Interview: Nell Robinson

Singer/songwriter Nell Robinson’s latest CD, Rose of No-Man’s Land, is inspired by her family’s rich family history, particularly their involvement with every major American war dating back to the Revolutionary War and reaching up through modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The album weaves stories and songs together into a multi-faceted exploration of war and its impact, with guest contributions by Kris Kristofferson, John Doe, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

This interview was for a preview article for Robinson’s show on 2/13/15 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, with special guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. It was done by phone on 1/28/15.

Jeff Moehlis: Can you tell us a bit about what we can look forward to at the upcoming show?

Nell Robinson: I think the most important thing you can look forward to is really great, lush music, with original songs – new songs by Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark, and new songs from me and my co-writers. You can look forward to great singing and harmonizing. We’ve got Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as part of our cast. So it’s just going to be really great music. It’s roots music. We’ve got a pedal steel player who traveled with Hoyt Axton for 20 years, and one of the best flat-picking guitar players in the country Jim Nunally. It’s a great band.

And the thing that’s different and I think is sort of a bonus in addition to the great music is we have history, and we have storytelling woven through this show. The inspiration for all of these things has been my deep roots in the South. I live in California, and I’ve been here for 30 years, but my family has spent hundreds and hundreds of years in Lower Alabama, in a rural area there. We’re classic Southerners who have carried forward our stories for hundreds and hundreds of years, going back to the Revolutionary War. I became interested in the stories – there were other kinds of stories as well – but hearing stories about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I. A lot of different threads from over many different generations, and a lot of different experiences from the women, from the men, from the kids, conscientious objectors, draftees, volunteers, etc.

It’s fascinating, especially in light of where our country is right now with the war and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and very much driving it home because I have a couple of very close friends and a brother-in-law who have served multiple tours over there, and I realized they came back deeply affected. The way it happened for me was that looking at these letters, listening to these family stories has given me a window into what the many repercussions have been in our society from this long, long relationship with war, whatever your perspective may be. It’s a bit of a luxury, because most people that have direct experience do not talk about it. It does sometimes take decades and generations for the stories to come it. So that’s the kinds of historical elements that are woven into this music.

And, you know, we’ve got Ramblin’ Jack, who’s really a troubadour, and understands storytelling, is gifted at it, and weaves stories into his music. We’re very, very simpatico in that way. It’s just a really special show. It’s got some different elements which I think people have been enjoying. It’s beautiful music and great musicianship and vocals and harmonies, just a beautiful night to spend together.

JM: Speaking of Ramblin’ Jack, how did you connect up with him?

NR: The way I met Ramblin’ Jack is that we have a friend in common, Gaynell Rogers. All of my albums have had spoken words woven throughout the album. On one of them, I recorded some kinfolk in the South about their experience on the farm during the Great Depression, and I wove some of those stories into the album. And Gaynell handed it to Jack when he was heading on a roadtrip, and he listened to it. The fact that I even get to have this man as a friend is such an honor. It seemed like there was a real appreciation on both of our parts on the role of storytelling. And so I’d gotten to be a friend. He and I worked together when I released album with Jim Nunally last year. We did something called the Seeds and Stories Tour, and we traveled all around and Jack did a set and we did a set. I enjoyed that very much.

What Jack brings to this show is his voice, his connection to history. He knocks Johnny Cash’s song “Drive On” out of the park. Of course he knew Johnny Cash. It’s a song that not many people know that Johnny Cash wrote about the Vietnam War. So he brings his full personality and gift to the stage and shares it with all of us. What can I say? We’re all so lucky!

JM: The concept for the show is based on your family history. Do you have any theories on why there has been this call to armed services within your family over many generations?

NR: It’s puzzling. This is part of the reason that I created this show, puzzling this out. I don’t have an answer to that question. I’ve got so many ideas and theories and answers that I’ve pieced together, and that people have told me from the family, and reading letters and things like that. I think it’s a really good question for all of us to grapple with now. Why do people go to war? Why do we have it? You know, because we are a democracy. We can’t just say we have nothing to do with what’s happening. I feel it’s a very live question. I’m so glad you asked that, because not everybody asks that question, and I think it’s worthy of everyone to think it over. Why do people we know, why did they go to World War II? We still have some old warriors from World War II around, including two of my uncles. At one point, during the Revolutionary War, clearly, it was about establishing principles for a more free life, and more religious freedom. My ancestors came over as part of that religious movement that wanted to practice their own religion, and they couldn’t do it in Europe. So they had to come out here and make their way. Many of them of them were sick and died, and suffered and sacrificed.

There’s that, and then there’s the folks that got drafted. They didn’t want to go. They had to. I think there’s something having to do with rural poverty. I think there’s some folks like my brother-in-law who volunteered, a highly educated man, a high ranking naval officer, and a family man, a good man. I love him dearly. He volunteered to go three times, and I asked him why. I’m still puzzling his answer, but we kind of answered it in one of the songs. He told me why, and he referred to a song called “American Anthem”, which is a really deep song because it talks about the ways in which we all give back to this amazing country, flawed as it us, but beautiful and amazing. We’re so blessed to live here. In this song it says, how do we get back to this place, where for 500 years people sacrificed so we could have what we have. This is one way he feels he needs to give back, to answer the call. His country says they need him, and he’s got a job to do, and he’s going to go over and do it. If he doesn’t, he’s letting down his brotherhood, in a way. So it’s complicated. I’m still puzzling it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever really come to an answer.

JM: Besides yourself, is there any notable musical talent in your family?

NR: First of all, my mother has an absolutely beautiful voice. My sisters, my daughter – many of my family members have very beautiful voices. We all love music, and we sang in church. We grew up singing in church choirs. But I hadn’t really heard about anybody who was terribly musical.

So I came out and started singing and making a life in music, and I learned that my great-grandmother played the banjo, played the guitar, danced and sang, had music parties at her house. So I don’t know. In a way, I feel that the real inspiration from my family to me has been the storytelling. Singing and music is my way of carrying forward that tradition and that thread. Part of the reason that I sing in this particular genre – I love traditional country music and bigger bands and percussion, different kinds of music – but part of the reason that I chose this genre to express this music is because you can hear the words [laughs]. Very simple, right? I have to say, I can get into trance music, and I can get into being lost in a beat. I love jazz, I love free jazz, I love all kinds of music. But the music I really like to sing is music where people can hear the words. It drives me nuts not to hear what someone sang. This kind of music supports it. The pedal steel, the string bass, the percussionist who’s a super-talented young guy, the guitar. We’ve got Levon Henry on saxophone and clarinet, really contributing. So we all got together and we said, “What are we doing here? We’re telling a story. Let’s make sure the story is expressed through everything we do.” So it’s beautiful music, but it’s kind of like a movie. That’s what Joe Henry said, who produced the album. He said, “What I think this is is a movie, and you’re taking us through this movie and this narrative musically.” That’s that.

JM: In addition to Ramblin’ Jack, your new CD has appearances by Kris Kristofferson and John Doe. How did they get involved with the project?

NR: That’s right – sometimes I forget to say that this is a CD release show [laughs]. I’m so excited about the CD. We were very fortunate to be produced by Joe Henry in his studio in South Pasadena, Garfield House. He’s a really brilliant person, and a person as I said who believes in narratives, and believes in storytelling. He helped us think about voices that would help tell the story, help tell the narrative. So Kris Kristofferson, John Doe, Kathy Baker, all are friends of his, and they came in and joined our cast, some reading, some singing. I brought in Jack, who of course also knew Joe Henry, and Maxine Hong Kingston, who is an award-winning author. If anyone hasn’t read her book The Woman Warrior they really should – it’s amazing. So each of those people brought in their own voices.

It was a team effort. We thought, who can come in and really knock this out of the park? Kris Kristofferson reads a letter from one of my ancestors who was trying to re-establish contact with his father during the Civil War. They’d been on different sides of the war, and they hadn’t spoken during the war. Of course, they didn’t even know if each other was still alive. What had transpired in their lives – a child had been lost, a 16 year old son lost a leg during the war. We have the correspondence of those two reestablishing contact. So Kris Kristofferson reads an excerpt from that. I got to meet him in Joe’s studio, and light shines out of him. He’s an amazing man, and I’m a huge fan.

And sometimes the cast is able to join us. We’ve had special guests at many of our shows, and who knows, we might have a surprise special guest in Santa Barbara [laughs].

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

NR: Courage. Have courage. Have courage to pursue your ideas and your creativity and your muse, regardless of everything happening around you. I think that’s it. That’s one of the trickiest things to do. We get so pressured by our own expectations, or the expectations of the economic world, the cultural mores, the social mores around us. All those things can censor or distort a person’s ideas and muse. Sometimes the craziest, craziest ideas and thoughts end up being something that not only touches the artist very deeply, and expresses something very deep and interesting, but ends up doing that for other people as well. So, yeah, courage.

JM: You might be amused to know that I asked John Doe that same question about four years ago, and immediately he said, “Don’t do it”. [NR laughs] But he had a nice follow-up. He said, but if you have to do it, you’re not going to take that advice. But it’s not necessarily the easiest life, right?

NR: That’s really wonderful. That’s why the courage is needed, because there’s so much working against you. And it’s a different kind of hard work and a different kind of courage. I don’t agree with musicians who whine. I don’t think that’s right. But I do have empathy and compassion, because there’s many things about it that are really difficult. But on the other hand we’re so blessed to have music in our lives. Enjoy that, even if it’s just sitting in your living room with friends. In fact, particularly enjoy it sitting in your living room making music with your friends [laughs].


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