Nikki Hill

Now living in New Orleans, Chapel Hill native Nikki Hill grew up singing gospel in the church.

“I love getting Wanda Jackson comparisons, because she’s clearly a bada---,” Nikki Hill said of the rockabilly pioneer whose name often comes up in her show reviews. “And I’m very inspired by ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. But it’s always interesting to hear what other people hear in the music. Because as much as I do have influences, I’m more focused on just making a song and letting it be what it is.”

Hill is also conscious of the degree to which institutionalized racism and selective memory have succeeded in whitewashing rock ’n’ roll’s historical roots. And for that, there’s no better example than Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the daughter of Arkansas farmworkers who accompanied herself on electric guitar back in the 1940s. It was Tharpe who recorded the first gospel song to cross over onto “Billboard” magazine’s R&B chart, which back then was known as its “race records” chart.

“When Sister Rosetta Tharpe died, she was penniless, she died without a marker on her grave, and it took decades before they finally raised money to even give her a marker,” Hill said in a recent phone interview. “I mean, there would be no rock ’n’ roll without her.

“And then, you know, it wasn’t until last year that she was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So there’s definitely a clear discrepancy when it comes to the origins of rock ’n’ roll and roots music. But it’s not uncommon in this country for black women to be overlooked. And, you know, you can only take that and use it as a motivator to continue the legacy that those women created and built upon.”

Like generations of R&B, soul and rock ’n’ roll artists, the Chapel Hill native grew up singing gospel in the church.

“It wasn’t necessarily by my choice,” she said with a laugh. “But it was definitely something that I came to appreciate later on. Once you hear Little Richard or Sister Rosetta Tharpe — or Otis Redding or Tina Turner — you hear the church in that. And that style is really kind of like ‘Showbiz 101,’ learning how to work a crowd, learning call and response, learning those basic blues patterns. I definitely wouldn’t sing the way I do if it wasn’t for that.”

But, as Hill’s latest album, “Feline Roots,” demonstrates, her inspirations don’t end there. Released last November on Deep Fryed Records, it opens with “Get Down, Crawl,” a song she wrote in 20 minutes under the sonic influence of Britain’s best-known pub-rock band.

“I was listening to a lot of Dr. Feelgood at the time,” said Hill, who’s now in her early 30s and lives in New Orleans with her husband and guitarist Matt Hill. “I’m a huge, huge fan of (Dr. Feelgood guitarist) Wilko Johnson, and so is my husband, Matt. So I just wanted that rock ’n’ roll energy — and just a real strong, forward riff and beat — and that’s what came out.”

The album also goes heavy on hard rock, punk and blues-rock influences — both Hills are enamored with AC/DC, Johnny Thunders and Steve Cropper — along with a healthy dose of reggae on the track “Can’t Love You Back (It’s a Shame).”

“I’ve always been totally inspired by (Rastafarian punk band) Bad Brains,” said Nikki, “just the way they would follow up a hardcore song with a reggae tune. And I’m a big fan of reggae, dance hall and rocksteady, so when I wrote ‘Can’t Love You Back,’ I was listening to a lot of Phyllis Dillon and Marcia Griffiths.”

Fans of classic rock ’n’ soul, meanwhile, will gravitate toward “Might Get Killed Tonight,” which was the result of Hill wondering what it might sound like if Otis Redding fronted the Ike & Tina Turner Revue after coming off their 1969 tour with the Rolling Stones.

“The song came from being inspired by that meeting of ’60s soul and ’70s-rock,” she said. “There’s a lot you can do to play with that, which is exactly what the Stones and Ike & Tina were doing at the time. I love the way they started overlapping, and stealing bits and pieces from each other.”

For Hill, the concern isn’t about artistic motivation so much as it is about an industry that’s never been inclined to offer a level playing field.

“Rockabilly is really just a simple term for a short period of time in roots music,” she says. “It was essentially just white men at that time trying to sound like the black singers that they admired. So you’re going to get that crossover between blues and country. And, you know, the young white boys couldn’t really play it that same way. But they were singing their hearts out and really trying.”

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Bill Forman is a freelance writer for Last Word Features.

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