From historical accounts, Emma Smith was a strong, talented woman. She was one of the scribes for her husband's translation of The Book of Mormon, and the founding president of the LDS Church's Ladies' Relief Society auxiliary. In addition, six hymns she composed were published in the first issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, an early church periodical.
That pioneer spirit of powerful womanhood as well as music is on exhibit throughout Katherine Nelson's new album "Born Brave," released Aug. 1.
When you see Nelson's face, you might think you've seen her before, and maybe you have. Nelson portrayed Emma Smith in the 2008 film "Emma Smith: My Story," directed by longtime Utah director T.C. Christensen and Gary Cook, which found a wide audience in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints community.
"I've been blessed to be able to do lots of things," said Nelson, a 33-year-old Kaysville singer-songwriter. "I would choose music as my No. 1 outlet."
With this album, Nelson a Mormon mother of four aimed to create a largely secular concept album about the struggles, sacrifices and honor of women. "I wanted to create something that women could relate to, and push them forward," she said.
Nelson recorded the album in Nashville with her friend Jason Deere, leader of the Nashville Tribute Band, which Nelson has joined on albums such as 2011's "The Work: A Tribute to the Missionaries," "Joseph: A Nashville Tribute to the Prophet" and "The Trek: A Nashville Tribute to the Pioneers." Deere also co-wrote Lady Antebellum's hit single "Love's Lookin' Good on You" and has written for Little Big Town, LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, The Wreckers and Due West.
"Women react to her," Deere said. "When she opens her mouth, people listen to her. She wanted to bring hope to women."
Nelson's smooth voice with a hint of sandpaper complements the often-gritty mainstream country music she's co-written with Deere and others.
Deere learned of Nelson when he and his band watched a screening of "Emma Smith: My Story" in Nauvoo, Ill. "We were blown away by her performance," he said.
After learning Nelson was an aspiring singer, Deere contacted her in 2008. Since then, she has toured with the Nashville Tribute Band.
Gaylen Rust, who runs the local record label Legacy Entertainment, said he was first attracted to her "unique voice" not only her musical sound, but the voice of hope she offers to women, "a shot in the arm."
Nelson grew up in San Bernardino, Calif., and at an early age she and her seven siblings sang at church functions and fairs as the Nelson Family Singers. "Like the Partridge Family," she said.
When Nelson turned 19, she moved to Utah to sing backup for Salt Lake City-based Kenneth Cope, who composed and performed music geared toward Mormon audiences. Within two years she met and married her husband and became "a baby having babies."
Her entrance into acting came "out of the blue" when the filmmakers of the church-produced film "Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration" were searching for an actress to portray Emma Smith. Much of the footage shot during that production was used in "Emma Smith: My Story."
In 2011, when she was thinking about what type of music she wanted to make, she decided on a focus on women listeners. "I didn't set out to worry about disappointing anyone," she said. "I was conscious not to pigeonhole it. I needed it to apply to everyone. … I didn't want something that was stuck in an LDS bookstore; this album was nondenominational."
With that approach, Nelson wrote songs with some lyrics that she thinks might be considered controversial. In "Good for Me," she penned the line, "My babies kiss me every morning and I love my husband every night." She called that her "Dr. Laura" line. "I am concerned what people locally will think of this," she said.
Locally, it seems, Nelson's music should do just fine. The singer has a magnetism that has led her to be cast as the most important woman in Mormon history, but she hasn't let that role define her.
"That's one of the things we were drawn to, the way she interacts with women," Rust said. "She has this approachable trait."
As Deere notes, women between ages 25 and 45 make up most of the country music audience. "No one really writes for them," he said.
Were you 'Born Brave'?
Jason Deere and the Nashville Tribute Band with Katherine Nelson, who is promoting her newly released album "Born Brave."
When • Saturday, Aug. 25, at 8 p.m.
Where • Sandy Amphitheater, 1245 E. 9400 South
Tickets • $12 and $15 at SmithsTix or at www.nashvilletributeband.com