words Marla Cantrell
images courtesy Janet Galland, Galland Street Photography
Niki Waters stands on stage, microphone in hand, waiting for the music to start. When it does, she begins to sing a jazzy version of “It’s All About That Bass.” She is moving to the beat, smiling her million-dollar smile, her long, blonde hair shining under the spotlights. She is radiant, her voice brilliant, and the room grows still as everyone in it turns to listen to this seventeen-year-old girl from Booneville, Arkansas.
There is more to being a singer than having a great voice; there is this thing called “stage presence,” something Niki talks about as soon as she’s finished her set. When she first started performing, in the eighth grade, she entered a talent contest, losing to a band. “I remember being confused, wondering what had happened,” Niki says. “I thought I’d done really well. It was a good lesson for me, and now when I sing, I get lost in the lyrics. I think about something that’s happened to me, or something I’m going through. I work to make the songs my own. I don’t want to sound like anybody else.”
The technique of drawing from her life experience, combined with her impressive voice, has served her well. Last year she won second place at the Channel 5 Youth Talent Show at the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair. (A little trivia: Carrie Underwood competed in the same event when she was a young teen, but failed to place.) Niki’s win earned her a chance to compete at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock, where she won the first-place prize in the solo vocalist category.
It was thrilling, this time in the spotlight, knowing that the judges found her talent exceptional. Her style is more blues and jazz than anything else, something she says shocks people who typically assume she sings country, mostly because she’s from a small town of 4,000 in the hills of Arkansas.
For almost as long as Niki can remember, singing has mattered a great deal to her. “When I was five or six, I would stand on this bowl in our living room and I’d sing to my mom. If I messed up, I’d push a pretend button on my pretend tape recorder and say, ‘The track messed up. I have to start over again.’”
At this recollection, Niki’s mother, Kim, begins to laugh. Kim, who plays the piano and sings, has encouraged her daughter from the beginning. “She’s always been so talented,” Kim says.
“Well, I loved it, that’s for sure,” Niki says. As she grew older, she started singing in public, and now, at Booneville High School, she performs in musicals and sings in the show choir (think Glee with a lot less drama), and in her church’s youth praise choir. But it was this year’s Arkansas-Oklahoma Old Fort Days Rodeo that provided her with her biggest audience ever. She sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and as she looked across the crowd, the rows of people seemed to go on forever.
“I think there were about four to five thousand people there, and I looked at no one. I stared straight at the ground,” Niki says. “After it was over, I could hear the roar of the crowd, and I thought, Oh my gosh.”
As Niki talks, Kim is beaming at her daughter. She is exceedingly proud of her, not just because of her success in music, but because Niki is brave and strong and giving. Kim pulls two copies of x-rays from her purse. In the first, Niki’s spine looks more like the letter “C” than a straight line.
Doctors discovered she had adolescent idiopathic scoliosis when she was in the sixth grade. (Scoliosis is marked by a sideways curvature of the spine. This typically occurs during a growth spurt just before puberty.) She’d gone to the doctor with bronchitis, and after the x-ray came back, he saw the distinctive curve of Niki’s spine. At that time it was only a mild case, but by the next year it had worsened. “When Mom told me I was going to have to have surgery, I was devastated,” Niki says. “I was fourteen. The pain started in my lower back, because that’s where the curving started, and it just corkscrewed.” She points to the x-ray, “You can see that here,” she says. “My ribs are twisted. I had a lot of problems understanding why it was happening to me. It was major surgery, fusing my spine, and it was really emotional for me.
“Half of my spine is now fused. I have a little bit of mobility in my bottom half. I have titanium rods and screws that made it as straight as they could get it. I had a great doctor and medical team at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. I had to relearn how to walk; I didn’t have my balance. It was as if someone put this huge weight on my back.”
The curvature was so severe that when the surgery was over and Niki was able to stand up, she was a full three inches taller, and towered over her mother. “I was shocked, but Niki laughed,” Kim says. “She was happy to be so tall.”
“I had to go to respiratory therapy because I wasn’t able to breathe very well, at first, because everything had been so out of line. I still have muscle spasms if I do more than I should or if I bend wrong.
“I went back to school for half-days after three weeks. When they had cheer tryouts, I went, and I made it. They knew I wouldn’t be able to do jumps or tumbling, but they let me on the team anyway.”
Since then, she’s helped a few other girls at her school who were diagnosed with scoliosis. She was able to give them pointers on how to deal with the condition, and what to expect if they had to have surgery. Recently, she’s started a campaign to raise awareness, going to civic groups and talking about her experience, and what she learned in the process. She is also a proponent of having scoliometers in the schools, which are devices used to diagnose the condition.
Niki is philosophical about what she’s gone through. “It taught me to be strong. To not let anything stop me.”
Niki recently began her senior year. This is a critical time for her. She’s going to decide where to go to college, and she’ll be auditioning for music scholarships. In another year or so, she wants to try out for the TV show The Voice, something she believes could make her singing career skyrocket. But no matter what happens, she knows music will always be a part of her life.
One day, when her education is finished, Niki may be cranking out platinum albums, or she may be a choir teacher or a drama coach, or the director of a church’s music program. All these possibilities appeal to Niki, who thinks life works out the way it should, as long as you never stop trying to make it better.
Kim has been listening closely as her daughter described her journey through surgery and recovery. It can’t be easy to relive the days that were so difficult. She reaches out, touches Niki’s arm, pats her on the back. They are lovely together, the perfect mother-daughter duo. When they stand, Niki does indeed tower over her mother. They walk out into the summer day, this teen on the verge of having her dreams come true, and the mother who always believed they would.