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Neyla Pekarek Strikes Out On Her Own In New Album Drawing On Colorado Folklore


On an October day in 1925, a frontierswoman named Kate McHale Slaughterback etched her name into Colorado folklore. She was out on horseback with her 3-year-old son when they were suddenly surrounded by rattlesnakes - dozens of them. Kate fought the snakes off with her rifle and then a club. She said she was whirling constantly for over two hours before she could kill her way out of them. In the end, 140 snakes lay dead. Word spread around the country. Photos were taken. And she earned a nickname - Rattlesnake Kate. Now that story is the inspiration for a concept album called "Rattlesnake."


NEYLA PEKAREK: (Vocalizing).

BLOCK: It's from Neyla Pekarek, formerly with the band The Lumineers. Neyla, welcome.

PEKAREK: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: And how did you first hear about Rattlesnake Kate?

PEKAREK: Well, I went to school in a small town called Greeley, Colo. And And in that museum has been preserved this rattlesnake dress that was fashioned from the dead snakes from the snake encounter by Kate herself. And I came across the story as a college student just passing through the historical museum on a day off from my studies.

BLOCK: I'm looking at a photograph of Kate - Rattlesnake Kate - wearing that dress. Why don't you describe it? You've seen it in the museum.

PEKAREK: Yes. I think it's fair to call it a flapper-style dress. It's sort of empire-waisted with these vertically sewn snake skins. And just the nature of having the snake pattern, it gives almost a glimmer and shine. And they actually keep this dress in the dark in a box, and you can press a button to turn a light on. But it's so fragile, and so they keep it as safe as possible. And you can see her individual stitches she did to craft this dress.

BLOCK: You know, I keep coming back to the idea of this dress made out of these snake skins. You actually dedicate a song to it on your album. Let's take a listen.


PEKAREK: (Singing) The perfect gown will have made them take you seriously. The perfect gown, will it be your mark on history?

BLOCK: And, Neyla, when I'm listening to this song and a lot of the other ones on this album, they sound like show tunes. And I gather you are working on making the album into a musical. You must love that sound, that theatrical sound.

PEKAREK: Yes. That was sort of my pipe dream going into this project was I wanted to create a musical about this woman's life. It felt like the storytelling lent itself to that medium. And I'm just flat-out a musical theater nerd. However, I didn't think I had a lot of the tools or skills to do that. It's a very overwhelming undertaking. But I did - having had the last better part of a decade of being in a band have the tools and skills to write and record and tour a record. So I started there. And then in the meantime, I spoke with a regional theater company here, and they've commissioned me to turn this into a musical.

BLOCK: So when you imagine that musical, what is it that you see and hear in your imagination?

PEKAREK: Well, I think partly it's important to share this story as a Colorado native myself. I also just thought it was such a strange and unique story that hadn't been told yet. And in general, a lot of Western women's stories have gone untold. And I was out to write a female empowerment record and story about this woman that I think represents a lot of that. She lived very much outside of the box of what it meant to be feminine and what it meant to be a woman at that time, and I was really inspired by that.

BLOCK: How else was she living outside the box?

PEKAREK: She certainly spoke her mind. She was very stubborn and said exactly what she felt, which led to a lot of turmoil, especially within relationships. She was - rumor has it, she was married and divorced six times.

BLOCK: She also apparently had a correspondence that lasted for decades with a man named Colonel Charles Randolph, known as Buckskin Bill. But I gather they never actually met. Is that right?

PEKAREK: That's correct. I joke that it's the earliest recollection of a catfish situation perhaps. But there was - yeah - a 40-year love letter correspondence. And I got to read through those letters. And that's really what made me believe this was more than just a song. This was a whole record or perhaps a whole musical partly because of all the details she divulged about her life and so many interesting stories. But they never met. And it just crossed my mind, you know, why would you keep in touch with someone that was essentially a stranger and divulge these details to? And what kind of kept her going? Perhaps the validation of feeling heard and understood by someone when maybe she didn't feel that way that often.

BLOCK: Well, there's a song that you've written called "Letters To The Colonel." This is a duet with the theater actor Brian Cronan.


BRIAN CRONAN: (Singing) Forgive me if I'm forward, but you're perfect, it's true. Give your secrets to the mailman, send them all through.

PEKAREK: (Singing) Dearest Buckskin Bill, you flatter me just so. I'm afraid you won't want me, weatherbeaten and old. How much, my dear, would you love me if I let you...

BLOCK: Neyla, are those actual words from the letters? Are you doing some invention there?

PEKAREK: It's a little paraphrasing but very similar. She ends a letter, why don't you write me back and tell me how much you'd love me if I let you? And that really stuck with me.

BLOCK: It's a really romantic song, and I don't think of her in that way. I think of her as a tough frontier woman who's really independent.

PEKAREK: Indeed. But I do think she was looking for love and looking to be loved. She sure tried a lot of times to try to make it work.

BLOCK: What was the end of her life like?

PEKAREK: Well, she lived pretty on her own. In fact, she was building her own farmhouse towards the end of her life in her 60s, which is just amazing. About two weeks before she died, she donated her dress to the Greeley Historical Museum. She came down with an illness sort of unexpectedly shortly after that. And so it's interesting how she would have known to donate her dress at that time.

BLOCK: And there it is - still.

PEKAREK: Yes. To this day, you can go visit it.

BLOCK: Well, Neyla Pekarek, thanks for talking to us about Rattlesnake Kate.

PEKAREK: It's been a pleasure. I love your show.

BLOCK: Her debut album is titled "Rattlesnake."


PEKAREK: (Singing) Rocky Mountains send a chill down my spine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.