Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue

By John Wirt - Sep 27, 2007

After growing up with bluegrass music in western Maryland and singing swing tunes with a big band in Washington, D.C., Vanessa Niemann, a.k.a. Gal Holiday, moved to New Orleans in 1999 with thoughts of being a jazz singer.

"I quickly realized that there are a million and one fantastic jazz singers down here who had me beat," she said.

The breadth of the New Orleans music scene shocked Niemann. "It's not like you can just go out for a couple weeks and have the scene figured out," she said. "There's so much to it. I wasn't expecting that, because, in Washington, D.C., the music scenes are sort of neatly packaged into these little boxes. If you wanna hear this kind of music, this is where you go.

"But in New Orleans there are so many different styles of music and so many different combinations of people. It's an incredibly creative place. So it took a bit longer for me to find my place here."

Niemann found her place by turning back to her roots. She's from Hancock, Md., a small town in the bluegrass-filled Blue Ridge Mountains. Her mother was a folk singer, her grandparents were fans of Hank Williams and a legendary lady of country music from nearby Winchester, Va., Patsy Cline.

Niemann's interest in rockabilly led her to the classic country of Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and such lesser-known artists such as Janis Martin, Helen Hall and Rose Maddox.

"I never put Hank Williams in the country genre because when I thought, 'country music,' I thought 'Achy Breaky Heart,' modern pop country," she said. "I made no correlation between classic country and modern country. So it's really been a discovery for me."

Searching for an opportunity to perform in New Orleans, Niemann initially considered rockabilly. "But there are a million and one rockabilly bands out there who do things on a small scale," she said. "I didn't wanna go that route. I thought, 'Well, let me try country and see what happens.' " Niemann found some like-minded musicians and formed Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue three years ago.

"It's been a going back to our roots for all of us, because we all grew up in small communities where there was a lot of country music," she said.

After taking the band public, she added, "it just felt right. People started going to the shows and, once we got this solid band together, we got great feedback."

Having previously used stage names Little Butterfly and Butterfly Capone for swing and big band gigs back East, Niemann assumed a new name, Gal Holiday, for her country band. Stage names, she said, "make it easier to get up there and assume a role."

Gal is a nickname Niemann's had for years. She borrowed Holiday from one of her favorite singers, Billie Holiday. The composite Gal Holiday, "sounded cool, western, but not too hokey."

In addition to singing, Niemann offers tidbits and stories about the artists who originally recorded the country classics she and the Honky Tonk Revue revive.

"A lot of people may have heard these songs, but they don't know the names and they certainly don't know where these people came from," Niemann said. "They were real people with real problems from real towns. In the case of Webb Pierce, he was from Louisiana. Helen Hall was a Texas gal. It's important for people to know these things."

Naturally, Hurricane Katrina left Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue all shook up. The band's bass player lost his house and bass. Niemann's place in Metairie wasn't damaged, but catastrophic Katrina still inspired some serious re-evaluation.

"People realized what was really important," she said. "For me, that was my music and this band. I had been doing a lot of other stuff, but after the storm I was like, 'Look, I don't have time to do this, I don't have time to do that. I'm gonna focus on what makes me happy.' "

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page