By Amanda Reed
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
From Nat Love to Bill Pickett, the stories of women and people of color in the Wild West have notoriously been excluded from pop culture.
One of those missing stories is of Rattlesnake Kate, a Colorado pioneer woman famous in the 1920s for killing 140 snakes as they approached her and her son.
Kate’s encounter with the snakes lasted two hours. After running out of bullets, she began bludgeoning them with a “No Hunting” sign. Afterward, she made a flapper-style dress, necklace and shoes out of their skins.
“I thought she was a woman who lived outside the box of what it meant to be feminine, especially in a time when that was really not fashionable,” says Neyla Pekarek, former cellist and vocalist of “The Lumineers.”
Combining 1960s doo-wop with Western influence, Pekarek turns the story of Rattlesnake Kate into a folk opera filled with slide guitars and trumpets. She performs the record this Saturday at Cattivo in Lawrenceville.
Pekarek first learned about the frontierswoman while in college at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. The native Coloradoan went to the Greeley History Museum on a whim one day, found Kate’s preserved rattlesnake skin dress and was surprised more people didn’t know about her powerful story.
“It was a story that stuck with me,” she says. “It got me thinking a lot about Western history and Western culture in general and how it’s really dominated by the stories of men.”
After leaving the Lumineers last October to pursue her own music career, Pekarek decided to write an entire album dedicated to Kate, with help from producer M. Ward of “She & Him” fame.
According to Pekarek, the storyline, along with her personal musical influences, lead to the album’s distinctive, musical theater-inspired sound.
“The record is very theatrical for sure,” she says.
Pekarek is currently in the early stages of turning the story of Rattlesnake Kate into a full musical, which is currently being workshopped at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
Although it’s been a challenge, Pekarek says that, between working with actors and writing new songs, the process has been creatively fulfilling.
“It’s interesting to try to create a plot for this around these episodic stories about someone’s life and try to string that together,” she says.
For her show this Saturday, Pekarek says fans should expect the night to be a “tiny piece of musical theater” complete with costumes and storytelling.
“We’re not a band that just kind of comes in our grubby clothes and plays the record,” she says. “This is a really curated show.”