October 2011

Nell Robinson (left) with her producing-songwriting-duo partner Jim Nunally: an artist with the vision and the voice to carve out a meaningful place in contemporary roots music history.

Homeward Bound

In On The Brooklyn Road, Nell Robinson considers the richness of the small town life she knew in her youth

By David McGee

Nell Robinson
Nell Robinson Music

Those who missed native Alabamian-current Bay Area resident Nell Robinson’s 2010 album debut, Loango (titled after home town), will want to go back and catch up after diving into the family lore, personal history and flat good roots music informing On the Brooklyn Road, named not after a borough of New York City but for the road leading to the Robinson family home in Alabama, not far from where Hank Williams grew up. This time out Ms. Robinson, who is turning 50 but has only been performing music in public for the past five years (she writes in her liner notes that her current pursuit of a music career is akin to a “midlife crisis” after she had spent 30 years singing only to herself and in her car at that), sprinkles five new original songs among some traditional fare from days of yore, tackles a couple of legendary songs with pleasing results and adds a couple of the most charming bonus tracks you’re likely to hear on any CD in any year. She’s singing great, too, even better than on Loango, and yes, she can sound uncannily like Emmylou Harris sans the vibrato but she also has a bit of Donna Hughes’s mountain cry going for her too, along with her own sense of phrasing and delivery to mark her as an original stylist. Mostly what you get from Ms. Robinson’s seasoned vocals is the sound of someone thoroughly enjoying being musical and sharing her gift with others.

In contrast to those among us who regret the lack of an oral family history for future generations, Ms. Robinson took her recorder around and had her closest kin reflect and reminiscence on their lives and times. We know this because seven of those oral history snippets are interspersed between songs on the album. These range from the harrowing (her mother and Uncle Bill talking about the prison help on a particular farm, the cook being a woman who had murdered her husband with “the sharpest knife I’ve ever seen in my life”) to the humorous (Uncle Marc remembering his father buying a radio that worked off a car’s wet cell battery, and how when the weather was dry the radio would pick up a better signal after the boys went out and urinated on the ground wire) to the heartbreaking (Uncle Marc recalling the first time he saw a grown man cry). On their own these interludes would be pleasant but unremarkable, but in the context of an album such as this their candor and color add heft to the whole enterprise by giving it a documentary feel.

Nell Robinson with John Reischman & The Jaybirds performs ‘Sweet Sunny South,’ at the San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, St. Cyprian’s Church. ‘Sweet Sunny South’ precedes the bonus tracks on Ms. Robinson’s new album, On the Brooklyn Road.

But the music’s the thing. On that count, Ms. Robinson takes a big step forward from the impressive Loango. She lined up the right folks to help her do so, too, with a core band featuring her co-producer-harmony vocalist-guitarist Jim Nunnally, John Reischman on mandolin, Gregory Spatz on fiddle, Trisha Gagnon on string bass and Nick Hornbuckle on banjo, whose work is enhanced at points by other musicians on the order of Laurie Lewis and Rob Ickes. The assembled multitude does a good job of getting things off to a fast start with Robinson’s own “Woe Is Me,” about a poor soul for whom nothing goes right, as plenty of really bad things in the way of personal and natural disasters alight on her doorstep. She rises above her miseries by heeding the Lord’s call to cease her pity-party and saddle up with Him. Inspired by the lifespan of adult mayflies, which may be a few hours or a few days, Richard Brandenburg penned a somber folk ballad about the fleeting nature of love, “Mayflies,” that Robinson and Nunally, with the latter’s softly strummed guitar the only instrumental accompaniment, probe with touching sensitivity. Sometimes the most unassuming places in the country harbor tragic histories—such as the spot described in the Robinson-Nunally ballad “Red Clay Creek,” in which one mother reveals to another that her man drowned both of their sons in the creek in question. Hornbuckle’s banjo and Spatz’s fiddle serve to heighten the tale’s inherent dread (banjo) and to voice the mother’s ceaseless cry (fiddle) all at once. Families themselves harbor, even nurture, their own dramas, and Robinson limns one of these in “I’m Brilliant,” a folk ballad centered on her own family’s struggle with alcoholism among its members but embodied here by a man who is in deep denial about his ability to master his demons. The verses are doom laden, the choruses—“I’m brilliant, I’m in control, I’m beautiful and I’m so happy”—full of the false bravado of addiction, and the music—the complete complement of string bass, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandola—tight, moody and anxious, all the better to underscore the singer’s impotence over her inability to stem the inevitable tide of self-destruction engulfing her kin.

Nell Robinson, live at Oakland’s ‘Bluegrass for the Greenbelt’ event, performs ‘Woe Is Me,’ the first song on her new album, On the Brooklyn Road.

