Music is far more than a career path for Kelly Steward and Miles Nielsen. It’s a passion, a way of life, a common thread, and the beginning of a love story that could only happen in a place like Rockford. And neither one of them would change a thing.
It’s a dreary winter afternoon when Miles Nielsen and Kelly Steward pop into a downtown Rockford coffee shop for a quick jolt of coffee. The couple is striking: Steward decked out in all black, and Nielsen sporting dark sunglasses, a Mr. Speed (KISS tribute band) T-shirt and a black stocking cap. They give off a certain vibe that they are people to know, without even trying.
It’s a busy time for the musical duo, who are packing up to hit the road. For the next couple of weeks, they’ll be performing out of state, including stops in Arizona and Mexico with Nielsen’s band, Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts.
These days, booking gigs isn’t easy for the husband and wife, given the fact that they are involved with four groups. In addition to the Rusted Hearts, Nielsen and Steward perform as a duo called Weep & Willow, and Steward has her own solo career. If that weren’t enough, the couple is part of a super group called the Nielsen Trust, which includes Nielsen’s dad, Rick, and his younger brother, Daxx, who are mainstays of another Rockford band that might sound familiar: Cheap Trick.
Juggling all those entities, Nielsen says, requires a great deal of organization and a little luck.
“It’s all about having a master calendar and over-communicating,” he says. “But honestly, things sometimes fall through the cracks.”
Like the time Nielsen doubled-booked himself. He and Steward were hired to perform at a wedding in Beloit, but the Rusted Hearts were contracted to play another out-of-town show at the same time. That’s when the legendary Trickster himself came to the rescue and pinched hit for his son at the wedding.
“It didn’t take much coaxing; my dad loves Kelly,” says Nielsen. “He said, ‘What do I have to learn?’ I told him, ‘It’s one of our songs and it’s three chords.’” The wedding went off without a hitch. In fact, it went so well that the bride’s father ended up sending Nielsen a $100 tip. “Thanks for not showing up,” he wrote. “(Your dad) was the best surprise ever.”
Perhaps more shocking for Nielsen and Steward is the fact they found each other in the first place. Both previously married, Nielsen grew up in Rockford, grinding away on his musical journey. Meanwhile, Steward moved to Rockford nearly 20 years ago as she pushed reset on her life and career. Call it fate or call it luck, but their love of music brought them together and life has never been the same.
“It’s cliche, but they’re soulmates,” says Terry Turen, better known as Double T, host of the morning show on 96.7 The Eagle and a friend of the couple. “They are always together. They write and play music together; they work out together. It’s not often you see them apart. They’re really happy.”
Music was always the dream for Steward, who grew up in Crystal Lake, Ill. She sang in her high school choir and performed in festivals and talent shows around town. Her mom was an exceptional singer, she says, but never pursued it as a career. Music did, however, run in the family. Her great-aunt Edna played saxophone in bands around Rockford for years.
At 19, Steward took her talents to Los Angeles in 1998, looking to make it big with her singing talent. And she did find some success, working with a producer, recording music and becoming part of the Screen Actors Guild for her work in television commercials. She was in talks with Warner Bros. about a music project before other life events became her focus. “I got pregnant with my son and my priorities shifted,” says Steward, who moved to Rockford in 2005 to be closer to family.
Years later, Nielsen would bump into her playing local clubs and events, and eventually he started helping set up her sound equipment. “In L.A., I always had someone to help me,” she says. “Here, I had to borrow a system and I had no idea how to put the thing together.”
Eventually, the pair started making music together. Both divorced by this point, Steward and Nielsen soon realized they had much more in common than their love of music. The couple married in 2016, something they never anticipated. In addition to Steward’s son, Nielsen has two daughters.
“My mom always reminds me that I said I’d never get married again,” says Nielsen, laughing. “I guess you never say never.”
What’s the Plan?
Nielsen loved music early on thanks, in part, to the front row seat he had to his dad’s success with Cheap Trick. “From the time he was 8 he wanted to go on the road with me, so I brought him. I think the other bands liked him more than me,” Rick jokes.
Young Nielsen started playing in college bands and later teamed up in the late 1990s with Daxx to form Harmony Riley, a popular local group that toured nationally for seven years.
Nielsen says he never really had a plan when it came to plotting his musical career.
“I just knew that I was going to have a band, get a bus, and go out and play,” says Nielsen, who became fixated on his backup plan. “Then I realized that if you have a Plan B you’ve already failed Plan A, so I stopped thinking about Plan B. Once I focused on Plan A everything started to look like a musical path, and I could make a living doing this.”
If Nielsen had a leg up in the music business because of his father, he certainly didn’t take advantage of it. Sure, it didn’t hurt when it came to booking a show or gaining publicity, but Rick was also busy doing his own thing, whether it was writing new music, touring with Cheap Trick or raising four kids with his wife, Karen. “He would always say, ‘If you can’t figure it out, I’ll show you.’ But I took that as a challenge,” says Nielsen, who had another mentor in his older brother, Erron.
“I never wanted to bug him,” says Rick. “My parents were classically trained opera singers, and they gave me my space when it came to music. I wanted to give both Miles and Daxx that same solitude I had. I wanted it to be their decision.”
Nielsen, much like his three siblings (including sister Scarlett), has lived under the Cheap Trick shadow his entire life. He takes it all in stride – the attention, the fame, even the overzealous fans. “If you let it become nauseating, it will,” he says. “But you can look at it as something to be proud of. How many people can say their dad is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? If he was a deadbeat or a bad person, I wouldn’t have the reverence for him that I do. He’s a good, sweet man.”
The feeling is mutual. “Miles is a talented musician and he’s a hard worker,” says Rick. “He’s not driven by money. He’s driven by having good guys in his band and playing his music. In that sense, he’s a lot like me. To me, it was always more important that he was a good kid instead of being a career musical artist. But he’s both.”
