Backroads road trip: Rock 'n' roller
Hop in the van with rising country rock band Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and get their secrets for traveling the West’s backroads
What's the difference between a road-tripper and a rock star? No one cares whether you show up, but when Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers roll into town, people are actually expecting them. After a big drive, they can't just grab a pizza and go to bed; they've got to play—sometimes to a sold-out crowd, sometimes to a near-empty saloon. But every time, fans swoon. After the show in Kemmerer, a grown woman in pigtails pulls up a barstool and starts chatting with the band like she's known them forever. A gaggle of tweenage girls gives Nicki a hug when they see her strolling down the sidewalk. A gray-haired man in overalls walks up to tell her: "You did good." In less than 24 hours, the band has become local celebs, only to move on to the next town and do it all over again. "We meet cool people," says Nicki. "Most of the time."
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS OF A DIFFERENT SORT
Being on tour is like being on the anti-Grand Tour. Yellowstone is out. No time for a hike in Grand Teton National Park either. Instead, sightseeing is more happenchance, fun found en route. Like, say, in Kemmerer: "Look, it's the JC Penney Mother Store!" says Nicki, snapping an Instagram pic of the circa 1902 store. "Let's see if they sell swimsuits." (In the heat of the summer, oddly, they don't.) Instead she finds a hot-pink "Pretty Woman"-like number in Lava Hot Springs, an Idaho vacation town taken over by bikini-clad tourists toting inner tubes. The next day, the van creeps along Highway 20, as Tim hops in and out between mileage markers, hunting for this secret hot springs among the roadside brush. Finally, he finds it—not a sole in sight. And no bathing suits required.
BAND ON THE RUN
They clock thousands of miles a year driving from gig to gig. They might not have time for a hike in the Tetons, but the band knows where to find a secret roadside hot springs and the best waffles at 10,000 feet*. Here, Bluhm talks snacks, sing-alongs, and the hidden joys of two-lane travel.
It’s not all McDonald’s all the time, is it?
We try and avoid fast food whenever we can. It’s hard, but Whole Foods are popping up everywhere now. We’ll swing by for the salad bar and to stock up on stuff like coconut water and raw almonds, which we like to keep in the van. Yelp is a huge lifesaver. We use it constantly. A place has to have four stars and at least 20 reviews or we won’t eat there. We’ve learned a thing or two from Anthony Bourdain: No sushi on Sundays or Mondays. And stay away from hollandaise sauce. So pass on the eggs Benedict at the diner.
Best seat in the van?
Oh, shotgun, for sure. Driver’s seat is not bad, if you feel like driving. But otherwise, front row is where you want to be. The way-back can be pretty bouncy. We don’t get attached to one seat, though. Most of us are actually pretty tall, so we try to switch around before the leg cramps start setting in.
How long’s too long on the road?
Everywhere in the West is so far apart. We probably drive an average of six hours a day. I’d say that’s a good clip. We once did Lake Tahoe to Austin, about 1,700 miles. We rotated drivers, drove through the night. We rolled in at 7 a.m. for the South by Southwest festival and had to play that night till 2 a.m. That was pretty rough.
How do you get through it?
Catnaps. Coffee. We try to avoid those five-hour energy drinks. The guys play Frisbee at every gas station. I’ll do a few laps around the pumps, or jumping jacks. We went through a Words with Friends period, but one day we looked around at all of us staring at our phones, and we were like, ‘We’re such losers! Let’s talk.’ We rarely play the radio. If anyone listens to music, it’s usually with earphones. Eight people are never in the mood for the same music.
Unless it’s your own?
Yeah, when we’re bored, we’ll grab our instruments from the trailer and just start playing. That’s basically how the Van Sessions began. We were on a long haul and our bass player busted out his ukulele and started playing “Tonight You Belong To Me” from the movie The Jerk. We strapped an iPhone to the rearview mirror, recorded it just for fun, and sent it out to a few friends. They loved it, so we kept doing it. The clips went viral and became a big hit. Our Hall & Oates cover of “I Can’t Go For That” has over 2.5 million YouTube views. It’s crazy.
Are you loyal to a hotel chain?
We’re not necessarily loyal to any particular chain. We’re on a budget and usually Priceline it, looking for the best rate, often right as we’re rolling into town. We’ll only search three stars and up and find some great deals. I like anywhere that has Paul Mitchell shampoo and conditioner. That “conditioning shampoo” stuff drives me nuts. If we can afford it, the Marriott is the best because the beds have duvet covers. If there’s a duvet cover, I’m stoked. You never know if a bedspread’s been washed.
Any favorite venues?
Big Sur is amazing. We just did a gig there where we got to perform at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Such a magical place. Maybe 350 people, tops. We played this amphitheater surrounded by redwoods, right under the stars. It doesn’t get much better than that.
What’s your all-time favorite stretch of road?
Tough one. Highway 50 in Nevada is incredible in spots, but I guess I’d have to say Highway 120 through Yosemite and Tioga Pass. It’s so rugged and vast, with fun stops. You eat at the famous Mobil station in Lee Vining, stop for a dip in Tenaya Lake. So peaceful. But the best road is always the one home.
*Where to find those waffles? At Corbet’s Cabin in Jackson, WY, just a tram ride from Teton Village to the summit. The hot springs? Sorry, those, they say, will remain a secret.
To check out Nicki Bluhm & The Grambers' tour schedule, go to nickibluhm.com.