting illuminated the energy of the crowd. Since then, the band has only continued to develop its music and book bigger venues, where students can flock to see their diverse song choice and infectious dynamic.
Technical problems, witnessing bar brawls, and enduring rainstorms during rooftop sets come with the territory, but they’ve made many strides toward establishing a professional reputation in central Alabama. Along with Tuscaloosa gigs, Five Card Draw also travels to Birmingham and Huntsville to escape the college crowd and diversify their audience. The members attribute their success to their frenetic energy onstage, along with their professionalism and constant reinvention. As one member prepares to graduate, the band is already holding auditions and preparing the next member to fill their position.
“I want to come back to a Tuscaloosa bar in ten years and see Five Card Draw still playing,” Keith said.
Five Card Draw’s popularity is apparent across Tuscaloosa. The members are just beginning to get used to approaches by fans across campus. Dylan Meyer, also known as “Bass Man”, has a club of groupies all his own who create custom t-shirts in support of him. Prewitt has also been spotted by fans, fondly recalling an encounter where she was noticed on her first day of classes. Keith explained the importance of interacting with the people at their shows, citing the connections and opportunities it brings them.
“Growing up, my experience with live music was almost deity-like,” Keith explained, “and that’s something I don’t want. It’s important to me that I take time to sign set lists and hand out drumsticks so we can connect on a human level.”
Holden Keith is unanimously viewed by the group as their unofficial leader and the glue that holds everything together. In addition to musical contributions, he handles media correspondence and the Five Card Draw website, and advocates for the band through networking. Keith seemed to be more certain about the success of the band than his title as its leader, but he wasted no time in explaining the importance of Five Card Draw in his life.
“It makes me feel significant that they feel that way about me,” Keith laughs, as he strums at a guitar and glances over to his friends. “Any effort I make right now is just an investment into my personal future and I think that’s why I work hard now. It took me a while to get to the point professionally where I can say with confidence we’re the best band around.”
Holden Keith has been in love with music since his very first ¾ size Yamaha guitar at age five. Keith’s introduction to performing began in early childhood through singing with his mother on the steps of their North Carolina church. By age 15, Keith began playing electric guitar, though much of his acoustic background is still evident in his style. Keith affectionately refers to it as a punkified version of his Christian-country roots. He explained his signature sound is something he takes pride in.
“I’m my favorite guitar player,” Keith said, “in the sense that I don’t ever want to pick up my guitar and have someone think of Jimmy Page or John Mayer. I want you to think, ‘Wow, that sounds like Holden Keith.’”
As Keith approaches his senior year, his goals are aimed at his individual music pursuits. One day, he hopes to go on tour, whether with another band or as a headliner. The more practical road to working in music professionally is becoming a studio musician and still getting to express himself creatively. His ability to pick up different instruments and projects easily has already helped him with Five Card Draw, and his professional career is no different.
“I’m a diverse musician, I like to write, and that’s something I take pride in,” Keith said. “That’s what you have to do as a session guitarist, and that’s part of the reason I want to move to Nashville. I enjoy playing live, but I’m acutely aware of the fact that the margin for success for that is way smaller. So, that’s my realistic goal versus my dream.”
As the band continues to chat, Dylan Meyer and Murphy Smith fly relatively under the radar with a quiet, cool air about them. Meyer declares he doesn’t really say much, and it’s the truth. But, on stage, their demeanor shifts into untamed energy. As Meyer surges into the crowd at The Red Shed bar and Smith’s mop of brown hair moves to the hard-hitting beat of his black and gold Tama drumset, the boys seem to be possessed by something else entirely.
“It’s like when a person turns into a werewolf,” Prewitt said of Smith’s drumming.
Not all of Five Card Draw’s music is high-powered rock. Their latest original song is acoustic and draws inspiration from the confusing middle ground between youth and adulthood. “Little Things'' was written on the faded yellow couch of Keith’s apartment after a night of drinking. Initially hesitant about sharing her songwriting, Prewitt’s liquid courage aided in bouncing ideas off of her bandmates. As they experimented with the guitar riff and lyrics, the song developed into an honest account of growth and coming of age.
Amid the sharing of jokes and the first strum of the guitar, the college students morph into storytellers. A casual group of friends becomes Five Card Draw. The raw, truthful lyrics and passion of the band breathe life into the apartment. Prewitt emphasized the goal of her writing is to make the audience feel something, and the music does just that.
“When we wrote this song, we were both at a time in our lives where we were trying to move beyond,” Prewitt said. “It’s about outgrowing these little surface-level, mundane things that I’m expected to be doing,” Prewitt said.
“Little Things” is perhaps a reflection of Five Card Draw’s uncertainty about the future. As Dylan Meyer prepares to graduate this Spring, prospective bassist Andrew McNeil is already learning the set list and preparing to succeed Meyer as the band’s newest member. This is the first time someone is being integrated into the group as a way to make the transition smoother.
As they continue to gain local success, Five Card Draw has its eyes set on touring the southeastern circuit in places like Auburn and Athens. They’re less interested in signing with a label and more focused on hitting the road outside of Alabama. The band already has experience in Birmingham at more adult venues like Grocery Brewpub and Courtyard 280. However, the area is still a new market for Five Card Draw, so the natural next step is to continue playing even bigger shows and make more from their gigs.
“In Birmingham, we’re more of a spectacle to entertain on the side,” Meyer said. “Whereas in Tuscaloosa, we’re the main event and people come to wherever we play to see us.”
Unless the opportunity presented itself, Five Card Draw plans on continuing to play cover music in the local fraternities and bars. They explained the most important part is where the opportunity is and where they can sustain a living.
Singing was originally nothing more than a childhood passion for Prewitt, but her time in the band has shifted that perspective. Since writing “Little Things”, she’s decided to take a gap year before medical school to pursue music.
“That was really scary to take a chance on music because it’s one of the most unstable jobs,” Prewitt said. “But, I’m kind of okay with it. I don’t think you can ever be one-hundred percent certain about being successful and I feel like I owe it to myself to try.”
“Guided to the horizon by the why and carried by the how,
Lately the ghost of myself scares me more than the theft of my life by complacency.”