DECATUR — Those who play in bands often describe themselves as a family.
“Sometimes you divorce a member or two, then you remarry,” guitarist Mark Hamm said.
As a guitarist in classic rock or country bands for the majority of his life, Hamm, 53, has performed with several “family” members. After 40 years of performing with various musicians, his two families have come together when he introduces his most recent lead singer — his daughter.
Nikki Hamm, 27, recently joined her father's band, Highway 615, and it was a natural fit, her dad said. Highway 615 (Toby Tucker, vocals; Nikki Hamm, vocals; Mark Hamm, lead guitar; Edding Cunningham, drums; Keither Harmeier, bass; Brian McLane, rhythm guitar, keyboard, mandolin) describes its set as the best of country music from the last 30 years with some vintage mixed in and a dash of originals on its Facebook page.
“She is one of the best bandmates I’ve ever had,” Mark Hamm said. “And I’m not saying that because she is my daughter.”
Nikki Hamm said she inherited her musical talent from her father: “I don’t know where else I would have got it."
She also absorbed a lot of the musical life watching her father perform in various bands as she grew up, but he was performing long before she came along. Mark Hamm began playing in clubs around Champaign at 12 years old.
Mark Hamm said his interest came from both his father and grandfather.
“No one loved music more than my dad,” he said. “But my grandpa played. He was a professional musician. He was a guitar player, mandolin and fiddle.”
Mark Hamm and his brother formed a band, The Enforcers, and it even opened for REO Speedwagon in the mid-1970s, he said, before the classic rock band was famous around the world.
“We were a cross between a punk rock and a classic rock band,” he said. “That’s all we could play.”
After he got married, Mark Hamm said he and his family lived in Arizona, California and other parts of Central Illinois. He said he first noticed his daughter’s musical talent when she was 4.
“She could sing, and they knew it,” Mark Hamm said.
The father and daughter duo were encouraged to write a song and perform it together for a church program, and the results were encouraging.
“We worked on it together,” he said. “We performed it and brought the house down. They place went crazy.”
The two still remember some of the lyrics: “He’s with me every night. He sees me every day, He sees me when I’m good and sees me when I pray,” they sang together.
Nikki Hamm performed whenever the opportunity arose at other events. The family knew the youngster could sing, but they didn’t push her. She was invited to attend one of her father’s rehearsals, and after taking to the microphone, the band suggested she start her own band.
“But at 16 years old, I really wanted her to be in a band with me,” Mark Hamm said. “She just wasn’t ready.”
Although he tried to get his daughter to join in a few of the musical groups, she thought the timing was never right. Nikki Hamm saw the drive it took to be in a band, and that gave her pause.
“And it really wasn’t the right music for me,” she said.
Her teenage years flew by, but her taste for country music never changed. Now, Nikki Hamm is a registered nurse and mother. Then, the time seemed right.
A year ago, she finally auditioned after the band searched through other Decatur singers. The band was somewhat apprehensive about Mark Hamm performing with his daughter, though.
“They said, a dad and a daughter in a band, that’s not going to work,” Mark Hamm said.
Nikki Hamm was allowed to audition, but without her father's influence on the decision. After the first song, the other four members of the band made the call to hire her.
“I really wanted to join the band,” she said.
Mark Hamm said his personality has remained the same since his daughter joined the band.
“I’m not into dirty jokes or rude stuff, so that wasn’t a problem,” he said. “I did come down on my bandmates a little more about their language and the jokes now that she is here.”
Nikki Hamm doesn’t see a difference in her father, either.
“He has always been a pretty dedicated band member,” she said.
Keith Harmeier has performed with Hamm in several bands for nearly 35 years, and he sees a dedication in both musicians.
“When you are practicing, it is all business,” he said.
Mark Hamm said he doesn’t have to remind his daughter.
“She knows that I’m serious about,” he said.
“And I’m serious about it,” Nikki Hamm added. “I don’t have a lot of extra time, so the time I do have, I want to make the most of it.”
After their first live show, Highway 615 was asked to open for the country music act High Valley, and the prospect of playing outside of Central Illinois became clear.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I’m going to ride her coattails,” Mark Hamm said.
Nikki Hamm said the large show was intimidating, and she said she was worried about the band working together as a unit. She credited her father's presence with the performance going smoothly.
“I would have been more nervous (without him),” she said.
She also gives the band a wider array of music options, Mark Hamm noted.
“If we want to take a Joan Jett song and put a little twang to it, we could do that,” he said. “It is hard to do that with a guy singer.”
Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR
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