Before Vanessa Niemann moved to New Orleans, the city where she became Gal Holiday, country singer, she’d been a member of an Andrews Sisters-style trio that performed with the Washington, D.C., big band, Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra.
Niemann at first envisioned herself as a New Orleans jazz singer. After moving to the city in 1999, she sang with the Shim Sham Club band and for the former French Quarter club’s burlesque show, the Shim Sham Revue.
Niemann moved on to the SophistiCats and that group’s sister outfit, the SophistiKittens. When the SophistiCats went all-instrumental, Niemann went country. But it wasn’t the mainstream country she’d heard in the ’90s. It was the classic country of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams.
“I realized, ‘Oh, I do like country music, I just like the classic stuff,’ ” Niemann said.
Beyond the artistic appeal of classic country music, Niemann had another reason for not pursuing a jazz career in New Orleans.
“There were so many girls, women here, who were so fabulous at singing jazz,” she said. “It was going to be hard for me to find a place. In retrospect, I probably could have found a place, but I was getting into this other kind of music and I wanted to expand a little bit as well.”
Singing country was a return to Niemann’s roots. She grew up in the folk- and bluegrass-strong regions of western Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area. As a young child, she lived in Hancock, Md., minutes from the art- and music-filled Appalachian Mountains town of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
“They say there are more stringed instruments in Berkeley Springs than people,” Niemann said. “There were always barn dances and things of that nature. Parents would go to the dances, stay late and the kids fell asleep on the hay. Bluegrass is part of the tradition of growing up in that neck of the woods. When people’s day’s work is done, they sit around with instruments and pick.”
Niemann didn’t reconnect with country music until she moved more than 1,000 miles south to the city famous for jazz, funk and rhythm-and-blues. Having heard a lot of about New Orleans, she picked it as her destination rather than New York or Los Angeles.
“There definitely was a need to get away from where I grew up,” she said.
Niemann and her bandmates founded Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue in 2004. The group met skepticism about whether a country band could work in New Orleans. Nine years on, the band performs frequently in the city and beyond. It’s released two albums, 2007’s Blue Ridge Baby and 2010’s Louisiana Waltz.
Following a successful online campaign through Kickstarter to raise funds for the production of a third Gal Holiday and the Honky Revue album, the band plans to enter the studio soon and release the album in late October. The campaign met its fundraising goal two weeks before the Aug. 1 deadline.
“We don’t have management, we don’t have agents, we don’t have a record label,” Niemann said. “We’ve done everything in house. I think we’ve built up equity with our fans. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with putting a hundred dollar bill in the tip bucket. But if you start a Kickstarter campaign, they might put $100 in that because they can see exactly what it’s gonna be spent for. It’s been amazing. I was blown away.”
The number of dates on the band’s calendar and the response its Kickstarter campaign may confirm Niemann’s belief that New Orleans is a place where aspirations can become reality.
“New Orleans is a city where you can do anything,” she said. “If you have a dream, something that you want to do, you can do it in New Orleans.”
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