By Chuck O’Donnell, Special Writer
Valerie Nasko tried to stack the deck in her favor by strategically taking a seat in the front row toward the side of the stage at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace and wearing a hot pink plaid print shirt, blue jeans and pink cowgirl boots.
But even here in Las Vegas, where dreams of fortunes won ride on the roll of the dice, Ms. Nasko was facing long odds.
Ms. Nasko, who grew up in Hillsborough, has spent much of the past 15 years belting out Shania Twain songs hundreds of times in front of hundreds of thousands of fans who share her appreciation for the artist known as the Queen of Country Pop.
Since starting Simply Shania with her husband, Buddy, Ms. Nasko has sung “You’re Still the One,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” and many other of her hits in clubs and bars and at festivals.
With her husband on bass, they opened for Tanya Tucker one night. Another time, they opened for George Jones. And if that doesn’t impress you much, (a play on the lyrics of one of Ms. Twain’s songs) consider that Simply Shania was recruited to play for United States military stationed in Japan, South Korea, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Sure, Simply Shania was formed as a tribute band, but somewhere along the way, in some way, these became Ms. Nasko’s songs, too. The lyrics aren’t tumbling from her lips as much as they are rising up from her soul.
“Her music just makes me feel happy, alive, energetic,” Ms. Nasko said. “It just makes me feel good, I guess, is the best way to put it. She always has messages in her songs, and she’s positive.”
So grateful for ms. Twain’s gift of music is Ms. Nasko that she’s always harbored the dream of meeting Ms. Twain and giving her a heartfelt thank you.
So there she was, mere feet away from her idol, singing along to every word Oct. 15 when Ms. Twain brought the whole concert to a stop.
“I’ve got to find out who this woman is dressed like me,” Ms. Twain announced to the crowd.
She looked down and gestured toward Ms. Nasko.
Could this really be happening? Could this be the big Vegas payoff? Could Ms. Nasko be getting her chance to thank Twain face to face?
Ms. Nasko never had any musical training unless you count singing along to the radio in the car. She was just Valerie Villegas at Hillsborough High, a girl who had started dating this boy, Buddy Hnasko, from Bound Brook after they’d met on a blind date.
The two have been inseparable ever since. These kids, who went to the Hillsborough High junior and senior proms together, stayed together. They eventually got married, stayed married for more than 30 years and raised one son, Keith.
Unlike his wife, Mr. Nasko learned to play an instrument. It was his idea to start a band. The way Ms. Nasko remembers it, she came home one night to discover she was recruited to sing in the new band he was starting.
They tried doing a revue of top 40 hits, but that didn’t go anywhere. They tried writing some original music, but couldn’t find an audience.
Mr. Nasko threw up his hands and turned on the TV.
“I saw Shania on an awards show,” he remembered. “It was the first time I had seen her. I looked at my wife, and I looked at her, and I said, ‘They look similar.’”
He said, “She had one song in the top 40 already, and she sounded really good at doing her. So we decided to be a Shania Twain tribute band, and it took off.”
They dropped the H from their name for professional purposes and hit the road. Some of their most memorable shows were played at the summer festival at Duke Island Park in Bridgewater and the Music Box in Sayreville, not to mention camps overseas full of men and women thankful for some good music so far from home.
Simply Shania took off, in part, because of Ms. Nasko’s attention to detail. She shopped the garment district in New York to find the right material to make the dresses and shirts. Looking the part and moving like Ms. Twain was important to maintaining the illusion.
“Everybody knows her and knows that she’s one of the most beautiful women so that was very intimidating to take on that role, but I tried my best to watch her move, to watch her vocal style,” Ms. Nasko said. “Her costume had to be as close as possible. To me, it had to be right on or it wasn’t close enough.”
The Naskos moved to Florida in 2004, leaving behind three band members. Ms. Nasko still performs a handful of shows each year and recently played a gig in Illinois.
No matter where she lives, the music will always resonate with her. For instance, when her mother, Arlene Tolerico, died in 2010, Ms. Nasko turned to Ms. Twain’s music for comfort.
She found solace in the tender ballad, “Today is Your Day.”
Ms. Nasko’s mother hoped against all hope her daughter would be able to come face to face with the woman whose music changed her daughter’s life.
Ms. Nasko decided to chase the dream one more time, and in true Vegas style, she went all in. She watched some YouTube videos to see what Ms. Twain had been wearing recently in concert. She bought seats just in the place where Ms. Twain often comes down off the stage and into the crowd.
And when Ms. Twain noticed her sitting with her husband and her sister, Veronna, it appeared the dream might be coming true.
Ms. Twain stopped the show and summoned Ms. Nasko to the stage, saying, “Come on up here. Come on up on stage so everyone can see you.”
Ms. Nasko bounded up the steps and into the waiting arms of Ms. Twain.
The crowd cheered as the executive assistant for a utility company stood arm in arm, pink to pink, with the world-famous musician with 85 million records sold.
When Ms. Twain asked why she was dressed exactly like her, Ms. Nasko tried to explain how her husband had the idea of starting a tribute band. But before she could finish the thought, Ms. Twain interjected some humor.
“She just looked at the audience and said something like, ‘And I thought it was my idea.’ Something cute like that,” Ms. Nasko said. “She was kind of playing with it.”
After the crowd had a good laugh, Ms. Nasko went on to tell her how they had started a tribute band.
“I said something to the effect about just really wanting to thank her for every opportunity we’ve had, especially traveling overseas for the U.S. military stationed in Japan, South Korea, Kosovo and Macedonia,” Ms. Nasko said. “She was listening, and she looked like she was really appreciating the feedback I was giving her.
“Basically after that, she said, ‘OK, keep singing along in your seat.’ She must have seen me singing to every song. And I took that as my cue: ‘OK, my turn is up now.’”
The moment she had dreamed of — the moment her mother prayed for — may have been over, but in the weeks since, she has been glowing with happiness. The whole encounter has been on a loop in her mind. Sometimes, it still doesn’t seem real.
“You can plan all you want,” Ms. Nasko said. “You can stack the cards in your favor. But at the end of the day, you don’t know. Will she or won’t she? How will this work out?
“You can spend your whole life and never have the opportunity to cross paths with the icon that you emulate. You may never get to see her face to face and say thank you. I was blessed and I was able to do that.”