Nicki Bluhm Has Moved On And Thrives On Avondale Drive
Nicki Bluhm needed space and time, and Nashville offered both. The leader of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers had built a rich musical world and a fan following that spanned far beyond her California base. Unfortunately, that world and that band were inextricably entwined with the man she was divorcing after a ten-year marriage and musical partnership. She even still carries his name. But with more than five years in her new home and two distinguished solo albums to her credit, the metamorphosis of Nicki Bluhm feels complete.
What’s curious is that on her newest Avondale Drive, we hear a time lag, with some songs written early in her Nashville residency, when she was still processing what she’d been through. 2018’s To Rise You Gotta Fall, written before she moved from the Bay Area, has been characterized as her divorce album. Avondale Drive is in some ways volume two, the closure edition. “Who says it’s a failure, ten years ain’t worth nothing. I got a whole lot of something from the memories we made,” she sings in the wistful folk song “Juniper Woodsmoke.” It’s a restful reconciliation and a claiming of her own happy memories. “We had a good thing for a long time, but that ship has left the shore.” There’s more where that came from.
“I learned a lot from my marriage,” Bluhm says. “And from that collaborative experience of putting a band together and playing and, you know, learning how to backcountry ski and learning how to camp, there's all these amazing things that you get from these relationships.” And she talks about reframing and learning to let go of grief and guilt. “It is an ending, but to take that relationship and that decade of time together and be like, that was really cool. Actually, there was a lot of success within that. It's not a failure; it's a learning experience.”
In Nicki’s case, that learning was personal and professional. The Bay Area native grew up with older siblings who guided her in exploring music, including a brother who gifted her a guitar as she left for college in San Diego. Still, it took a bit before she deployed said guitar in front of an audience. “I was sort of and I still am a late bloomer in a lot of ways. I didn't really write my first song until I was 25. And I didn't play my first show until my late 20s.”
By that point, she’d met and married Tim Bluhm, who was a heavy hitter in the Bay Area scene as lead singer of The Mother Hips, an iconoclastic semi-psychedelic rock band. (Tim appeared on The String last February.) He produced her solo albums, including 2012’s Driftwood, which earned raves, including AllMusic.com calling her “an outstanding vocalist with a convincing country edge.” Her songs could feel intimate or like good vehicles for jams, an element that took on new vibrance as she built out her band The Gramblers, with Tim on guitar. “I remember feeling really overwhelmed and really kind of scared about how to do it all. It was such a steep learning curve,” she says of those days more than a decade ago. “But (Tim) really was a great mentor. And that's when we really started touring and hitting the road.”
It was literally on the road that The Gramblers had an important viral moment. They’d taken to working up favorite songs on long drives and popping them on the internet. On March 23, 2012, the quartet appeared on YouTube, Nicki in the driver’s seat, performing the Hall & Oates hit “I Can’t Go For That,” and it blew up. By the later 2010s, Bluhm was called San Francisco’s “It Girl” and the Gramblers were hailed as re-framers of 1970s California country soul. They played Bonnaroo, Newport Folk Festival and major network TV spots. At the same time though, Nicki realized her marriage was “dissolving” and that Tim had been unfaithful for years,according to this self-penned essay for Refinery 29.
Long, painful story short, Nicki Bluhm moved on to a new city and new musical confidantes. That process included a vast amount of high-level collaborative projects, including almost a year on the road as an honorary member of the Infamous Stringdusters and runs of shows with Little Feat and Phil Lesh and Friends, animating the music that made San Francisco famous. She’s also toured on more than one occasion with The Wood Brothers, and Oliver Wood appears as a guest on the new record. “She's just very versatile, and part of that is her voice and her control and her ability to not only sing beautiful leads but also be part of a duet. I love singing with her,” he says. “She has the confidence to sing with anybody, anytime. But she's also got the humility that makes it feel good to collaborate with her. Not everyone has that warm, fuzzy, easy to hang out with vibe, and she just exudes it.”
Who wouldn’t want Nicki Bluhm to sing with them? Her voice is an impressive instrument that she wields with restraint and hippie momma warmth. She doesn’t need to blow your mind to satisfy your soul. It’s like worn denim and boot leather with a rich lower register, a tender touch, and a smoky friction. Avondale Drive sees that voice set in some fun new ways in partnership with her new producer Jesse Noah Wilson. Album opener “Learn To Love Myself” sparkles with 60s girl group energy and reverb as it investigates the phantom limb effect of living alone after a separation. “Sweet Surrender” is a favorite of mine with its electric piano thrum and relaxed, bong-ready tempo. “Leaving Me (Is The Loving Thing To Do)” is a spectacular smoldering country ballad that would be a gift to any great singer, but Nicki’s version is that much truer and more moving for having lived it so vividly and recently. And the finale, “Wheels Rolling” is a head bobber that looks open-heartedly to the future. It’s a good benediction for Bluhm’s road ahead.