Robinella & The CC String Band: Smoky Swing
Robinella and Cruz Contreras wander into a conference room on the 26th floor of the Sony building in midtown Manhattan, shepherded by helpful Columbia Records publicity people and looking just slightly dazed. The last time I’d seen them was last summer, when Robinella & the CC String Band played their last gig at a pizza-and-microbrew pub called Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville, Tennessee. For two years, they had been Barley’s Sunday night house band and, with no cover charge, the best ticket in town.
Now here they are in New York, with their own tour bus, preparing for a photo shoot to promote their forthcoming major-label debut. They have already done national TV (a Feb. 27 performance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien), and have just wrapped up a tour opening for Kasey Chambers. They’ve been busy, in other words.
Their self-titled album is due out on Columbia in May. Like the two homemade CDs that preceded it, it is an understated mix of bluegrass, classic country, and smoky swing-jazz. Robinella’s unaffected Appalachian twang — she grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, next to the Great Smoky Mountains — is put at the service of sophisticated arrangements and phrasing that draws on Ella Fitzgerald as much as Dolly Parton. The overall effect is an Uptown Hillbilly vibe, the Savoy with a moonshine still out back.
“Columbia came down and heard us at Barley’s last spring,” says Cruz, a wiry, compact 26-year-old in a tie-dyed Tipitina’s T-shirt. “We were in contact with them all summer and worked out the deal with them, got a booking agent and went on a tour last fall with Robert Earl Keen, and then made plans for the album. We recorded it in December in Woodstock, New York — Bearsville Studios.”
Inevitably, that all sounds a lot easier than it was. Cruz and his wife, the 28-year-old Robinella, have been together as a couple and a musical entity since meeting in college at the University of Tennessee. They formed a straightforward bluegrass band called the Stringbeans, but Robinella pushed to expand the repertoire in ever jazzier directions.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for the musicians; although Cruz plays hot-lick mandolin in the band, he was a piano student at UT and studied with modern jazz master Donald Brown. He was unsure at first whether Robinella could swing convincingly, but it didn’t take long to put the doubts to rest.
“I bought records and I just tried to copy who I thought were good singers,” Robinella says. “Just mimic it. Ella Fitzgerald more than anything.”
“And Dinah Washington,” Cruz adds. “Blossom Dearie.”
The band also includes Steve Kovalcheck on guitar, Taylor Coker on upright bass, and Cruz’s hotshot 18-year-old brother Billy Contreras on fiddle (although “fiddle” is a misleading descriptor, given his Grapelli-ish flourishes). Their stylistic hopscotch recalls a time before swing bands and string bands went their separate ways, but don’t call them revivalists. They’d rather be mistaken for Norah Jones than the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“We look back for ideas, but we move forward with what we actually create,” Cruz says. “I like the idea of always evolving.”
“Someday we might add drums,” Robinella offers as an example. “I see myself singing all types of songs. Any singer would want to try lots of different things.”
In light of Jones’ multiplatinum sales and Grammy sweep, it might be tempting for Columbia to sell Robinella & the CC String Band as the next adult-contemporary crossover. But if that’s the case, no one’s told the band.
“I actually have no idea what people are expecting,” Cruz says with a shrug. “It’s either so much that they don’t tell us, or it’s not a lot.”