Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers were touring the Northwest in their Ford Cargo van last fall when they starting singing the song “You Belong To Me.”
As Bluhm drove and sang lead, bass player Steve Adams played a ukulele in the front passenger seat. Meanwhile, in the back seat, Deren Ney played melodica while drummer Mike Curry supplied the beat with a shaker. As the van continued to roll down the highway, the harmonies were so good and the song so sweet, the band members decided to play it again.
“We were just delighted with ourselves, so we recorded it,” said Bluhm, one of the performers at this year’s Live Oak Music Festival, a major fundraiser for public radio station KCBX. “And it was because Tim, my husband, wasn’t on tour with us. We were like, ‘Let’s put this up and show Tim.’ ”
They didn’t stop there. After posting the song on YouTube, they played more covers in the van — nostalgic tunes like Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” “Easy” by the Commodores and Pet Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” — recording each with an iPhone and posting online. One of those covers — their take on the Hall & Oates tune “I Can’t Go For That” — has garnered close to 1.3 million views, giving the band the gift of unanticipated massive exposure.
Growing up near Berkeley, Bluhm had no plans of pursuing a music career. Instead, she majored in environmental studies at University of San Diego. After getting a teaching credential, she was poised for a career in the classroom.
But as she struggled to find a teaching job, her career took a different path after Tim Bluhm, of the Bay Area band The Mother Hips, heard her sing at a New Year’s Party. The two sang together, and eventually married.
Today, they occasionally perform together as a duo, and Tim sometimes is a member of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers. (They will perform Saturday both as a duo and with Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers.) We recently spoke to Nicki Bluhm, who is promoting her country-rock album “Driftwood,” about her band and those van sessions.
Q: In the “Jetplane” video (from “Driftwood”), you’re flipping through some vinyl albums in the intro, and there are a couple of Sonny & Cher albums. Were you a fan?
A: When my mom was younger, she looked exactly like Cher, to the point where I saw Cher on the cover of a magazine at a supermarket, and I really thought it was my mom. I remember being like, “Mom! You’re on the cover of People magazine!” I think visually Cher has always really been striking to me. More than as a musician, I love Cher as an actress.
Q: It seems like your style is a lot like ’70s Cher. Is that sort of intentional — has that rubbed off on you?
A: I’m sure subconsciously there are women that I think look really cool. It’s not like I set out to look like Cher. But I think that all of that imagery from my childhood and listening to them and looking at their album covers and stuff is probably a subconscious thing that comes out in fashion.
Q: You and Tim are both so into California. How does that shape the music?
A: Both being California natives, I think we feel really rooted in California. We’re both really avid outdoors people. It certainly influences the sound, I think, especially the duet stuff. Often we’ll work on those songs together while we’re hiking or camping.
Q: So this whole van thing, obviously it’s gotten you a lot of attention. Does it threaten to overshadow the original stuff?
A: I think it’s been a really great thing for us because it’s exposed people to our music. People like what they know, and a cover song is a great way for people to easily digest what you’re doing. And what we’ve found is that people are really diving in deeper into our original music. People are buying tickets to the show — we’re on tour now — and tickets sales are going really well.
Q: The songs are sort of different from what you guys do. You guys sort of have a country-rock mix. Was that a way to do something completely different?
A: They’re mostly songs from our childhood. Like nostalgic songs. Somebody will bring up a song, you know, like “Material Girl.” It’s hilarious — all the boys in my band know every word to that song because it was just so much a part of pop culture.
Q: Do you have any idea why the Hall & Oates one in particular did so well?
A: I think either because John Oates reposted it on his John Oates or the Hall & Oates Facebook page. I think that was a good first push. And then Twitter — people started re-Tweeting it all over. Cameron Crowe, Ryan Adams, Bette Midler, Will Wheaton. It kind of went nuts.
Q: Have you guys ever thought about doing original songs in the van?
A: Yeah, we have. We probably will. We’re going to release our third album in 2013, and I think maybe we’ll do some of the new songs off that maybe to have people preview the new songs.
Q: When you guys are doing it, do the other drivers notice?
A: We’re so focused on what we’re doing, we’re not really looking at other drivers. We’re usually on the freeway — we’re not stopped at a stoplight or something.
Live Oak features a variety of genres
Every year the Live Oak Music Festival offers a weekend of camping, art workshops and activities for kids. But the focus of this annual KCBX fundraiser is always the music. Here are a few samples of the acts appearing at this year’s festival, held in Santa Barbara County.
The Rebirth Brass Band, Friday, 9 p.m.: Formed in 1983, the band began by playing the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Since then, the band has spread the tradition of brass bands — with a heavy dose of funk — by playing stages worldwide.
Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic, Saturday, 1 p.m., 10:30 p.m.: Though he was born in California, Thierry’s parents were Louisiana natives who helped introduce him to Cajun music. At age 12, he formed his own band, Zydeco Magic, and has been performing Bayou-inspired Zydeco ever since.
James McMurtry, Saturday, 6:45 p.m.: The son of novelist Larry McMurtry, James has always received critical acclaim for his lyrics. The country rock singer — and occasional actor — first got a guitar from his father at age 7. But it was his mother, an English professor, who taught him how to play it.
Carolyn Wonderland, Saturday, 8:45 p.m.: As a child, Wonderland began playing guitar on her mother’s vintage Martin. Today she’s an accomplished blues guitarist and singer who plays trumpet, accordion, piano and mandolin, and has garnered a reputation as a talented whistler.
Melody of China, Sunday, 11:30 a.m., 3:45 p.m.: A nonprofit organization from the Bay Area, this outfit formed in 1993 by a group of professional musicians from some of the most prestigious conservatories in China. The group aims to promote Chinese classical, folk and contemporary music.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, Sunday, 2:45, 5 p.m.: Having experienced Zimbabwe’s liberation war, Mapfumo’s songs feature revolutionary, spiritually charged lyrics that decry injustice and highlight historical issues in the news. His songs, considered critical of the government, were banned from the airwaves, and government-controlled press has been critical of him in recent years.
David Lindley, Sunday, 6:45 p.m.: An award-winning banjo player as a teen, Lindley joined forces with Jackson Browne to begin a decade-long collaboration in the early 1970s. He has also collaborated with guitarist Ry Cooder. More recently, after a trip to Madagascar, he and guitarist Henry Kaiser recorded six albums of indigenous Malagasy music.
Indigo Girls, Sunday, 8:45 p.m.: Having first met in elementary school, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been performing together since they were teens. The acoustic, folk-based duo scored a big hit with their song “Shame on You” in 1997.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.