Nicki Bluhm has excellent cowboy boots and a down-home friendliness about her, so you could be forgiven for assuming she's a southerner. That is, until the alt-country-and-soul singer – who's performed with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Chris Robinson and The Avett Brothers, as well solo and with her band, the Gramblers – tells you she grew up riding horses every summer in Monterey, on the same county fairgrounds that played host to the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.
"My family has a place in [nearby] Watsonville, so I showed here from ages 12 to 18. I actually fell off in the main arena here, it was devastating," Bluhm told Rolling Stone inside the Levi's Outpost pop-up lounge on Saturday evening of the Monterey Pop 50th anniversary fest, just after finishing rehearsal for her Sunday set with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "So when they asked me to play this I was like, 'Cool! I get a chance to redeem myself.' I mean, aside from the fact that the bands who played here originally are some of my very favorite bands of all time."
Tell me about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. This is the first time you've played with them?
They're from New Orleans, where I spent some time recently, and there's no more danceable, fun music than the music that comes out of that community. There's an honesty to it; it's very unpretentious and joyful. Some of the Dirty Dozen guys played in marching bands, and that is such a challenging way to play music: being hot, sweating in the street with those giant instruments, stepping the right way. That's the real deal. You kind of become like a music warrior.
So when [Monterey Pop organizers] asked me to put together a band for this, I asked them [to back me]. I'm especially excited because we're gonna do a few Jefferson Airplane songs, and the idea of doing a tribute to Jefferson Airplane with a brass band has had my brain like, whoa. Completely different interpretations, instrumentation. I think it's gonna be fun.
I love that you're paying homage to Grace Slick, but it also strikes me that female-led bands were really underrepresented at the original festival. That hasn't changed much on a lot of lineups in the 50 years since.
Yeah, the gender balance – I was thinking about this. Really, I always feel proud when there's a chance to just show up and do my thing and prove that women can be as powerful and engaging and entertaining as men. And in some ways, for that time, it's actually kind of cool that both Grace Slick and Janis Joplin were here in such prominent ways. I think in the bands they played with, they were very respected by their bandmates: Grace Slick wrote "White Rabbit." And then Janis just fucking dominates. The thing about Janis is I think a lot of men were actually kind of intimidated by her. And of course she was such a partier. I started drinking Southern Comfort when I was 20 just because that's what she drank.
You just wrapped up a new album, right?
Yes! I recorded the new album in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording – as in Sam Phillips who founded Sun Records. This studio was built in 1958, and it is exactly the way it was then. I just moved to Nashville, but other than that I've never lived outside of California, so it's been so cool to step into a different place with a different point of view. Between that and the fact that the songs on this album are so personal – making that record was the culmination of so many things for me, so many years of strife and emotion, and it felt so good to put those songs on tape and wipe my hands of them. Stepping out of the studio was like stepping into the next phase of my life.
In February you released a song called "Remember Love Wins'' to protest the travel ban. You mentioned you lost fans?
Oh, yeah. A lot of people were like, "Stick to the music!" Which, to me – I'm a person, and I'm just as allowed to voice my feelings and speak my mind as you are. And I think that if you have any kind of platform and you passionately believe in something, it would be cowardly not to say what you think. I want to be respectful, and I think people should respect each other's opinions; in the song that I wrote there is no malice at all – it's just asking people to consider something. People want to point fingers, take sides … when, look, we all need air to breathe, food to eat and water to drink. I almost feel like we need an alien invasion at this point to remind us that we're all in this together. People think you're soft if you're like "We just wanna listen to each other." But that's not weak. It's actually really powerful.
Is there art or music you're turning to for guidance these days?
Joni Mitchell, always. She's so articulate and observant. And I just read that she was supposed to go to Woodstock, but her manager wouldn't let her because of weather craziness, and she had a TV appearance in the next couple days that she couldn't miss, so she canceled her gig [at the festival] and watched it from home with her manager. She watched all her friends play it and she wrote "Woodstock" that night from L.A., and then all the guys who played it also made it back for the TV appearance anyway! She just felt like the little sister, overprotected and kept at home. And I feel like that all the time. Joni's my number one.