With a storied musical history, Nell Robinson‘s current project is working with Jim Nunally in the Nell & Jim Band. We caught up with Nell to talk through her six influences and asked her to choose one song from each that represent why they are such positive influences.
I grew up listening to Dolly Parton, both my parents loved her and her music. She was a part of the soundtrack for our family road-trips. I think my mother especially related to Dolly, because she had grown up on a farm in rural Alabama and told me she didn’t know she was poor until she left home. So ‘Coat of Many Colors’ made her cry, and my mother’s best friend and cousin was named Jolene, so Mom loved that song too. While my parents loved the country versions of Dolly’s songs including the sort of pop-country songs like ‘Nine to Five’, I have loved the more acoustic sound of songs like ‘My Blue Tears’, where it’s just Dolly and her guitar and a story. The stripped-down version of that song is a master class in singing. The writing is poetry, “Fly ye away from my window little bluebird…” The beauty and freedom of her vibrato and the story-telling feel of her delivery make it feel so real, like she is your best friend telling you about her sorrow.
Recommended track: ‘My Blue Tears’ (the acoustic solo version)
When I was a secret singer, a closet singer—singing in my pickup truck that had no radio—I used to say to myself that the only deal I would ever make with the devil would be to sing like Bonnie Raitt. A life with that voice and I would gladly burn in hell for eternity. I was young, eternity was an abstract concept. Her album Nick of Time, released in 1989, mesmerized me. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, helping my husband at the time through business school and applying for a graduate program at Harvard. I also spent part of that year in Pennsylvania, traveling by train from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to work on political campaigns. Nick of Time was my travel companion and even when I had graduated from Harvard and moved back West to California, that album was the soundtrack for my life. I put ‘Have a Heart’ on repeat many times. That was written by Bonnie Hayes, another amazing Californian and great writer. Raitt’s voice is rich and sexy and soulful, you hear her heart break but she is not broken, she is a survivor and you hear it. What woman doesn’t relate to that?
Recommended track: “Have a Heart”
Portugese fado singer Amalia Rodrigues got me through the breakup of a marriage. I had moved out of the house I had shared with my husband and daughter for 14 years to a small apartment in the same neighborhood. I put on Amalia and laid on the floor and cried. You don’t need to understand Portugese to know what she is saying – I learned every sound, every melisma, vocal cry. Later I looked for translations of her songs and learned that many of them came from her own poetry and poets wrote poetry specifically for Amalia. She collaborated with poets through most of her career, bringing the stories to life with her virtuosic stylings and voice. The poem, the story and her voice become one. I have written poetry and short stories since I was a kid and the idea that poems could lead to songs was inspiring to me. Portugal called for Three Days of National Mourning when Amalia passed away in 1999. I recommend listening to Maldição (Curse):
What destiny or curse
Controls us, my heart?
So lost from one another
We are two silent cries
Two divergent destinies
Two divided lovers
Recommended Track: Maldição’
What a voice, I love Tracy Chapman. I was driving cross country (the US) in 1988 in a pickup truck with my first husband. We had no air-conditioning and had rigged up a way to blow the car fan air over ice into the cab. Chapman’s debut album had just come out and we played it over and over from small town to small town, freeway to country roads. The story at the time was that Chapman had been discovered singing on a street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we were headed. I know she was a student at Tufts University there. Her song ‘Fast Car’ is brilliant. That hot summer in Cambridge and the sultry, humid heat in the urban East Coast are tied with my memory of Chapman’s sultry, rich, down-to-earth voice and what sounded like true stories in her songs. Her voice was everywhere that summer and it brings back really happy memories. ‘Give Me One Reason to Stay Here’ is a great composition but I’d recommend ‘Fast Car’.
Recommended Track: ‘Fast Car’
Lynn Morris is a bluegrass musician and singer whose voice captivated me when I was rediscovering my own passion for singing and learning about bluegrass. I had the pleasure of meeting her when I worked with Marshall Wilborn, her husband, also a great singer and bass player. At age 45, I was just coming back to music after decades of being away and involved in politics, and getting to know the friendly bluegrass community in the San Francisco Bay Area. I took some vocal coaching from local teacher Cary Sheldon and from bluegrass star Laurie Lewis, exploring my adult voice. When I heard Lynn’s version of Hazel Dickens’ song ‘Scraps from Your Table‘, I felt that it was the most natural, relaxed and authentic singing I had heard. She just sings so beautifully and it sounds effortless. Her voice is in the flow. Lynn was also a trailblazer, the first woman to win the National Banjo Championship.
Recommended Track: ‘Scraps from Your Table’
I have a story about Hazel Dickens. She was performing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, a free weekend of music in Golden Gate Park created by local bluegrass fanatic and philanthropist Warren Hellman. He had given me a Friends and Family Pass to the festival, and when I heard Hazel was going on stage, I had to run through the crowd and push my way around to get the backstage area. My goal was to sit on the step of the stage, backstage, to watch and listen to Hazel. I showed my pass to the gatekeeper for the performer area and went dashing toward the stage. Robert Plant was there as well, performing with Alison Krauss, and he happened to be standing between me and the stage, with a very burly bodyguard. I went running toward him just to get around him and the bodyguard stepped between us – he thought I was running toward Robert Plant! I swerved saying “Sorry, I’m here for Hazel Dickens!” Hazel has written so many great songs. ‘A Few Old Memories’ is one of my favorites. But it is for her political voice and activism that I most love her. She composed songs about and worked on behalf of non-union mine workers and was a feminist in the mold of Mother Jones. Having spent part of my life as a political activist, I loved seeing how activism and music could be integrated.
Recommended Track: ‘A Few Old Memories’
To find out more about Nell & Jim Band you should check out their website.