Danielle Nicole often hears the same compliment as she walks off the stage.
“I can’t tell you how many young people have told me, ‘I had no idea I liked blues until I heard you,’” she says.
The Kansas City musician doesn’t claim to be a traditional blues artist. But she hopes her raucous and impassioned approach is helping broaden the perception of this enduring style.
“Genres are just labels. Just words. Music is a feeling,” Nicole explains. “I’ve simply modernized the blues and want to let people know, ‘You do love it, you just don’t know it yet.’”
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Audience appreciation has evidently translated into industry appreciation. Nicole received her first Grammy nomination, in the best contemporary blues album category, for her sophomore solo effort, “Cry No More.” On Sunday, she’ll learn whether she will claim the honor at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards.
“I was completely shocked by the nomination,” says Nicole, who sings and plays bass in her trio.
In December, when nominations were announced, she was on tour in Texas and had performed an extra-late show. When she woke up, she didn’t realize why so many texts and voicemails were bombarding her phone for hours as she tried to sleep in.
Nicole soon learned she’d be competing against Boz Scaggs, Teresa James, Victor Wainwright and Fantastic Negrito in this category.
“I know Victor. He’s a buddy of mine. We’ve been cutting teeth together at the same festivals for the last five or six years,” she says. “I know Teresa as well. I love her. I don’t know Boz Skaggs or Fantastic Negrito personally. But I think everybody offers something different about the contemporary blues. It will be interesting to see who gets it – but, obviously, I’m hoping it’s me.”
Nicole will bring guitarist Brandon Miller as her guest to the televised ceremony to “help represent Kansas City,” she says. (Drummer Ralph Forrest rounds out her live lineup.)
What happens if she actually takes home the Grammy?
“I’m going to make a necklace out of it and carry it wherever I go,” she quips. “Or I’ll mount it to the hood of my van – whatever my touring vehicle is – and encase it in bulletproof glass.”
On “Cry No More,” the 36-year-old songwriter wanted to explore more personal storytelling, mining her own experiences and emotions. She admits the title of the 14-track album really summed up her outlook.
“It means just moving on,” she says of the follow-up to her 2015 solo debut, “Wolf Den.” “Moving on from the negativity. Growing and getting rid of all the past that weighs you down.”
One part of her past that ended up being a positive addition to her album came from an unlikely ally. Retired R&B star Bill Withers of “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” fame dropped by the studio in Los Angeles where she was recording. After hearing some tracks, he invited her out to his car.
“We were sitting in the driveway in his SUV, and he reaches into his glovebox and pulls out a burned CD. He starts playing me ‘Hot Spell.’ He said, ‘You might find the lyrics a bit risqué,’” she recalls.
Withers allowed Nicole to record the previously unreleased song. And once he’d approved of her interpretation, it became part of “Cry No More.”
“It’s one of my favorite songs on the record,” says Nicole, who cites “Grandma’s Hands” as the Withers hit she adored most while growing up.
Withers wasn’t the only renowned artist who contributed to the record: Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Walter Trout, Luther Dickinson and Sonny Landreth also appear. So does Lawrence keyboard legend Mike Finnigan.
“Mike is an amazing architect of music,” she says. “He brings an entirely different musician out of you.”
Finnigan has no trouble returning the compliment.
“Danielle’s best asset is the voice she has. She has excellent range and great power. Perhaps more important than her natural vocal gifts is her conception of the music and her bravery. She’s not afraid to take chances,” says Finnigan, who’s played with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Jane’s Addiction.
He adds, “Practicing and performing the music is certainly important, but before you can hope to do that with any depth and weight, you have to have really listened to it — a lot. Danielle’s deep understanding of how the music, performed well, is supposed to sound, makes her performances genuinely soulful and intensely honest.”
Born Danielle Nicole Schnebelen, she was a mere 16 when asked to take over as lead singer of her father’s band, Little Eva and the Works. Several years later, she continued the family legacy in Trampled Under Foot, a KC blues trio formed with her brothers, Nick and Kris Schnebelen.
Collectively, the trio amassed 13 years of touring and several albums to their credit. In 2008 they won the International Blue Challenge in Memphis, and in 2017 were honored by the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.
“The thing about Trampled Under Foot was that we were so heavily involved in every decision together, there was just a lot of conflict in ideas. Even though we were siblings, we had such strong ideas which way it should go,” she remembers.
Drummer Kris quit in 2014, leaving Nicole and guitarist Nick to finish out the rest of the tour. At that point, she began to ponder a solo career.
She says, “We were all musically in different places. I felt like our shows were starting to reflect the disconnect. I decided it just needs to be my band. While I enjoy input from Brandon and Ralph now, it’s a heck of a lot easier making the decision by trusting my gut.”
Not many blues bands are fronted by a female bassist. But the instrument (which Nicole picked up from scratch to join Trampled Under Foot) has become a signature aspect of her sound. In fact, she was the first woman to earn the Blues Foundation’s 2014 Blues Music Award in this instrumental category. She cites Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones as her bass-playing idol – not exactly surprising, considering her previous band was named after a Zeppelin track.
Equally distinctive is her voice, both speaking and singing, which owns a genial raspiness that overflows with enthusiasm.
“Yeah. I don’t ever play poker,” she jokes.
“Whenever somebody says my voice connects with them in a personal way, it’s something I really love to know. But the best description (of my voice) is to say I’m raw.”
Having just relocated from Lee’s Summit to the new Berkley Riverfront neighborhood near downtown, Nicole admits she likes being closer to the heart of the city. She reveals her hometown often becomes the topic of discussion when she’s traveling across the country.
“A lot of people who know the music scene know Kansas City,” she says. “There’s a really neat style we have. You don’t notice it until you get outside of Kansas City, and people will say, ‘Oh, I can tell you’re from there because you got this swing to your music.’”
That innate swing continues to draw newer, younger audiences to her shows. It’s given her a mission to truly stress the contemporary aspect of contemporary blues.
“There’s a stigma about the blues that turns people off. They think you can only relate to it if you’re in a bad mood or want to listen to something slow. Even socially, when you’re watching a movie, if the characters go into a seedy bar, there’s B.B. King playing. It’s embedded into society that this is what it is and this is what you should feel when you listen to it,” she says.
“Younger kids are like, ‘Oh, that’s my parents’ music.’
“I’m like, ‘Honey, you’re listening to Led Zeppelin, and that’s your grandparents’ music.’”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Where to watch
The 61st Grammy Awards air at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 10, on CBS.
The local connections
While Danielle Nicole is up for best contemporary blues album, two other KC-area music talents are up for the biggest Grammy Award:
▪ Kansas City, Kan., native Janelle Monae is up for album of the year for “Dirty Computer.” She is also up for best music video for “PYNK.”
▪ Producer Jermaine “JWhiteDidIt” White, who was born in Leavenworth and lived in KCK, is nominated alongside rapper Cardi B in the album of the year category for her debut album, “Invasion of Privacy.” They are also up for record of the year for the Latin-rap single “I Like It.”
Nicole’s next show
Danielle Nicole is part of the lineup Feb. 17 at the Michael Ledbetter Memorial benefit performance at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester Ave.
Ledbetter, a blues vocalist, died unexpectantly at 33, leaving his partner and their two young children. All proceeds will be donated to the Ledbetter Foundation.
Other performers include Nick & Kate Moss and the Dust Devil Choir. Show time is 6 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45. See knuckleheadskc.com or call 816-483-1456.