published Thursday, June 5th, 2014

N.C. roots vocalist lends dynamite pipes to Riverbend - June 9, 11

Never mind that her voice punches like she's the secret love child of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, Nikki Hall spent a lifetime loving music before she ever considered making any herself.

Even three years after she unexpectedly found herself as a career roots-rocking frontwoman, the North Carolina vocalist still sounds surprised that she's switched which side of the mike she spends her nights on.

"I was never one of those little kids with the childhood dream of being a famous singer," Hill says during a recent phone interview. "I always loved music but never thought it would go anywhere beyond me being a huge fan, and that was completely OK with me."

Like many of her peers growing up in the Tar Heel State, she did her time singing with church choirs. It was an activity she enjoyed, she says, but it didn't set her on the path to a musical career.

IF YOU GO

What: Nikki Hall.

When and where: 5:30 p.m. Monday, June 9, on the Bessie Smith Stage, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.; 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, on Unum Stage, Riverfront Parkway.

Admission: $7 access to the Strut only (increases to $10 after Friday, June 6); Riverbend weekly wristband ($35 today, $50 after today); one-night wristband ($26).

Phone: 423-756-2211.

Website: www.nikkihallmusic.com.

For the most part, she kept her singing on the down-low, but when she would cut loose and sing for friends and family, she always received a rave response. Her husband -- and now guitarist -- Matt Hill even dropped the occasional suggestion that she had better pipes than many other female vocalists he heard out on the circuit. At times, he would even bring her up onstage to sing.

She always wondered whether she could trust the biased evaluations of loved ones, but in 2011, videos from one of these impromptu guest appearances taken during a show in a small restaurant in St. Louis made their way to the Internet. Those recordings ignited a firestorm of interest from all over the world that erased any doubt that her friends were just blowing smoke, she says.

"People were asking me where they can get my record and wanting to book me for shows," she says. "That really kicked it off.

"It became people all over the world telling me they thought I sounded good, and hopefully they don't have a reason to [lie to] me."

Since they weren't tied down by other obligations, Hall and her husband took a chance and tried touring. Next week, Hill and her band -- nicknamed The Pirate Crew -- will make two appearances at the Riverbend Festival: Monday night, June 9, during the Bessie Smith Strut and Wednesday night, June 11, on the Unum Stage.

In the years since Hill converted from music lover to musician, her vocals and her backing band's tight early rock-influenced sound have made their way to stages all over the world, from Belgium and Sweden to Australia and Scotland.

Wherever they're playing, however, she says her goal is as bare-bones as it gets.

"The most important thing? Just putting on the best show you can every night," she says. "It's just not worth it if it's not fun."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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