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Kari Nelson poses with country music star John Rich. Nelson often performs with him. (Courtesy photo)
Kari Nelson poses with country music star John Rich. Nelson often performs with him. (Courtesy photo)

Roseau native builds country music career in Nashville

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Kari Nelson is an undeniably talented fiddler and an incredibly focused musician in a beautiful package. She's gone from performing in Nashville honky tonks to touring with country star John Rich. But she's learned that her career can turn on a dime.

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Recently she was about to begin touring with The Band Perry. Then, one of their band members was hurt in an accident, and the band decided to hold off on adding a new fiddler. So those plans are on hold, at least for now.

Not that one setback could discourage her too much. The Roseau, Minn., native has lots going on in her country music career and loves what's she's doing too much.

"Basically my goal is just to continue to play music and make a living at it," Nelson said in a telephone interview during a recent visit to her family in Roseau.

Nelson, 23, grew up in Roseau with her parents Kevin and Lori Nelson and two sisters, Anneliesse (who today often acts as her manager) and Kyrsten. From the time she was a girl, she and her sisters played and sang together. Her sisters both took piano lessons but when she was 7 years old she was so impressed by a solo violinist with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, she decided she, too, wanted to play the violin.

There was just one little problem. The nearest violin instructor lived about an hour's drive from Roseau and after a few years stopped teaching. Her parents then took her to Winnipeg to interview at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music, where she was accepted and studied from the time she was 11 until she graduated. Her parents made a lot of big sacrifices for her, Nelson said. She and her sisters were home-schooled which made the trips to Winnipeg easier to fit into the schedule, and gave the Nelson sisters more opportunities to perform at churches, festivals and other community events.

When she was about 16, some friends of her parents had a band that played the local VFWs and other clubs. The Nite Riders were looking for a fiddle player and invited Nelson to play a wedding dance with them. Nelson wasn't sure she could do it.

"There was the longest time, if it wasn't on sheet music, or if I hadn't practiced it, I wasn't playing it," she said.

Still, she knew her country music, so she learned George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning" and a couple of other songs for her first gig. Nelson felt way out of her league, but the band was happy with her performance and generous with their praise, and she started playing with them regularly.

"They said, 'Wow! That's great, that's perfect,'" she said. "I got to be creative. I got to feel the music. So that was kind of how I got my start playing like that."

Nelson had decided to attend UND when, as a gift, her mother arranged a 10-day trip to Nashville. Part of their trip landed them on Lower Broadway Street in downtown Nashville, which Nelson described as three or flour blocks of one honky tonk after another. At Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, across from Ryman Auditorium (the original home of the Grand Ole Opry), someone noticed Kari -- who had brought along her fiddle -- and asked her to step up on stage and play along. She ended up playing that night until the music stopped.

"They really liked it and when I got done there was a guy there who had been on one of those country music shows, 'Nashville Star.' He said, 'I really like your playing. Me and a few other musicians here are gong to play a benefit concert in Iowa.'" Then he asked if she wanted to go along.

So Nelson and her mother got on the tour buss and Nelson played the benefit. She didn't get paid, but it brought about a big decision.

"That's when I decided, no, I don't want to go to UND," she said.

Nelson moved to Nashville in September 2006, found a cheap apartment and started gigging on Broadway, at Tootsie's and other clubs, and some tour gigs with up and coming musicians. Sometimes she played from 2 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning.

"There's so much competition. There's musicians everywhere. Everyone can do what you do, almost," she said. "You have to be able to do what it takes as far as playing goes."

Still, Nelson was careful, avoiding drugs, alcohol and the party scene, and choosing her gigs carefully. Certain jobs she took opened the way for her to meet people who helped her and led her to other opportunities. One such opportunity was a USO tour to Hawaii, Guam and Japan to play at military bases, where she opened for Jake Owen and others.

It was a small demo session (today she can't remember where) that led her to her biggest break yet. She had almost said no to playing that session at all. But she did, and someone remembered the work she did there and asked her to tour for a couple of days with John Rich as a sub for another musician.

"It's really weird the way things work out," she said. She started working regularly with Rich, touring, participating in his video "Country Done Come to Town" and accompanying him on TV's "Celebrity Apprentice" when he sang "For the Kids," his fundraiser song for St. Jude's Hospital.

"That was my first television appearance," she said.

This summer, Rich went back to playing with Big Kenny, as Big and Rich, and touring with Gretchen Wilson. They are using Wilson's band, but she still works with Rich when he performs on his own.

"Anything John does for himself, his solo stuff, I play with him," she said. "John knows a lot of people, he's a major writer, he's very connected, and he treats musicians very well."

Recently she got a call from Steve Perry, the father and manager of The Band Perry, two brothers and a sister who played in Grand Forks May 17, opening for country star Tim McGraw. She met the band members, who like her, had been homeschooled. It was decided she would join their tour in August.

Meanwhile she had begun a project with Billy Arnold. They played a gig together that got some interest from backers and now are making an album together.

Then she got another call from Steve Perry. Another of their musicians had been injured and had to be replaced, and they decided bringing in two musicians at once was too much. So, no tour with The Band Perry, at least for now.

Still, think of it. She's 23, super talented, and already has connections and credibility in a very tough business.

"You have to fully commit to it," she says of achieving success in the entertainment business. "If you are going to play country music, you have to go to Nashville. If you want to be an actress, you have to go to New York or LA. There's a lot you can do in your own community to prepare yourself, but at some point you have to make that leap."

Sometimes that means stepping way out of your comfort zone. Like the time she was asked to mandolin.

"I hadn't played much but I guarantee you I wasn't going to tell them I couldn't play," she said. "I bought a mandolin and learned the songs."

When you're weighing your options and opportunities, always remember who you are. That's her best bit of advice, she said.

"Be true to your values and what you know is right," she said. "Because in the end, that's what really matters."

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