Whether she’s talking about pedals or people, Virginia Kathryn Gallner’s enthusiasm for music is downright catching.
As she sips her cup of tea, the conversation ranges from the spelling of her middle name (it’s Welsh, and her mom liked it) to Christmas presents. She tries to make her own gifts for friends and family, but “I never get them done in time,” she confesses.
The 21-year-old folk and blues musician grew up in Council Bluffs. She moved to Omaha when she started attending the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where she is double majoring in International Studies and Religious Studies and minoring in Ancient and Medieval Studies. She credits Council Bluffs for helping shape who she is and notes that it offers a small-town vibe without making her feel claustrophobic.
“I used to go to Lidgett’s Music every week just to hang out and learn about guitars, and explore the depths of Kanesville Kollectibles record store on the weekends.”
Gallner’s music career took root at the Council Bluffs Public Library while taking group lessons. After two classes, she was hooked. She started playing music on her parents’ upright piano in their dining room at a very young age, but once she picked up a guitar, the piano lost its allure.
“It’s funny, the first time I picked up a guitar, I immediately put it in my lap and tried to play it like a piano–which I do now, with lap steel guitar.” She says her mom bought her a cherry-red Stratocaster from Lidgett that she affectionately called “Hellboy.”
Gallner enjoys playing guitar in the Delta/Piedmont style, which sets her apart from most other local blues artists, who emulate the rowdier Texas style. However, she notes that a lot of the harmonies she uses aren’t found outside of folk music, and she’s also been known to sing jazz “torch” songs, which she explains is just a simple term for sentimental love songs.
All that practice and research has served her well, as she’s has been making an impact on the local music scene, even garnering a 2018 nomination for an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Award in the best blues musician category.
During a recent show at The B Bar on Leavenworth, she performs several covers, including Tom Waits’ “Midnight Lullaby” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” among several older, more traditional tunes, including some Robert Johnson Delta blues.
Onstage, Gallner dresses in black with a few pops of color—including a shiny red rose on her short, black combat boots that match the flowers on her shirt.
While the house isn’t packed on this Thursday night, it’s clear that everyone is here to see her. Even the bartenders pay close attention as she starts playing, clapping enthusiastically as she finishes each song.
She plays several cover songs along with her own originals, including some from her upcoming album, which is yet to be named. Gallner has adopted “Virgina Kathryn” as the simplified stage name for musical work.
Her influences are evident by the songs she chooses to cover, but when asked who her biggest musical influence is, she gives a quick, straightforward response—Nick Drake.
“He was an incredible musician who passed away way too soon,” she says. In a testament to her admiration of the now well-known and widely-appreciated singer-songwriter, she has learned his entire catalog. “The harmonies, the choice of note placement, the timing…I’m finding it influences my arrangement styles as well.”
Gallner also finds a lot of creative energy to draw from right here in our local music scene.
“Kait Berreckman is such an inspiration to me as a songwriter. Her songs have such a unique style,” Gallner says. “She comes up with the most unexpected twists, they never go where you expect them to.”
“The Shineys have been really cool to work with…I’ve been on the same bill as them for a number of shows and seeing their interpretations of songs has been really inspiring,” she says. “It’s a more intricate art than a lot of people make it out to be.”
“Every translation is an interpretation, as we like to say in ancient history and translation,” she adds with a laugh. “The same applies to music…you’re making it your own.”
Gallner says there are many Omaha acts she admires, but she’s especially impressed by the women on the scene. She lists Becky Lowry, (who organizes Femmefest every year), Emily Cox, and X-Rated Women In Music (out of Lincoln) as just a few examples of women committed to growing the community.
Gallner also plays a role in this system, volunteering as an after-school instructor with Omaha Girls Rock, teaching women in American traditional music and musical experimentation. During the summer, she says she teaches guitar and acts as a band coach for the program.
“You see so many women supporting women, and that is really important to me,” she says.
Most importantly though, Gallner says playing music has given her opportunities to meet people with whom she might never have otherwise crossed paths.
“It has helped me give voice to a lot of stories that have lain dormant in my mind…in my imagination? Imagination, use that word,” she says with a laugh.
Gallner’s album release party will be at Reverb Lounge, on Thursday, June 14.
This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter.