If country music had an official Cinderella story, complete with a female lead whose life was transformed overnight, Highway 101's Nikki Nelson would be a contender for the role.
It was just two winters ago that the Tennessee-based singer was a waitress at the Nashville Palace -- a tourist attraction whose claims to fame are catfish, the frequent presence of off-duty Grand Ole Opry stars and that country superstar Randy Travis was once a dishwasher there.
At 18, Ms. Nelson had left her home near Carson City, Nev., (as well as her slot in her father's regional country band known as Nikki and Goldrush) in search of stardom in Music City.
"It was real scary," Ms. Nelson said of the move. "But I knew that's what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be."
Ultimately, Ms. Nelson's gumption paid off when one of her demonstration recordings made its way to Martha Sharpe, vice president of artists and repertoire for Warner Bros./Nashville. In turn, Ms. Sharpe presented the tape to Highway 101's Cactus Moser (drums), Jack Daniels (lead guitar) and Curtis Stone (bass), all of whom were seeking a female singer to replace band mate Paulette Carlson, who was embarking on a solo career.
From there, things moved quickly for Ms. Nelson, who became the newest member and lead singer of the band, which appears tomorrow at the Tangier Sound Country Music Festival, along with Travis Tritt, Pam Tillis, Marty Stuart and others.
"My last day waitressing was Dec. 13, , and our first day i the studio to cut the 'Bing Bang Boom' album was Jan. 2," she said. "Then our first live gig was in Denver, Colo., on Jan. 16, so I had about a month to get ready for the live show and less than that to cut the album."
Ms. Nelson found the road to fame via Highway 101 to be paved with hits -- except this time around it was Ms. Nelson's voice, not Ms. Carlson's, making the grade with country radio and fans alike.
Crediting the red-tressed singer-guitarist with giving Highway 101 its renewed high-energy vocal style and a broader range, Mr. Moser said: "Because of Nikki's voice, we're now able to do tougher-sounding material and still have it sound pure country. . . . Having Nikki in the band has been a real shot in the arm."
Indeed, on "Bing Bang Boom," the quartet's fifth Warner Bros. disc and Ms. Nelson's first, Highway 101 scored its fastest-rising single with the record's Top-10 title track before hitting the No. 17 and 18 spots with the follow-up cuts "Baby I'm Missing You" and "The Blame."
The foursome now is touring in support of its latest single, "Honky Tonk Baby," which logged in at No. 45 during its first
week on the national charts.
Rest assured, says Ms. Nelson, that Highway 101 still will perform its old hits, which have included "The Bed You Made for Me," "Somewhere Tonight," "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Whiskey, If You Were a Woman," "All The Reasons Why" and others.
And what do Highway 101 fans think when Ms. Nelson's versatile voice, not the rougher-edged sound of Ms. Carlson, sings tunes associated with the latter?
"I think at first, when [I] was real, real new, they were kinda apprehensive," she said. "They'd kinda sit back and let me prove to them I could do it, and at first it would take, maybe, three or four songs before everybody would kinda relax and go, 'OK, I think I'll have fun now.'
"But now, there are still a lot of people who have no idea when they come to a show. I mean, they go, 'Oh gosh, we had no idea that other girl left.' But I think a lot more people are more aware and more ready to accept the fact I'm the singer now. A lot of people were really scared and really nervous when Paulette left, 'cause they really liked Highway and were afraid that it'd be over."
Nevertheless, the band is far from over, with its sixth disc now in the works.
Country Music Festival
When: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow.
Tickets: $15 in advance, $20 at the gate.
Call: (800) 374-6874.