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Nicki Bluhm of the Gramblers Talks Road Trips, Music, and Her Favorite SF Spots

Photo credit: Lauren Massie

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers are on the road again this spring and summer with new tour dates. Over-night sensations, they became famous after their “van sessions” went viral. Who could ever forget their cover of Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go For That”? Nicki shared her favorite Bay Area spots for inspiration, unwinding, and taking in a show, plus her tips for the best road trip ever. Buckle up.

Where do you like to go to hear/see live music in San Francisco?

I rarely have time to go out and see music when I’m home but when I do it’s hard to beat The Fillmore for sound quality, aesthetics, ambiance, and history.  Going there is always an experience. In the East Bay I absolutely love going to The Fox Theater. It’s elegant, grand, and classically timeless. 

And on the flip side, what’s your favorite place to perform in the Bay Area?

We just had the honor of playing our first show at The Fillmore and it was a magical night. There is something about that room that evokes a sense of friendly ghosts still hanging out there. You can see a photograph of Jerry Garcia illuminated back by the bar from stage and it’s almost as if he’s watching your show. You gotta bring your A game…no slouching at The Fillmore.

How did you meet your husband Tim Bluhm?

I first knew of Tim through his killer band The Mother Hips. I would go see them in high school and college. I remember the first time I saw him on stage I was totally knocked off my feet. The way he looked, the way he sounded, his presence…it was a vision. I followed the band for many years and over that time we became acquaintances. After almost a decade, he heard me sing at a party and that was the beginning of our professional and personal relationship.

What inspired your fantastic “van sessions” and how did you feel when they went viral?

Relentless touring in our van without a radio was the catalyst for the Van Sessions. Our bass player Steve Adams had a uke with him and we started messing around with a tune. Once we had it dialed we decided to record it and show our friends back home what we do during the day….the van is our version of a cubical I guess. It wasn’t until the 17th one that it got the attention through social media. It was a surprise to all of us. We put it out on YouTube as we were pulling into Pappy and Harriet’s where we immediately lost cell reception. We didn’t know it had become so popular until we regained service at a taqueria somewhere in Southern California a few days later. Needless to say we were surprised and stoked…and still very unaware of how much it would change our path as a band. 

You were born in the East Bay. Where do you visit when you return to your old stomping grounds?

I love going back to the East Bay. It’s warm and sunny and all my family still lives out there. I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the Lafayette Reservoir so I tend to go there often when I’m home and need a moment to reconnect with nature and my roots. Every now and then around the holidays I might go into The Round Up for a game of shuffle board and a Sierra Nevada. 

What’s your preferred music shop?

On the road, time is of the essence so we’ll make plenty of Guitar Center stops. There are those golden moments though when you’re traveling through a place and you come across something special. We drove through Grand Junction, CO last month and stumbled upon a sweet little music shop called Hart Music with really great stuff and knowledgeable guys. You kind of stash those places away in your mind and know the next time you travel through that place you might make another stop. It feels much better when you can give your money to mom and pop shops that really care about what they’re selling.

Your band has logged thousands of miles on your cross-country tours. What’s the secret to a great road trip?

There are eight of us traveling in the van at all times. We are not small people so space is definitely limited. I think the biggest thing we do to keep the van a happy place is let it be a quiet zone. I mean we talk and stuff but we don’t play music on the radio or pass around the iPod or anything like that. If someone wants to listen to something or watch something they’ll use their headphones.  It’s rare that eight people would want to listen to the same thing at the same time. It’s mostly just about respect.

Which gig has been your most memorable stop on the road?

The life of a touring musician is strange. One day you are treated like a queen with a luxurious backstage, catering, anything you might want and the very next day you are getting dressed in the back alley, doing your makeup in the side mirror of the van and being treated like the help. I try to take this in stride, although it’s not always easy. We had a fabulous time at The Georgia Theater in Atlanta last month. The production, venue, hospitality were all top notch and we had a wonderful show and experience. On the flip side, we played in Columbus, Ohio at a dive bar with no production and borderline hospitality but it ended up being a great night because we were able to sink into what it was and enjoy a sweaty rock club. I’ve learned that it’s all about your attitude and perspective. It’s not always easy but you might as well make the best of things….we’re doing what we love!

What did it feel like to record in your Mission Bells studio?

Mission Bells is no longer, but I have many fond memories of recording there.  It was a great studio and a lot of love went into that space. It’s nice to have your own studio because there is no ticking clock. Putting time restraints on making music can be a tough pill to swallow. Sometimes it is necessary and can even be good, but having the luxury of taking your time allows for more freedom, exploration and spontaneity. 

Ready for the speed round? What is your favorite…

Song

Really? Just one? That’s so hard. I’ve been listening to JJ Cale’s “Naturally” a lot lately. I love the song “Call Me The Breeze”. One of my many favorite songs. Puts me in a very mellow mood.

All-time band

The Grateful Dead 

Get-away

We just had a killer time in Costa Rica. 

Songwriter

Merle Haggard and Tim Bluhm

Album

“Naturally” JJ Cale

“Court and Spark” Joni Mitchell

Fantasy venue to perform in

A Russian Ice Palace

How does it feel to be the sole woman in your band?

I have two older brothers so I feel pretty well prepared. I love the guys in the band. They are like family to me. I’m not the girliest girl so I fit in pretty well. 

Where do you like to escape for songwriting inspiration?

I typically do most of my writing at home. I’m about to embark on a 5-day retreat in Yosemite though so I’m hoping to find some inspiration there. It’s a pretty magical place!

Nicki Richesin is a freelance writer and editor. She writes personal essays and pieces on lifestyle, parenting, and pop culture for Sunset, DuJour, 7x7, and The Huffington Post. She is also the author and editor of The May Queen, Because I Love Her, What I Would Tell Her, and Crush. You can find her online at http://www.nickirichesin.com