A lot of people sing in the shower and think their voice sounds pretty good. A lot of people also record covers of themselves and put it on YouTube. But it takes a great voice for that video to garner more than two million views and skyrocket someone to stardom. It takes a voice like Nicki Bluhm’s. Bluhm’s voice is the kind that makes you perk up and go, “Wait, who’s that?”
It’s a voice that sounds like a forgotten soul singer from the ‘70s, yet you want to keep listening because you haven’t heard one like it in ages. Sometimes it takes another musician to hear a voice and imagine an audience for it. Such was the case with Tim Bluhm, frontman for the San Francisco rock band the Mother Hips. Tim first heard Nicki sing one night at a house party.
“(I) didn’t know she could sing,” Bluhm said in a video interview with WXRY FM radio station in South Carolina last year. “Something about her, the combination of her and her voice, just blew me away.”
Nicki never planned on a career as a singer, but with Tim’s encouragement she started performing at open mic nights and writing songs.
“I would sing in the shower and in the car but it wasn’t something I really paid much attention to,” Nicki said. “I admire (Tim) so much as a musician and a songwriter. It’s very different from having a friend or your mom say, ‘hey, you’re a good singer.’ (His opinion) was just something I really trusted.”
Finding fame with an iPhone
After briefly pursuing a solo career, Nicki and Tim formed Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers with a few other friends, releasing a self-titled album last year. The group plays on the main stage Saturday at the WinterWonderGrass festival in Avon. The Gramblers spent years trying to build a fan base the old-fashioned way, touring the country in a van from dive bar to dive bar. Bored with life on the road, the group decided to start recording cover songs, uploading the aptly titled “Van Sessions” to the web. It took 17 tunes for the Internet to sit up and start pressing play, but when they did, they liked what they heard. The cover that caught people’s ears was Hall & Oates’s “I Can’t Go For That,” which now has just under 2.5 million views on YouTube.
“(The videos have) been a great help to our career, putting us on the map and bring us to people’s attention,” Nicki said. “I think what people liked about the van sessions was just the simplicity of it. We recorded it on an iPhone and there’s just a human quality to it, there’s no post-production at all. I think people like to see real music being made, and I think that’s what drew people to it. It’s kind of silly too. It made people laugh; watching people in a van play music.”
Bluhm and the boys are still trekking around the country in a van, but with their success they’ve been able to upgrade to a 15-seater. Their sojourns make them true Gramblers, which isn’t a real word but Nicki said it comes from a friend who described old fans of the Mother Hips that way.
“(The Gramblers) is just us, on the road, traveling a lot, taking things as they come,” Nicki said.
A musical marriage
When you spend that much time in sweaty confinement with other people, it helps that one of those people is your husband. As if you couldn’t already tell by the last name, Nicki and Tim are married, a relationship that grew from their musical collaboration.
“I guess you could say I’d had a crush on him for a long time,” Nicki said. “(When he heard me sing), that was when he kind of gained interest in me. It was pretty instantaneous. It was pretty much right away we knew that there was a connection romantically. There was no hiding it.”
While their sound is more California than Colorado, they’re still connected to the bluegrass bands playing at WinterWonderGrass, having opened for The Infamous Stringdusters on their Ski Tour a few years ago. Nicki and her husband are also big teleskiers and they plan on getting to the mountains a few days early to get some runs in before showtime. If you get a little Sonny & Cher vibe from the two when they’re on stage, there’s a reason for that. Nicki likes to watch tapes of Cher, Linda Ronstadt and Tammy Wynette to study their on-stage swagger.
“When you don’t play an instrument, you have a little bit of time to fill,” Nicki said. “I think it’s important to be natural, but there’s a lot you can really learn.”
They say the best songs come from heartbreak, but Nicki is proving that idea wrong by making old soul music with a new love. Her voice may remind us of the past, but Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers plan on having a long future together.
Scott Law and Tyler Grant — 3 to 4:15 p.m.
Whitewater Ramble — 4:45 to 6 p.m.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers — 6:30 to 7:45 p.m.
Greensky Bluegrass with Sam Bush — 8:15 to 10 p.m.
MilkDrive — 4:15 to 4:45 p.m. and 6 to 6:30 p.m.
WonderGrass Special — 7:45 to 8:15 p.m.
Pickin’ Perch Stage:
Brew talk with Kevin Selvy, of Crazy Mountain Brewery — 4:15 to 4:45 p.m.
Scott Law and Tyler Grant — 6 to 6:30 p.m.
Tyler Grant and Scott Law — 8 to 8:15 p.m.
Fruition — 2:55 to 3:55 p.m.
Head For The Hills — 4:10 to 5:10 p.m.
Elephant Revival — 5:40 to 7 p.m.
The Infamous Stringdusters — 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Brewer talk with Oskar Blues and Andy Hall, of the Infamous Stringdusters — 3:55 to 4:10 p.m.
Fruition — 5:10 to 5:40 p.m. and 7 to 7:30 p.m.
Pickin’ Perch Stage:
WonderGrass House Band — 3:55 to 4:10 p.m.; 5:10 to 5:40 p.m.; and 7 to 7:30 p.m.