More than any particular era or style, the music of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers sounds like pure California.
The Bay Area band blends folk, rock, and country, and in the years between 2013's self-titled debut and this spring's Loved Wild Lost, has forged a timeless, unmistakable sound that places Bluhm's powerful and seductive vocals at the center of it all.
"We were going for more of a California country-rock thing on this record," Bluhm says. "We put a certain feeling in songs that we wanted to be a common thread throughout the album. This record is probably our most cohesive. That was our intention and that really affected the choices we made during the recording process."
With husband Tim Bluhm (frontman of the Mother Hips and onetime member of Rhythm Devils, alongside the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann) at the helm, the Gramblers forged a record that swings from the melodic "Waiting on Love" through the roadhouse rowdiness of "Mr. Saturday Night" to the slow-burning ballad "High Neck Lace."
Bluhm says she finds a romanticism in the country-rock of the 1970s, especially the Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris duets and the Linda Ronstadt records that brought the sound to a larger audience. On Loved Wild Lost, the Gramblers set out to capture the feeling behind the classics of that era.
"There was really no particular album that we referenced for this," Bluhm says. "It was more of a feeling for that time and the way that the rich harmonies and 12-string guitars come together. You have the golden era where you think things were better and it's probably not true or accurate, but as humans, we all tend to do that."
The self-titled Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers debut album introduced the band to a nationwide audience in 2013 and for the follow-up, the band sought to work with an outside producer for the first time. In a quick two weeks of tracking, producer Brian Deck (Iron & Wine, Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter) helped the band keep its focus on streamlining the songs, Bluhm says.
Lyrically, Loved Wild Lost is a reflective album, centered on the themes of love and struggle, of pushing forward in life while balancing optimism and realism.
"We all write independently and individually," Bluhm says.
She writes most of the band's songs, while Tim Bluhm contributes several. Guitarist Darren Ney wrote two for the new album.
"We've all had our own experiences and our shared experiences over five years as a band, so it's cohesive in the sense that we've basically been a family living together on the road," she says.
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For Bluhm, the music tends to comes first, while the words take shape over time, often following the mood that the notes create.
"Typically, I just sit down with a guitar and usually will come up with a melody first and then continuously work on lyrics," she says.
On Loved Wild Lost, Bluhm's tone is contemplative, weighing the battle between inner forces and outer forces, her inherent hopefulness bumping against the daily reality of constant travel.
But while Bluhm's songwriting finds itself winding between the sunshine and the clouds, the Gramblers keep the music focused on the bright side of the spectrum, in command of a deep well of influences and a Golden State tradition they're happy to continue.