Interview | Nicki Bluhm Readies Gramblers For Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Interview - Nicki Bluhm ::

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers have been hitting the road hard behind their eponymous new album, which has been justifiably praised coast to coast as an essential document of one of the scene’s most vibrant young bands.

[Photo by Michael Kaiz]

JamBase caught up with Nicki ahead of the Gramblers’ appearance at this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival to hear about the past few months and what’s next for the band in 2014.

JAMBASE: So let’s start with what’s coming right up. What does Hardly Strictly Bluegrass mean to you?

NICKI BLUHM: I’m a native Bay Area resident and have lived here all my life so obviously Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has a great reputation of being a premier festival here. It’s iconic. It’s an uppercut of music and an amazing gift to the city to be providing all of this for free. We’re pretty excited.

JAMBASE: And you’ve played it before?

NB: I have. We played it last year with my other band, Brokedown in Bakersfield, and it was great. It’s much more than bluegrass now and I think we were well-received.

JAMBASE: I imagine you’ve gotten to the point where you can prioritize which festivals the Gramblers play.

NB: They’re always good for us for exposure. We certainly need it – it’s a really great way to get new fans. Typically we make a list at the beginning of the year and list out the festivals we really want to try to do, the venues we want to play with and even musicians we’d love to tour with. We put it out there and it works. But [festivals] are also great ways to network with other musicians, check out other musicians and find bands you’d like to tour with or invite on tour with you.

JAMBASE: From the musician’s perspective, is the overall festival scene healthy again? We’ve had this up-and-down period where some pretty well-known festivals declined and shut down, and then new ones formed, too.

NB: I think things are healthy. We were at Bonnaroo and Newport and I think those sold out. People still crave those traditions – it means a lot to them that they’re part of it and the festival’s history. Hardly Strictly is that way also, definitely a darling of a festival.

JAMBASE: Are you happy with how the new album has been received?

NB: Oh yeah. We’re working really hard and there’s so much good music in the world and so many people working so hard, so it’s competitive. All you can do is do your best and hope that you can kind of make a space for yourself. It’s certainly not easy. But I hope people like the record, I feel really good about it and it’s been really fun to play the new songs.

JAMBASE: You guys have been on the road quite a bit. Any particularly great nights from the last few months?

NB: We just had a really fun night in Boulder, at the Fox Theater. People came out, they were feeling good, and we felt really good. Boyd Tinsley came in and sat in with us, and Rayland Baxter – we absolutely love him and he sat in with us too. There was great energy between us and in the audience and that’s really the exchange when everyone is fired up and having fun. That’s the perfect storm. It really doesn’t happen all the time.

[Photo by Jeremy Williams]

JAMBASE: That’s the assessment I’ve heard from people who attended, too. Did you know Boyd Tinsley before this?

NB: No. We were contacted by his people and they said, 'hey, Boyd’s going to be in town and if you’d be into it, he’d like to be there.' And we were like, 'well, yeah, of course!' He was in Boulder for an event – he’s super interactive with his fans but I think he just likes to be out there and playing music. He’s such a cool dude and he’s really kind of larger than life. His smile is so big, he’s so friendly and we were just so pleasantly surprised by this.

JAMBASE: Did you talk much ahead with Boyd about what you were going to play?

NB: Not really. He showed up in his tour bus and Tim and I went in and showed him the songs we were going to play and played him some videos. But it didn’t take much – he’s not a professional violin player for nothing.

JAMBASE: You guys also seem pretty accommodating when it comes to sit-in guests, though.

NB: Yeah, that’s what’s great about making music, especially live music, you can take it in all different directions. It’s really important I think to work those muscles – we can make changes on the fly and we’re really proud of ourselves when we can change the structure of songs from what we’re used to. We’re not a jamband, really – we kind of respect the direction of a song and don’t stray a whole lot from it. But we obviously have moments in our music where we like to stretch out a bit and with a guest, it kind of forces you to be flexible and work those spontaneous music muscles. Boyd was so good for that because he’ll throw a ton of stuff at you and you hope the actual song is sounding as good as you think.

JAMBASE: Here’s a question I bet you get all the time: will the Van Sessions continue?

NB: Yes, we’ll be doing more. We’re going to try to do one this week, actually – we have a long drive from Phoenix to Sacramento. We have the song. I can’t tell you what it is but I’ll tell you it’s kind of practice for Hardly Strictly.

JAMBASE: Fair enough. Before I let you go, do you expect to be as busy in 2014 as you’ve been this year? More touring to come?

NB: A lot more touring. We toured for seven weeks and we’re looking at bringing the full band to Europe. We’re doing a Costa Rican festival and we’re also lining up some support dates with international touring bands that I can’t mention just yet. Once January hits I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a full schedule for the new year, including festivals.

JAMBASE: Will you keep Brokedown in Bakersfield going, too?

NB: Yeah, but it’s definitely more of a hobby band just because we’re all so busy between Gramblers, ALO, the Mother Hips and everything else. We love playing the songs and it’s definitely special to all of us, but it’s not quite our first priority.

JAMBASE: Well it’s good to hear you’ll have another busy year ahead. We’re just getting used to seeing you more often in New York and the Northeast where I’m based.

NB: Well, hey, I think we’ll be at the Bowery [Ballroom] for Valentine’s Day. We’ll be back out soon.

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