Community, Features, Print June 3, 2021

For Life: Emily Nelson on The Drums

by Dan England

Emily Nelson cleared out some space in her life. She had a feeling the universe had something in mind for her. 

In 2013 she got a divorce and went to the University of Northern Colorado to become an artist after years of running a chiropractic clinic. She took a required ceramics class, and it clicked: Now she owns three kilns.

Five years later, she had a double mastectomy. While regaining the use of her body at UNC’s cancer rehabilitation center, she went to her basement and began playing the drums again.

She’d played music since she was 10. First piano, then self-taught drums in junior high and at Foursquare Community Church for several years. After the marriage, she stashed her drums in the basement, along with her music career, and ran the clinic to make life work. Post-surgery seemed like a good time to play again, strengthening her soul as well as her body. She was in her mid-40s, and needed music to bring her back to life.

Emily Nelson of Greeley: Percussionist and Multi-instrumentalist for Erica Brown The Cast Iron Queens. All Photos by Peggy Dyer of OMF Project

“Music is life for me. I need to breathe,” Nelson says while preparing for a Greeley Blues Jam appearance with the Cast Iron Queens, an all-woman band founded by Erica Brown, the Denver blues diva and Greeley favorite. She met Brown, in fact, after the official Blues Jam at a jam session at Greeley’s Moxi Theater. By then, she’d played the Greeley Arts Picnic with Alison Hamling, freed up her calendar and was back drumming in Greeley’s scene where she’s always belonged. She went up to Brown that night in October and asked, or, really, demanded to jam with her.

Nelson just wanted a jam because she was a fan of Brown’s, but while playing together, Brown suddenly had something else in mind. 

“I didn’t know her from Adam’s housecat,” said Brown, who loves to pepper her vocabulary with phrases like that, “but I turned around and just stared at her as she was playing the drums.”

That night changed Nelson’s amateur attitude: “I’m gonna kick ass, and I can now,” she said. 

Nelson on stage with Lauren Gale, center, and Erica Brown of Cast Iron Queens, who play the Greeley Blues Jam June 5. All Photos by Peggy Dyer of OMFProject.

Brown asked for her contact info to schedule rehearsals and Nelson knew, after that night, that this was what the universe had in mind.

“The drums were just an easy thing, a fun way to get healthy again,” Nelson said, “and a year later, Erica was there.” 

Girl Power

Nelson acknowledges it wasn’t just her drumming that got Brown’s attention. Her hair, a flurry of tight curls that reflect a little adorableness and a lot of unleashed fury, could be the cover of “The Wild Woman’s Way,” which she owns. Zen seems to leak through the roof of her house.

“I have a feminine spirit,” Nelson said. “There’s an energy. People tell me that all the time. By me being who I am supposed to be – more authentic with myself – it oozes that.”

Nelson behind the kit at the Dillon Amphitheater. All photos by Peggy Dyer of OMFProject

Feminine energy is probably what Brown sought for the Cast Iron Queens, and she hadn’t formed the band when she heard Nelson play, but it pushed her to. Brown talks about fate when she talks about the band, even regarding the name. She heard the words “cast iron” and “queen” at a photo shoot, thought it would be a good name, and trademarked it a few days later. 

“I was 15 kinds of shocked when I heard no one had tried to copyright it,” Brown said. “But it’s mine now. That’s another thing that tells me I’m on the right track.”

The band has its own sound and they’ve written originals together, but everything Brown does is steeped in the blues. She’s in her 60’s and already has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Colorado Blues Society. The blues ain’t going nowhere.

“I bring my blues sensibility to it,” Brown said of the band’s shifting sound, “but we aren’t scared of anything.” It’s as much fun as it is hard work.

“This may sound pretentious, but no one will work as hard as I do,” said Brown, who still has a full-time job. “But what I want is people who are willing to work as hard as I do. So we work like gangbusters.”

Everyone in the band plays more than one instrument. Brown, in fact, will play a snare and sing for the first time at this year’s Blues Jam (which makes her nervous) and she just broke out her flute for the first time in 40 years. Her daughter, MJ, sings with them too.

Cast Iron Queens from left: Merrian “M.J.” Johnson, Melissa Ivey, Emily Nelson, Erica Brown, Lauren Gale. All photos by Peggy Dyer of OMFProject

All this hard work sure feels like fun, though the pandemic hit three months after the band’s first gig. It was a sold-out Dazzle show. But streaming opportunities may have benefited the band more than playing random gigs. They got some widespread exposure as a result and wrote new material. 

‘’We have a couple songs no one’s ever heard yet,” Brown said, “and they are GOOD.”

Feminine Energy

Nelson felt a groove like she’d never before at that sold-out Dazzle show. She describes it in a rated-R way, dropping several F-bombs. Nothing else suffices to capture the raw, electric empowerment she felt.

So it was a bummer that COVID shut everything down, but it made her realize that the band was more than a way to express herself: It was a family. And she needed one. Nelson lost her mother to COVID. 

“Just the way they were,” Nelson said. “They were so supportive. I’m so grateful to have Erica in my life. She is a mother figure to me.” 

It’s stereotypical to suggest their support came from the fact that they were all females, but like most stereotypes, there’s a hint of truth, Nelson said through tears.

Nelson, who also plays piano and sings, on stage at The Oriental Theater. All Photos by Peggy Dyer of OMFProject

“There’s something to that feminine energy,” she said. “It’s a beautiful combination. We are all so different, and Erica can be intimidating in the best way, but we are a band of just – fierce females.”

Nelson felt a touch of imposter syndrome playing in a band of seasoned musicians, but she’s learned to banish that gremlin. The cancer, or perhaps the universe, helped her. 

“I would like to think I would have been able to jam with Erica that night anyway,” Nelson said. “But cancer gave me a reason not to be paralyzed by perfectionism. I could just fucking get out there and do it.” 

She internalized stress for many years, and it literally made her sick. Now she releases it through music. She calls it “life giving” and “feeding your soul” and “having a heart space,” but later, she hopes others call it inspiring.

“I feel like we all do that in different ways,” Nelson said of inspiration. “For me, it’s: ‘Is it perfect? No.’ But is it possible? Yes. It’s never too late.”

The Greeley Blues Jam starts with a Friday Fest jam night June 4 in downtown Greeley and the all-day jam on June 5 at Island Grove featuring Southern Avenue, Ronnie Baker Brooks and many others. Click here to visit for tickets and details.