Western Sun, the third album from The Nell & Jim Band, presents an immense sweep of roots music history that takes the listener on a sonic migration from Europe through the United States to California. On the way they tell stories of how generations sustained themselves in search of a better life. Western Sun also makes a clear statement about the treatment of immigrants in today’s America.
Fronted by Nell Robinson, often compared to classic country leading ladies like Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris, and former David Grisman Bluegrass Experience guitarist Jim Nunally, the band is Jim Kerwin on bass fiddle, Alex Aspinall on percussion, and Rob Reich on accordion and keyboards. But above all, through folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, and swing, The Nell & Jim Band tells stories, each drawing on family as much as the history books. Nunally is a third-generation musician whose sharecropper grandfather moved his family from Arkansas to California on the Great Migration west in the 1930s, and against that background he and Robinson are intensely disturbed by the present threat to immigrants, which they view as the country’s foundation.
Flowing keys and Robinson’s ethereal flute give “By Stars and Sunrise” a space to match the skies and prairies that lay before those migrants heading west. This particular wayfarer falls in love with Luisa on his way across Texas. They marry and settle down there, but to provide for his family he sets out for the Gold Rush in California.
In “Sequoia Gold,” Robinson, Nunally, and co-writer Chris Wadsworth heighten the anxiety of the Gold Rush prospector: “Worked my claim ’till I came up dry / the mother lode she passed me by / these mighty stands of timber hold my only chance of getting home.” The wistfulness of the three-part harmonies is a reminder that not everyone will strike it lucky.
The Nell & Jim Band is equally at home in Europe. The lively instrumental “Poland” looks hopefully to a new life over the ocean. Next stop is Italy for the intriguing ballad “Limonia” before the band shows its grasp of traditional music further northwest. Accordion and pipes swirl like the Irish mist in the first two parts of “Handsome Medley.” The bluegrass of part three shows this old world traveler has made it to the New World.
Western Sun evokes vivid images of Guthrie, Steinbeck, and Lomax. The easygoing bluegrass of “Travelin’ the Road West,” punctuated by Nunally’s flatpicking and Robinson’s flute, is the public face that masks a steely determination to reach the promised land. How the value of immigration could be in any doubt severely troubles The Nell & Jim Band. That they can articulate their view so lucidly using the musical heritage of their country should give hope to all those who share their view.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Chris Wadsworth, who co-wrote several songs on Western Sun, is the publisher of No Depression. He was not involved in the assignment or editing of this review.