Features, Print January 10, 2019

Neyla Pekarek: Watch Her Rattle, Hear Her Roar

by Dan England

~ Former UNC student and Lumineer strikes out on her own with an album about Rattlesnake Kate, Greeley’s most famous folk tale ~


Yes, it was the snakes that got Neyla Pekarek interested in Katherine McHale Slaughterback. It is always the snakes, and that’s understandable because her famous dress, made from the skins of rattlesnakes, and the tale of how she killed 140 rattlesnakes in two hours always grabs everyone.

Slaughterback was, after all, known as Rattlesnake Kate, and the 1925 killing spree to protect her 3-year-old son from the migrating reptiles seems like a fireside tall tale. That’s why the Greeley History Museum permanently displays her dress: It, and the story that comes with it, draws a crowd.

Before Pekarek became a third of The Lumineers (the world-famous “Ho Hey” band) Pekarek saw Kate’s dress and read the story while she attended the University of Northern Colorado. She and her friend Brian Cronan discovered Kate at the Greeley Museum downtown. The story stuck with her. She dressed up as Kate on Halloween, and would pull out the story at parties if there was a lull in the conversation.

Years later, Pekarek wrote one of her first songs about the snake attack, both as a joke and a creative outlet, something she didn’t get to do in The Lumineers. The band was on a rare break from 600 days on the road over two years, and Pekarek wanted to use the freedom wisely, exploring the archives of Greeley’s History Museum for inspiration.

The result, Rattlesnake, releases digitally on January 18. Pekarek didn’t believe in herself as a songwriter before penning all the songs on the album, but once those songs were on paper, they, and perhaps Kate’s own independent spirit, gave her the courage to leave The Lumineers in October and start a solo career.


Photo by Liza Nelson

“There was a recipe to The Lumineers, and it was those two guys writing,” Pekarek said in a phone interview. “I took that more personally than it was meant to be, as it was more about keeping the recipe. I understood that, but hearing, over and over, ‘We don’t want to hear your ideas’ stays with you. This album was the validation I needed as a songwriter.”

Pekarek became entranced by a box of letters in the museum written between a Civil War colonel, Buckskin Bill, and Kate. The correspondence was flirty and loving, but the two never met. Pekarek uses the material as a metaphor to Kate’s unusual independence, toughness, and the loneliness and poverty that came as a result of it: Kate was married and divorced a half-dozen times.

“The more I read, the more I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is a whole story,’” Pekarek said. “She spoke her mind and lived completely outside of what was expected of women. She was fiery and didn’t stand down from saying what she believed. Her life was difficult because of that.”

Pekarek drew strength from Kate’s independent spirit, but admits she was saddened by how the snake story kind of took over Kate’s life. People lumped Kate in with other legends like Annie Oakley, even though they had little in common besides their gender. Pekarek wrote the song “Better than Annie” to imagine Kate’s protest against the pairing.

“Western stories are so dominated by men,” Pekarek said. “The tales of women have yet to be told.”

As a result, Pekarek did her best to show all sides to Kate from the short pile of material available. “There really isn’t much known about her,” she said. “I intend to change that.”

Pekarek starts this change with the album and a tour that should last until the summer, accompanied by Cronan (who sings Col. Buckskin’s songs) and a six-piece band. The presentation isn’t a play, exactly, but it’s also not a traditional concert.

“You kind of trick people into coming to a musical,” Pekarek laughs. “It’s not a full-on musical, but it’s a lot of storytelling and some costuming.” There’s no dancing, no dialogue, and she’s not in character, but she does tell stories about Kate to give the songs context, and yes, Pekarek wears a snakeskin dress made by her parent’s neighbor, a costume designer. It’s faux, Pekarek said – no snakes were harmed during the making of the dress.

Fans of The Lumineers shouldn’t be disappointed in Rattlesnake. Produced by Matt Ward (Monsters of Folk, She & Him) who assured her that she and the songs were good, it sounds similar to the folk-americana vibe of The Lumineers, something Pekarek has no problem acknowledging. But there are elements of jazz and musical theater as well. She sings on the record too, something she also didn’t get to do with her old band, even though singing is her favorite thing.

But the album is only part of the plan. The Denver Center for Performing Arts commissioned her to develop Rattlesnake into a full-fledged musical with script writer Karen Hartman and dramaturg Heidi Schmidt.

“That was like the pipe dream behind all this,” Pekarek said. “I didn’t think I had the skills to do it, but eventually I told myself that I do! It’s really exciting.”

Photo by Liza Nelson

If writing a musical isn’t the typical former-rock-star path, well, Pekarek said Rattlesnake is much more akin to her own style. She went to UNC to study musical theater and voice, not be in a pop Americana band. The Lumineers were the first band she ever joined, after answering a personal ad about the need for a cellist. She was a part of it for eight years.

“I feel grateful to have stumbled across something so large,” she said. “It changed my life. But I’ve always felt like I had imposter syndrome to this music industry stuff. I always thought it should belong to someone else.

Now I’m getting back to my roots and doing theater again. This is ideally how I pictured my life.”

~ Neyla Pekarek celebrates the release of Rattlesnake Friday, January 25 with a performance at The Moxi Theater in Greeley, Colorado – Rattlesnake Kate’s hometown. Tickets at moxitheater.com ~