Nita and the Pipe Smokin’ Charlies

THE PIPE SMOKIN’ Charlies, which includes Nita Erickson on vocals and harmonica, Gary Erickson on guitar, Steven Shipman on bass and Kory Hess on drums, perform original blues and rock ‘n’ roll music at venues and events in Northeast Nebraska.

Inspiration comes in many forms. For Nita Erickson, it often happens behind the wheel of a FedEx truck.

The Norfolk woman spends her workdays making deliveries, usually racking up about 200 miles a day.

“Lots of times I'm driving in my truck at work and songs just come to my head, and I’ll record on my phone — maybe we’ll make something out of it, maybe we won’t,” she said.

Erickson brings her loose, free-flowing style to Nita and the Pipe Smokin’ Charlies, a local blues and rock ’n’ roll group set to start working on its second album soon.

Music has always been a part of Erickson’s life.

“My parents were rock ’n’ rollers … my first concert was at 4 years old. I’ve seen music my whole life,” she said.

She connected with her husband, Gary, who is also the band’s guitarist, over music, and they’ve been married for almost 30 years.

“My husband was really into ’80s metal back in the day, so he was quite the shredder on guitar,” she said. “We found that commonality in blues/rock ’n’ roll.”

The band came about after Nita Erickson graduated from the University of South Dakota in studio art in 2008 and was back in the area, coalescing from basement jam sessions into a full-fledged group with weekly practices.

It’s existed for almost seven years but has undergone a number of musician changes in that time. Its current iteration — with Nita Erickson on vocals and harmonica, Gary Erickson on guitar, Steven Shipman on bass and Kory Hess on drums — has been around for about two years. All members live in Norfolk.

“Now we have this core group of guys, really great to work with,” she said. “It’s nice to settle in, get to know each other.”

Nita Erickson describes the band members as “all rockers” and everyone meshes well, especially the bassist and drummer. “The rhythm section is very solid and they can’t be beat.”

The group performs groovy, original tunes with the intention of sharing happiness with others. Their artist statement says, “Life is tough sometimes and music is a healer and our goal is to help people let go and smile a little while.”

The tunes in their first album feature bright guitar chord progressions, driving bass lines and upbeat drumming — all overlaid by Nita Erickson’s vocals and sunny harmonica solos. Some of the tracks include keyboard solos as well.

She said anyone can connect with the stories told in the band’s bluesy lyrics.

“I like the blues because we all can relate to that in our personal lives,” she said. “We all go through struggles, and really to me blues is about struggling and learning to overcome those struggles. Or finding camaraderie within those struggles with people around you.

“To me it really is a genre that reaches people’s hearts. There’s a lot of love there.”

This is true in her own life as well: She lost her brother in 2011 and found catharsis in songwriting. She also finds practicing and performing music to be an emotional and creative outlet.

“I mostly write about struggles. It’s a way to make sense of the world,” she said. “… When you’re hurting and going through pain and figuring strange things out, there’s a creative explosion.”

Nita and the Pipe Smokin’ Charlies’ first album, which is self-titled, was released in 2016 and has nine original songs. They sell copies at their shows and the songs can be listened to on their website.

The next album will be different because different band members will bring more of a rock ’n’ roll edge to the recordings, she said. They’re now writing songs; they have about four or five ready to record so far.

“I think it’ll be a lot different because the rest of my band are real rock ’n’ rollers so we’re kind of evolving — everybody comes to the table and they bring something that changes the animal,” she said. “There’s definitely going to be blues on this, but it’ll have a little more rock ’n’ roll feel.”

The group plays in towns in the area and has performed at a blues festival in Omaha before. Nita Erickson said she enjoys reaching out to others through their music.

“I love meeting new people and connecting with strangers,” she said. “... It’s always a great experience to meet people wherever you go, and the band gives me that kind of access.”

And how’d they come up with the name?

“It was totally one of those ‘that’s a good name for a band’ things. We were driving along the interstate and I glanced over and saw a man with long hair and a long beard cruisin’ down the road in a beat-up pickup truck smoking an old tobacco pipe and I said, ‘Why, there is Pipe Smokin’ Charlie,’ and you know the rest of the story,” she said. “So the real Pipe Smokin’ Charlie is out there somewhere.”

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