It’s been said that music can bring people closer. For two brothers in Winter Park, it couldn’t have happened any other way.
In a small duplex off of Aloma Avenue in Winter Park, 29-year-old Sean Holcomb’s throaty, rich voice bounces off the hardwood floors. It took Sean years to learn to strum his guitar and sing at once. Sitting at a picnic table in their dining room, he does it effortlessly.
His brother Aaron, 24, slides a bow of horsehair across the strings of his Keller cello. Then two discordant notes suddenly blend together and they’re off.
The entrancing music fills the living room on a Sunday afternoon as the two brothers run through a cover of Damien Rice’s “Volcano,” followed by two of their own original songs.
The acoustic guitar and cello combination makes for a warm and cozy sound that puts listeners somewhere else. Beside a campfire. On a ranch. Along a dusty road out west.
It’s been four years since Sean and Aaron began their musical endeavors together. Four years since their wandering paths finally crossed once again.
Coming of age
The Holcomb brothers grew up in a big family, with three more brothers and three sisters. Sean and Aaron called the Orlando area home for most of their lives, a stone’s throw away from behemoth theme parks and a bustling downtown.
When he was in middle school, Sean picked up a guitar and tried to play along with songs he heard. He plucked away and his hands wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t long before he dove into the local music scene at age 16, playing local shows in downtown Orlando in southern rock bands.
As Sean learned guitar by feel and playing along with CDs, Aaron found himself transfixed by the cello, taking formal lessons and eventually joining the Florida Young Artists Orchestra in high school.
Music became an escape.
“It’s very therapeutic once you settle into it,” Aaron said. “You can be having a really rough week and a really hard day and it can be stress relieving. Sometimes it can be better than therapy, just sitting there and playing.”
The brothers continued to peruse music on their own, but rarely played together.
A musical pilgrimage
The year 2008 will forever be known as a year of dramatic change for Sean. An unexpected crisis would lead him to make one of the hardest decisions of his life.
Sean was married, became a father and later separated from his wife all before age 23.
He frantically searched for a job to help pay for child support and stumbled upon an opportunity on Craigslist. It’d be a long commute: a cattle ranching job 2,000 miles away in Beulah, Colo.
“As much as I didn’t want to, it was something I had to do,” Sean said. “The reason behind it was good ultimately, it was clear to me that I had to fix things.”
“Sean’s the individual that when things get hard he really looks at ‘What do I have to do,’” Aaron said. “Sometimes he comes up with some really hard choices.”
Sean said goodbye to his family and friends and took a one way flight that May to the 11,000-acre ranch with nothing but clothes and a guitar.
He lived the life of a cowboy: branding, herding and feeding cattle – even performing a live C-section.
But the year he spent in Colorado also gave him a creative sanctuary. Sean strummed his guitar on the front porch of his ranch house, gazing at the Wet Mountain range, a hot cup of coffee set on a handrail.
They call them the Wet Mountains for a reason. The nearest big city, Pueblo, gets about a foot of snow a year. Only a half hour’s drive away, the mountains get ten times that much. Sean’s one snowy winter left him a lot of time to think.
His mind always came back to his son, Benjamin.
He began to pour his heart into song.
Finding his future
Back in Central Florida, Aaron hadn’t played the cello in months. He’d aged out of the Florida Young Artists Orchestra after playing there for four years, learning pieces like Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance.” But now his favorite instrument was just a conversation piece against a wall.
He kept his focus on school and work, pushing himself to the brink by taking a schedule of four classes while holding down a job as a buser/dishwasher at a café and helping out in his parents’ commercial janitorial company.
But as hard as Aaron worked, he still felt lost.
“At that point, I was exploring my options in school and the potential career paths to stem from,” Aaron said. “No one in my family had graduated college with a degree…I didn’t really have a lot of direction or a blue print of what to do.”
“I really let the wind kick me around too much, considering only what I was responsible for that week and not concerning myself with what might lie ahead.”
The cello continued to collect dust as work and school consumed Aaron’s life.
He walked past it every day, a constant reminder of the years he dedicated to music.
He always told himself he’d pick it up once again.
“A lot of the time it was unpacked and just sitting there, staring at me,” he said.
A ticket home
Almost a year after he first stepped foot on the ranch, Sean found a way to come back home. A close friend tipped him off to an internship back in Orlando that could lead to a welding job making $250,000 a year.
Sean knew it was time to leave the ranch behind.
“There was no future and no security,” Sean said. “You can only spin your wheels for so long.”
“It was my olive branch. It was a way out.”
He stared at the scrap heap of a truck he expected to get him home. It hadn’t moved in 20 years. The hubs were frozen. The engine didn’t turn. The carburetor was a hunk of varnished gasoline slowly turning back into crude.
As Sean spun wrenches on that red and white Ford, Aaron took a one way flight to Colorado to help him finish the job. In May 2009, the brothers made the long drive to Orlando, switching drivers while the other slept through the day and night.
The grueling drive dragged on for days, and at one point landing the brothers in a cactus patch.
“That road trip was the kind of thing that really tested our bond,” Sean said.
Sean couldn’t stop thinking about the music he wrote while in Colorado. A year’s worth of lyrics and melodies raced through his mind, begging to be written into songs.
“When I moved back, I was on fire,” Sean said.
Brothers in song
The internship opportunity fell through for Sean due to his friend leaving the business, but he later found a job working as a sales manager at Lowe’s, a steady job that now allows him to support his son.
But Sean’s mind continued to wonder to his music. He longed to continue writing, hoping someday to perform front of an audience again.
Sean urged Aaron to pick up the cello once more and form a duo. A band of brothers.
Within weeks of coming home, Sean and Aaron were practicing and writing. The brothers went on to perform live concerts, playing Dexter’s in Hannibal Square once a month and booking other shows at local events and weddings.
Their younger sister Hannah even stood in on viola, playing gigs with her brothers as a trio.
Hannah feels stronger than ever that music brought their family together.
“I think it’s really helped them as brothers a lot to come closer, especially when Sean moved away,” Hannah said. “For him to be able to connect with Aaron through music was really helpful for both of them.”
Aaron now works as a pharmacy technician while he finishes school at Valencia College, all while keeping up with the band.
“What we do … I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” Aaron said. “As much as we fight, get into scheduling conflicts or forget something … it’s very rewarding to be able to do something like this with your brother.”
The Holcomb brothers play on in Sean’s living room, weaving melodies and tones together into transfixing compositions. Sean and Aaron seem to communicate without a single word. A simple head nod or gesture signals the other to move on to the next verse.
Many arrangements are improvised, allowing them to run free within the skeleton of a song. It’s as if they’re finishing each other’s sentences, only with notes instead of words.
“Someone came up to me, whispering in my ear,” Sean sings, “telling me everything’s going to be alright.”