Growing up, it was no big deal for 12-year-old Miles to break bread with celebrities in the Nielsens’ Rockford home. Members of KISS, Aerosmith, Guns n’ Roses and Heart often stopped by whenever they were in town. Nielsen once had dinner with Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee, and their then-wives Pamela Anderson and Brandi Brandt.
But it wasn’t always glamorous growing up Nielsen. There were verbal threats, constant pestering at restaurants, even brazen fans showing up on their driveway at all hours of the day. “I didn’t choose this life,” Nielsen says. “It chose me.”
It could be part of the reason that in the past couple of years Nielsen has battled anxiety, which runs in his family. He’s been open about his struggles, sharing his feelings with fans on social media. Steward, who’s had her own share of anxiety over the years, has also been a big help.
“There were times I thought I was dying,” says Nielsen, who has sought medical treatment for his anxiety. At times, it’s been so bad that Nielsen has left the stage by the back door to dry heave in the alley. “It’s the fear of the feeling,” he says. “Once you get that feeling, here it comes, and it sends the snowball down the hill. I always warn the crowd that I may have to leave, but don’t worry; I’ll be back. It’s a horrible feeling but I can’t stop it.”
Steward describes her musical tastes as indie-flavored neo-traditional country meditations. “I pull from old country, but it’s not your typical country. My songs are more poetic,” she says.
After moving to Rockford, she recorded her extended play (EP) “Long Long Road,” which Nielsen helped produce. She played with Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts for a couple of years before going solo. In 2012 she released an intimate EP titled “Out From Within,” and in 2019 debuted a full-length album called “Tales and Tributes of the Deserving and Not So.” Her influences include Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt.
“When I write songs, I don’t want them to sound like anything else,” she says. “I write music that speaks to me.”
“She writes some beautiful lyrics,” adds Nielsen. “As an artist you want to continue to grow, and that’s the beauty of her music.”
Nielsen describes his work with The Rusted Hearts as a combination of pop, cosmic and Americana. His musical influences are all over the map. “If you’re driving with me, you might hear John Prime, The Beatles, ’90s rapper Too Short or some of the best classical music ever,” he says. “People say they don’t know how to define my music, and I take that as a compliment.”
Steward describes her husband’s music as effortless. “He’ll take you from here to there, but in the best way. It speaks to a 5-year-old, and it speaks to an 80-year-old. It just makes you feel happy.”
“When I listen to a Miles song, I hear his voice, but I also hear his influences,” says Turen. “From song to song, it’s different. You may hear Tom Petty, Supertramp or Steely Dan. You can definitely hear a Cheap Trick influence.”
In the past 10 years, Duane Lundy has produced the last three Rusted Hearts albums, as well as Weep & Willow and Steward’s solo album. Lundy considers the couple an extension of his own family.
“They are both so talented, creative and easy to work with,” he says. “Miles gives me a lot of rope, and our relationship has always been open, with lots of free expression back and forth. In this business you have to stay grounded, motivated and egoless as much as possible. Kelly and Miles live their music.”
At the urging of his mother, Nielsen and Steward have teamed up with his dad and Daxx to form The Nielsen Trust. The group plays a range of music from Cheap Trick to Rusted Hearts as well as covers. The gigs are few and far between, given everyone’s demanding schedules, including Cheap Trick’s tour dates. But when time allows, it’s a chance for the family to unite in a different kind of way.
“I can go up there and just be the dad,” says Rick. “Miles and Daxx have improved so much as musicians since they were in Harmony Riley. It’s been great to play together, and the best part is I don’t have to learn new songs.”
More than Music
Away from the music, Nielsen and Steward commit to staying active. They walk nearly every day along one of Rockford’s many paths. “We’re going to be mall walkers one day,” jokes Nielsen, who can also hold his own in pick-up basketball. He can be found several times a week at the main court at the downtown YMCA, going head-to-head with some of the best local ballers. The couple also enjoy dining out with a small group of close friends.
Steward is more than just a talented singer. Since she was 19, Steward has worked as a model and is represented by the Ford Model Agency. She’s done mostly commercial print work for the Kohl’s catalog, as well as Proctor & Gamble products. Steward was the girl who appeared in the brunettes and breakfast food picture that hung in character Ron Swanson’s office in the TV sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” She also makes jewelry and has her own skin care line.
Mostly, the couple likes to have fun. During the height of the pandemic, when most people were stuck at home, Nielsen and Steward decided to make the most of a bad situation. They started performing music from their home, making it available online in what they called Quaranstream, where they entertained fans with originals and covers every Thursday for more than 10 months.
If that wasn’t enough online content, they created “Uncle Gary and Aunt Dottie,” fictional relatives from Wisconsin. They posted online videos of themselves dressed in character – Dottie with her potty mouth and Gary with his penchant for Busch Light. The gag was such a hit that fans dressed up as the characters at Halloween, and Nielsen is now inundated with cans of the popular beer whenever he performs. “Miles has a dry personality but he’s a really funny guy,” says Turen. “He’s cracking jokes all the time.”
Occasionally, Nielsen will kick around the idea of relocating to another city that offers a more robust music scene. But at the end of the day, he says his heart belongs to Rockford. Turen says Nielsen’s hometown fits his personality.
Lundy also sees the upside of staying put. “Rockford is a big part of their story,” he says. “Running a business in music is very difficult, and to their credit, they have found a way to be professional musicians and do it in a sense of normalcy. For them, Rockford is a healthy place where they can thrive.”
Steward says she wouldn’t change a thing. “Could I have had success in L.A.? Absolutely. But now I understand why things happen the way they do. I wouldn’t be here right now, and I wouldn’t be here with Miles.”