In the rock world, a women’s role in the band is more than just undulating to the music, shaking a tambourine, and donning skimpy outfits. That’s one of the messages Cheryl Nystrom, highlights through her music with Mercy Creek, a duo performing in Northern Virginia throughout the summer.
The leather bustier, mini skirt, and bleach-blonde smile are not part of Nystrom’s stage appearance, and she lashes out at the rock establishment for sanctioning it. “Born to Rock,” is one of Mercy Creek's songs about stereotyping women on the stage or as avid shoppers at the mall.
“I’m not doing what I was told, I’m not a stripper or centerfold,” the song goes, “I’m just a rocker.”
Nystrom has experienced that side of the industry. In the late 1990s, just after graduating from W.T. Woodson High School, she was a back up vocalist and percussionist for Genghis Angus, a hard rock band out of Waterford, Va. Angus was with a national record label so the executives would “tell me to wear skimpy skirts,” said Nystrom. She’s also tired of the double standard. “It’s just not that way for guys,” she added.
The other half of the duo , Jim Ball, sees the anti-rock establishment theme running “through several of our songs,” he said. When it comes to writing music on the subject, Ball has no shortage of lyrics. “It’s a dirty business so there’s a lot of material,” he said.
Cheryl’s mother Sue Nystrom, who lives in Burke, watched her daughter’s anti-establishment streak evolve since high school. “She believes in her talent and doesn’t want to go that way. She’s always been independent,” Sue Nystrom said.
ON AUG. 3, Nystrom dominated the stage at Fat Tuesday’s in Fairfax, with Avril Lavigne-like attitude, strumming the acoustic guitar as she and Ball went through a set of originals off their new CD “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Under the spotlight on center stage, it was more about music than stereotypes. Ball, on drums and percussion, carves his own niche too, rigging up his bongo-like African Djembe drum with a pedal on the floor. “I couldn’t get the grooves right without the kick pedal,” he said.
"Bonfire of the Vanities," Mercy Creek’s fourth CD, is a two disk compilation of originals and live performances. Although Mercy Creek does play some covers — singles by Janis Joplin, Roy Orbison, Patsy Kline and John Prine — “we usually just do all originals,” Cheryl Nystrom said.
Janis Joplin’s “Freedom,” parallels Mercy Creek's summer-long whirlwind of traveling from show to show, “singing every song that driver knew," Cheryl Nystrom said. She didn’t connect the song with her lifestyle at first, but “there’s definitely freedom on the road,” she said.
Five or six nights a week, Mercy Creek plays at bars up and down the East Coast, traveling in a minivan “that’s packed to the absolute,” Cheryl Nystrom said. One day, they play a show in Kitty Hawk, N.C. and the next night, it’s a show in Norfolk, and then up to Sterling the next night. In between, the duo go to record shop and radio station promotions that Nystrom “tries to line up with [concert] dates.” The recent Fairfax show followed an appearance at Tower Records in Fairfax Square and a show at the Bungalow in Springfield the night before.
Fairfax Station resident Steve Cooper knew Ball from Virginia Tech, so he tries to see Mercy Creek whenever its in town. He remembers seeing the duo perform at the Hopsfrog Tavern in Burke years before. For just a two-person group, “the sound that comes out is pretty good,” Cooper said.
Sue and Loren Nystrom also try to get to every local show.
Mercy Creek resides in Northern Neck, where Ball’s father grew up, which is “centrally located to our [appearance] area,” Cheryl Nystrom said. From there, it’s three hours to the Outer Banks, and two hours to Fairfax.
One summer, Cheryl Nystrom remembers playing a show in Vermont one night, a show in Virginia the next, and back to Vermont the following day for another show. Since Cheryl Nystrom promotes the group too, she tries to plan things better so that she and Ball can get two days off a week for “absolute down time, chilling out with the ducks and cats,” at home, she said.
On tour, Mercy Creek plays outdoor shows in Upstate New York, a bluegrass show in North Carolina, and then the Urbanna Oyster Festival in Northern Neck. “It’s always a good time,” said Cheryl Nystrom, of the outdoors shows. “People have drum circles that go on all night.”
Past indoor venues for the duo include the Kennedy Center, where they will be playing again on Thursday, Aug. 18; the Birchmere in Alexandria; the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.; Jammin’ Java in Vienna; and the WRNR radio studio in Annapolis, Md., where they performed "Born to Rock," now a staple on WRNR’s play list. Those big, well-paying shows are few and far between, Cheryl Nystrom admitted, but it is all part of the road to stardom. “You can’t rush that,” she said. For now, the bar performances are their bread and butter.
CHERYL NYSTROM’S musical roots go back to her adolescence in Fairfax. Nystrom picked up the 12-string guitar when she was 12, and wrote her first song about a friend’s family troubles. Looking back, “it was really deep for a 12-year-old,” she said.
Her father plays the fiddle and piano, her mother is an aspiring novelist, and her brother Keith is currently part of a punk, hard rock band called Aeva Disaster. Cheryl Nystrom described Aeva’s sound as an “Emo Core,” genre of music that’s “really hard, really punky.” At Woodson, Nystrom wasn’t very scholastic, or involved with the school life. However, she did perform at a talent show one time, and later talked the principal into letting her write and perform a song called “Never Forget,” as part of the graduation ceremonies, earning just enough extra credit points to graduate. After hammering out the acoustic song for the crowd, the students went wild, she remembered, and “the adults said it was like Judy Collins.” Now “Never Forget,” is the first song on “Mercy Creek: the name of the record is mercy creek,” recorded in 1999.
The duo is preparing to celebrate an anniversary on Aug. 18 “romantically, and as a band,” Cheryl Nystrom said. First came the music, and then Ball and Nystrom’s relationship “just clicked,” she said.
Being on tour all the time doesn’t give Cheryl Nystrom much time to visit her parents in Burke, but they understand. Sue Nystrom calls her daughter’s musical talent “a gift from God,” that’s not to be wasted. “I would hate for her to be doing anything else right now.”