Laurie Lewis makes her appearance as both songwriter (collaborating with Robinson) and harmony vocalist on “Wahatchee,” a spirited, driving ditty based on the story of a Revolutionary War-era firebrand named Nancy Hart (who may be a distant relative of Robinson’s), who first fed and liquored up some Tory soldiers who swarmed onto her property after murdering a neighbor man. After rendering them blotto, Hart, “grim judge and jury,” hung them one by one, all the while humming “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” (Is that a great story, or what?) Spatz and Hornbuckle keep the period music lively and toe tapping, and Robinson, shaded by Lewis, has a grand time reeling off the tale with a lively lilt in her voice. Ickes makes his presence felt rather dramatically in fashioning a series of sweeping, swooping, mournful dobro lines to set up Robinson’s spare, bluesy take on Loretta Lynn’s gender-specific tale of the lovelorn, “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” the rare song in which the displaced female reverts to drink to ease the pain of being dumped by her beau. Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light” is suitably triumphant, with Robinson’s stirring vocal fueled by a robust, six-piece roots band in which Tomas Enguidanos stands out with a spirited dobro solo and Keith Little engages in a gung-ho charge on the banjo. The most surprising of the covers by far is a quietly electrifying rendition of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You,” with the orchestra of Elvis’s immortal original supplanted by tender mandolin (a beautifully subdued solo by John Reischman), heart tugging fiddle (Spatz, at his most evocative), with Nunally’s guitar, Hornbuckle’s banjo and Gagnon’s string bass soft and discrete underneath it all as Robinson, in full swoon, sends the love song out with all the grace and sincerity she would bring to a hymn, which in a way it is, if you’re a romantic at heart. At any rate, it’s not easy to go up against one of the King’s finest moments, but Robinson’s modest, reserved confession of all consuming love is every bit as credible as the subdued but smoldering outpouring of emotion Elvis conjured in making this one of his signature songs.

The DeZurick Sisters (Mary Jane and Carolyn), ‘Li’l Liza Jane’

The two bonus tracks are no throwaways—in fact some may find them the most interesting cuts on the album. With her musical partner Cary Sheldon, with whom she performs as a yodeling duo known as the Henriettas, Robinson sprints through the traditional “Crawdad Hole” and the gals kick up their heels big-time on “Big Ball in Texas,” in a two-song tribute to the singular DeZurick Sisters, who sometimes performed as the Cackle Sisters and were popular attractions on both the WLS Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry from 1938 to 1948. Robinson’s liner notes are inaccurate in stating there were four sisters. There were only three; Mary Jane and Carolyn (or Caroline, as it sometimes showed up) performed together up to 1948, when Mary Jane retired to devote her time to raising her family; she was replaced by the other DeZurik sister, Lorraine, who kept the act going for another four years before she and her sister called it quits after 1952. Mary Jane and Carolyn DeZurik recorded only 12 singles (six for the Conqueror label, six for Vocalion, all in 1938); five tunes in their only movie appearance, in 1940’s Barnyard Follies; and another 32 or so songs preserved as transcriptions of the Checkerboard Time Radio Show and available online. The DeZuricks were no run-of-the-mill country duo, though. Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota, Mary Jane and Carolyn assumed, rightly, that those sounds farm animals were making were in fact messages from one to the other.

The DeZurik Sisters (Mary Jane and Carolyn), ‘Arizona Yodeler,’ from the sisters’ 1938 Vocalion recording--a Dezurik classic.

“In the bleat of the calf, the cackle of the hen, the howl of the wolf, and the warble of the bird they, like the storyteller in ‘The Song of Hiawatha,’ they heard an inspiring natural music,” notes country music historian Wayne W. Daniel about the sisters’ formative musical experiences. “These varied animal sounds provided them with ideas for yodels and trick vocalizations that they incorporated into their singing to produce a unique style that set them apart from other vocalists.”

The Henriettas (Nell Robinson and Cary Sheldon) revive the DeZurik Sisters at the 2010 San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, performing ‘You Really Lose Your Mind’

Indeed, Carolyn DeZurik told a reporter who visited her in retirement in 2005, “We listened to the birds and tried to sing with the birds.” In doing so, she and her sister came up with a befuddling but bedazzling—and highly entertaining—style of yodeling that in fact incorporated (surely by accident) elements of various European yodeling styles but ultimately was completely original to the DeZuriks. It has never been duplicated, at least not until Nell Robinson and Cary Sheldon painstakingly mapped out “syllable by syllable, note by note” a DeZurik Sisters song and attempted to emulate its style. “Crawdad Hole” features DeZuriks-style close harmonies and those delightful cackles throughout—Robinson even coos like a chicken at one point—and demands repeat listenings. As conscientious as the Henriettas were, though, if you listen closely to the DeZuriks you’ll find they were doing things in their yodels unmatched even by the yeoman combined effort of Robinson and Sheldon—Mary Jane and Carolyn really were something. The cackling doesn’t let up in the rousing “Big Ball in Texas,” a song the DeZuriks actually recorded. As bonus tracks go, these songs honoring the DeZurik Sisters only enhance the positive impression Nell Robinson makes on this disc. This is an artist with the vision and the voice to carve out a meaningful place in contemporary roots music history.

Nell Robinson’s On The Brooklyn Road is available at www.amazon.com

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