When one views at all the varied inspirations, stylistic expressions and performance experiences that have bolstered her career, it would be natural to consider Nikki Hill as a living artistic contradiction.
She learned to perform in the church but has never viewed herself as especially religious, revering the Cramps and AC/DC as highly as gospel. She found favor with the traditions of R&B and soul, but she has proven to anyone who has seen her perform — including the crowds that have caught her numerous Lexington shows over the past two years — that the North Carolina-reared, New Orleans-based singer is a rocker at heart. She is very much a child of the South, but the music on her recent album, “Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists,” is less tied to specific genres or geography. It’s rural Alabama juke-joint soul one minute, and Detroit-worthy rock ’n’ roll the next.
“I never entertained being a singer, let alone a front person,” said Hill, who returns to Central Kentucky on Saturday as part of the Well Crafted – Brews + Bands festival at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. “I loved the idea of being a part of a group that could make people feel the way that all those bands I’ve seen over the years have made me feel, and maybe even record music that other people would be interested in hearing.
“Little Richard and Otis Redding and The Cramps are probably the ones that stand out, where I would catch myself thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ The images and playing of Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Lynn also showed me women that I felt were more representative and identifiable for me. Seeing and hearing them play made it seem like a true possibility for a woman like me and a different and more rebellious way to get in people’s faces.”
I loved the idea of being a part of a group that could make people feel the way that all those bands I’ve seen over the years have made me feel.
Music began for Hill, as it did with so many R&B, soul and even rock-based artists from the South, in church. But singing in the choir didn’t necessarily mean that she bought into being part of the congregation. Still, the urgency and immediacy of gospel opened a door to the potency of a live performance.
“I have never been religious, but I could never deny the power of the music on the audience, the way it felt so much like a performance and the energy that it built within the room.
“I was so drawn to people that were openly angry and expressive and passionate; I felt like I was so quiet about how I felt. I was drawn to others singing and playing out their pain. I had never really seen or heard that until seeking it out on my own in rock ’n’ roll and blues. All these artists I loved, especially in the soul and R&B/rock ’n’ roll vein, mostly grew up in the church as well. I knew there was a tie to it. I could hear in the music the old call-and-response style, the attitude, the passionate execution of the songs. The more I listened and the more I got into researching the influences of my favorite artists, I was able to see how much all the styles of roots music were really tied together.”
Perhaps that’s why Hill balances the R&B authority of LaVern Baker or early Aretha Franklin with the collar-grabbing guitar-rock command of the MC5. But working as an independent artist without major label help means having to get her music out the old-fashioned way: through lots and lots of road work.
“Do we always have packed rooms? No. Are we able to get into every venue/festival that we want to play? Hell, no. There are ups and downs to it, but I think if it wasn’t paying off, I wouldn’t still be touring and able to make records.
“I’m just facing it head-on, because that’s all I know. Plus, there is no need for me to ever act like I chose an easy way. It all boils down to the fact that I’m a black Southern woman playing rock ’n’ roll in 2017. It’s confusing. It’s unidentifiable. It’s unfamiliar. It’s unmarketable. It’s not popular. But it’s me, and I’m making a living at it.”
If you go
Well Crafted — Brews + Bands
As the name indicates, Well Crafted — Brews + Bands celebrates regional beer and music cultures. The former will be highlighted through the numerous craft beers — more than 40, in fact — available for sampling on Saturday at Shaker Village in Harrodsburg. The music will play out all day on two stages. Here’s the lineup:
Coralee and the Townies (1:30 p.m.)
Josh Nolan (3 p.m.)
Nikki Hill (4:30 p.m.)
The Dexateens (6 p.m.)
Tyler Childers (7:30 p.m.)
David Napier (1 p.m.)
Chelsea Nolan (2:30 p.m.)
Brian Combs (4 p.m.)
Senora May (5:30 p.m.)
Ethan Hunt (7 p.m.)
When: June 17 (gates open 11 a.m.)
Where: Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg