Album Review: Nell Robinson — On the Brooklyn Road
Back in the caveman days, stories told from your ancestors were painted on cavern walls. Thousands of years later, things were handed down by stone tablet. Native Americans passed them down by word of mouth and Johannes Gutenberg made it easier to do on paper. But for bluegrass/Americana artist Nell Robinson, stories are best recalled in sound. On her sophomore effort, On the Brooklyn Road, she deftly combines storytelling songs with hilarious field recordings of family tales by her elders.
Nothing better describes this unique combination of storytelling in song and conversation than Robinson’s own liner notes:
Storytelling is a Southern pastime and some of the stories I know are best told like they happened yesterday, even though they are 150 years old. They foster this deep connection to people and place, so much that sometimes I miss a past that I wasn’t even present for. The family recordings and songs, mine and others, in this album are my way of breathing those memories into life today.”
With a voice reminiscent of Elizabeth Cook, Robinson’s music production is pure Appalachian front porch in style. She’s backed on several of the tracks by John Reischman & The Jaybirds who breathe solid life into the tracks. On the Cajun-flavored “Don’t Light My Fire,” Robinson shows off witty lyrics about not needing to a fling because she’s got a man already taking up space on her couch at home and sets it to some great accordion work. “Wahatchee” combines a historic tale of American Revolution redcoats meeting their end from a widow’s revenge. Robinson serves up death, history, and bluegrass fantastically well. She includes three great covers on the album from Elvis, Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. On “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” she takes her time with deliberate pace and sparse production and shows a great vocal range that’s not nearly as evident on the balance of the album. She has a different take on Lynn’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” with a soulful performance light on instrumentation. The last two “bonus” tracks feature Robinson and Cary Sheldon as The Henriettas, their tribute to the 1930s act the DeZurik Sisters. The ladies’ yodeling harkens back to days gone past—a pleasing reminder of a lost art.
But the heart and soul of the album is in the rough living room recordings interspersed between the songs told by Robinson’s mother and uncles. Each one has a purpose on the project and each one either makes you laugh out loud or long for a simpler time. Her Uncle Bill and mother share a story called “The Poker Game” in which they tell of a tale featuring Robinson’s great-grandfather: when he didn’t come home due to a late-night poker game at his sawmill, Great-Grandma digs out his gun and shoots into the boys’ campfire. “Granddaddy never stayed late to play poker again.” She follows this story with a track appropriately called “I Saw the Light.” Then Uncle Marc talks about how he and his fellow kin peed on old radio wires as kids to make them come in more clearly; “Turn Your Radio On” is the song immediately after. Other stories include giving city folks bad directions of four right turns out in the country and using a large dining room table as a babysitter by putting babies’ shirttails underneath the legs. They are touching, funny and sweet.
Robinson has woven an elegant tapestry of timeless nostalgia and given us a peek to her family history told in a humorous, warm way. It’s truly a treasure.
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