Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally–Creating a Life Together in Music
Every now and then a fresh breeze blows in off the ocean, rustling softly and gently carrying a musical tone we can’t hear which is nevertheless deeply familiar to us. Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally Band’s new album, Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home, wafts in from the roads they have been traveling, blowing open our expectations and revealing freshly crafted stories about place and community and longing for what we’ve lost.
For this album, two-time IBMA award winner Nunally and exceptional songwriter and vocalist Robinson pull together a dynamic group of world-class musicians—pedal steel player Pete Grant (The Grateful Dead, Guy Clark), bass fiddle player Jim Kerwin (David Grisman, Red Allen), and percussionist Jon Arkin (Lee Konitz, Gene Perla)—to create an energetic album that features the duo channeling the best of classic country on Jim and Jesse’s “Pardon Me” and George Jones’ “Jump the Mississippi.” The title track delivers a joyous challenge to us to find a road that gives us the chance to savor life’s journey, to slow down a bit and maybe to get lost and discover the unexpected, and to open ourselves to new adventure. “Hillbilly Boy” tells an old story of migration, assimilation, loss, discrimination, and identity. Pete Grant’s sparkling pedal steel on “I Hear a Southwind” mimics what the wind itself, what the Romantic poets called the Aeolian harp.
Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally Band invite us along for a joyous ride through the hills and valleys of life, laughing, sometimes bittersweetly, as we take the turns too fast, speed through the straightaways, and hold onto to those closest to us.
I talked with Jim and Nell recently about their new album and about life and music.
HC: Tell me a little about the new album.
Jim: The new album is a compilation of songs from the four CDs we released last year—North, South, East, West. We chose the certain sorts of songs we liked. The songs on those albums were recorded live. Eight of the songs on the new album are live, but we recorded two—“I’m Brilliant” and “Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home”—in the studio. The band is extremely engaging, and when you listen to the tracks you’ll hear that engagement. When you get the full band experience, it’s energizing.
You two play off each other so naturally onstage. What’s your secret?
Jim: I feel like there’s an inherent engaging quality in Hilary’s personality; she’s an easy personality to engage with. She doesn’t make you feel like she’s onstage and you’re not with her there on the stage. Audiences relate to her because she’s putting herself forward. Engagement with a crowd is part of her personality, and that authenticity is what pulls people in.
Nell: I’m an introvert, and conferences like Folk Alliance are hard. When you get up to share stories, a part of you comes out that otherwise remains in the background. We love our music, and we love sharing that. It’s important for people to see us communicating onstage. There’s a playfulness about it. If there’s not a hint of danger, then it’s no fun.
Do the songs change when you take them in the studio?
Jim: The starting point for a song is open when we present it to the band. As a producer, I try to let the musicians respond musically before I speak. For example, when we played “Sophia” to the band, they said “you should keep this as a duo.” This band has history and musical depth. I try to let a song grow in a way that is natural and to see where it goes.
Nell: There a number of places where the band takes turns soloing, and band members play off each other. One of us has an emotional charge and so somebody plays off that and then the song goes to a deeper level.
Can you talk a little about music as a political act?
Nell: “Hillbilly Boy” is a political song. It urges us to remember our past.
Jim: My dad taught me to play country and folk music. He wondered about my learning bluegrass music, he felt people associated bluegrass as hillbilly music, and he spent his life trying to disassociate himself from that image of being a hillbilly, he was called that when they came to California during the dust bowl era, it was a derogatory term, back then.
Nell: I am an activist by the way I live my life. My project, “Rose of No-Man’s Land,” which is about my family’s journey, has raised over $200,00 for homeless veterans.
When did you start playing music? Were you writing songs as soon as you started playing?
Jim: I started playing music when I first heard it. When I was a little kid, I recall my dad playing music. I remember when I was eight a neighbor came and asked him if he could play blues guitar. “Old Paint” was the first song my dad showed me, and I started practicing and getting better. I wrote my first song when I was sixteen, and played my first gig around the same time.
Nell: I’ve been writing poetry and prose since I was a kid. I was a very musical kid. I played a little piccolo, a little saxophone; whatever the band needed. In my late 40s I rediscovered a love of writing and music. The songs are stories; it’s really about delivering a story. One was about my dad (“Butch”), who had just passed away. The third song I wrote was about “oh, poor me.” That’s the song that got me invited onto Prairie Home Companion.
Tell me little bit about your approach to songwriting.
Jim: Many of the songs I’ve written start with a story. Sometimes you write a heartbreak song from the other person’s perspective. Other ways I’ve written are from reading stories such as The Grapes of Wrath. The story of a family who came in the Dust Bowl looking for work is still with us today. In my song “Hillbilly Boy,” I set out to capture the basic Bakersfield sound. “Shackled and Chained” grew out of my watching Cool Hand Luke. I try to create original melodies, and Nell brings words into a rhythm.
Nell: Yes; he’s got a melody; I’ve got a poem. Many, many things inspire me: a story, a poem, an image from a book. The notion that I could write a song was not alien to me. Music and art and creativity are in everyone. People think they don’t have that gift in them. It’s something that every human being has in him or her.
Who are your three greatest musical influences?
Jim: My dad: he taught me how to play the guitar. My brother; my mother, who influenced me so much. She told me I was a good musician and that I might want to consider music school; she’s always been supportive and encouraging. I was also influenced by Tony Rice and Clarence White.
Nell: Dolly Parton: I think she’s a brilliant songwriter; listening to her voice is like taking a master class in singing. Rainer Marie Rilke: I’ve gotten a lot out of his poetry over the years. I’m a deeply spiritual person. My Uncle Mark: he was a gifted storyteller; his humor and his heart are unsurpassed; I always looked up to Uncle Mark.
What’s next for you?
Nell: We’d like to explore our creativity in an unfettered way. Life in music is subversive; it subverts what society tells us is success. Artists must break free in order to express themselves. We’re constantly writing new songs.
Jim: This band is really new so we’re cultivating these sounds; we’ve started to experiment, too. Nell is playing piccolo; when I hear her play I get lots of ideas about how we can use that sound. You can create these expressive feelings with different sounds.
Nell: I see an intersection in what Jim and I do. We’re creating a life together with music, our music. How do we get the freedom for our authentic vision of life and music?