Nell & Jim Band

Listen to the music of the Nell & Jim Band, and you will be transported back to a time when artists freely spoke of their thoughts and beliefs. In a sense, Steel, their brand-new album, continues the time-honored tradition of musical activism that made such acts as Janis Ian or Peter, Paul and Mary so unforgettable. Whether it be the title cut (an ode to Jim Nunally’s former life as a welder) or “Speed Limit,” a song about the fact that life doesn’t have to end at 40, the Nell & Jim Band own their story by continuing to release original and thought-provoking music.

But Steel almost didn’t happen.

The band was in the process of beginning recording sessions for the album when Nell Robinson (flute, vocals, songwriting) was struck with a virus that attacked her vocal cords. Needless to say, the condition shook her to her emotional core. “It was really hard, alarming and sad for me. I had to look at the possibility of not being able to sing. It was very heartbreaking because it means so much to me to be able to express myself in song.”

Nell decided she was not going to simply lay down and let the virus get the best of her – or her music. She began to see a highly-respected speech therapist in San Francisco.

“I called her in tears and she worked me in. Immediately she gave me confidence and told me, ‘Your condition may not go away, but your singing will come back – and here’s what you’ve got to do about it.’” Her new therapist empowered her with a set of vocal exercises that would help her singing – and it did!

“I vocalize a whole lot differently now – even when I speak. I don’t know if I sound any different. I sound different in my head, which is something I am getting accustomed to. I think I can deliver vocals but I just have to keep the cords conditioned almost every day with a series of exercises to keep them able to do the things I have been doing without thinking about it. Now, I just have to think about it and prepare. It’s made me a better singer.”

Her renewed confidence comes at the best of times, as Steel contains one of Nell and Jim’s most ambitious recordings yet – “Finisterre.” Originally recorded in half-Spanish and half-English, the song tells the story of her pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. Steel’s producer/engineer, John Cuniberti (known for his work with rock ‘n’ roll legends Joe Satriani and Sammy Hagar), approached Nell with a challenge.

“He told me, ‘I think you need to do the whole song in Spanish. I love the sound of your voice in Spanish.’ So, I ended up having to translate from English to Spanish, and then to re-learn it in Spanish and sing over a track that the band had already laid down that we were happy with.”

John’s rock-influenced history created new sonic possibilities for the band, broadening Steel’s already wide-ranging musical appeal.

“John’s ideas and aesthetic pushed the boundaries of the band’s acoustic sound,” says Nell’s musical partner Jim Nunally (guitar, banjo, vocals, songwriting). “I think makes it even more accessible to an audience that loves pop and rock as well as traditional roots music.”

Jim also got to blend his personal life with music on the title cut, “Steel,” with its imagery of his calloused hands working steel and playing guitar: “I hung from oilrigs when I was 21, and played dingy bars for a pocket full of fun.” A former welder at Kaiser Steel in his native state of California – Jim says the song had been sitting in his mind for quite some time. It emerged whole one night when he and Nell put on a pot of water for pasta and went their separate ways with the challenge of writing a new song.

“I think I had been wanting to write a song like that. That content had been my life. For many years I had different jobs – such as being a welder, but I had always played music. I just wanted to write about the history of it and the transition from playing music to welding then back into music. My mother and my welding instructor both encouraged me to leave the trades and dedicate my life to music.”

A personal story of a different emotion comes to life in the breathtakingly beautiful “Prayer.” Inspired by Nell’s mother, who has lived with dementia for several years, its lyrics will stop you in your tracks.

“That song is a very emotional one for me. Given the amount of stories in my family and how important they are – we’ve got a very long tradition of storytelling that has been passed down from generation to generation and from person to person. It’s been really hard to see Mom lose her stories. Now I’m telling her stories about her own life and she’s very touched by that. For instance, I said, ‘Mom, did you know that when all of us kids were little, you would make us a birthday cake in the shape of an animal? And each year, we could pick what animal we wanted?’ It chokes me up now, because when I told her that story, she looked at me with the most delighted look on her face. She said, ‘Really? I must have been a good mother!’ It was an incredibly sweet moment. She has no memory of it, but the fact I could share that with her is a beautiful thing. When I wrote the song, it was incredibly sad to me, but working on the arrangement with our band - who are incredible human beings and talented people - somehow when I heard what they were doing with instrumental solos, the song transformed into something joyous. When I sing it, I imagine that I’m in the Grand Ole Opry and my parents are the only people in the audience. I am singing to them.”

A couple of the tracks on Steel hearken back to Jim’s musical roots – and to one of his biggest influences, David Grisman.

“’Shady Grove’ is an old Doc Watson song that I played as an encore at many shows with Grisman. I was so influenced by Doc and then David Grisman. I had played with David for 16 years and Jim [Kerwin, the band’s bass fiddle player] had played with him for 32 years – and had played the song with David and Jerry [Garcia]. So, we both had a connection with Grisman and that song. That was one of the encore pieces we used to play all the time. Jim had brought to my attention a recording that Fairport Convention had of ‘Matty Grove,’ which was the predecessor to ‘Shady Grove,’ so we turned it around and led off with ‘Shady Grove.’” Grisman’s seminal “Old and In The Way” is also included on Steel.

Jim drew inspiration for another of Steel’s tracks, “Dime in My Pocket,” from the loves and losses of an iconic music family.

“[The song] was inspired by the book ‘Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?’ -  a history of The Carter Family. In the book it mentions how A.P. and Sarah Carter still had to work together after they had split up, yet A.P. was so brokenhearted. There was a PBS television special based on the book, family members elaborated on their working together after they had separated and how A.P. could never find it in his heart to get back together with Sarah, even though there was opportunity,” Jim explains. “I wanted to write a song about this situation, and I also wanted to do it as a challenge to see if I could write a song based on another melody — sort of the way Woody Guthrie did, yet change it around to make it my own… I took the Monroe Brothers tune ‘I’m Rolling On,’ I changed the melody and chords a bit so it’s not quite recognizable as the same tune. Then wrote the words based on the A.P. and Sarah story”

To promote the new music, the Nell & Jim Band are marching to the beat of their own drummer – something they say will be of benefit to them… and possibly others in time.

“What we have decided to do is to release it on our own label. We’ve created a music and arts production company called Whippoorwill Arts. It has many projects lined up, but what it’s going to do for this album – and may do for others in the future – is to be a label. We are going to focus on getting airplay through radio and five special music videos – we want to share the new album with the world. These are our creations and our children. We’re proud of them, and we want people to hear them.”

Additionally, the band gives back to their community through two projects: the Music Home Project and the Whippoorwill Arts Awards, which provide Nell and Jim creative ways to help non-profit venues and musicians, as well as aid musicians who have lost their instruments in devastating California fires.

An all-star band backs Nell and Jim with harmonies and virtuoso instrumentals. Jim Kerwin, on bass fiddle, is recognized by fans of musicians ranging from Jerry Garcia to Yo-Yo Ma (and he’s performed with both artists). As David Grisman’s go-to bass player for over 30 years, Kerwin can be heard on the iconic recordings Garcia and Grisman did for their band Old & In The Way. In addition to Ma, Kerwin has backed some of the finest fiddlers in the world, including Stefan Grappeli. Jon Arkin plays percussion and never fails to please; his steady beat and sonic creativity have drawn world jazz talents – including Gene Perla and Lee Konitz – to hire him. New to the ensemble this year is Rob Reich on accordion and keys. Reich’s broad appeal as a composer, arranger, and performer keeps him busy with everything from Circus Bella, to acoustic chamber ensemble Tin Hat, to his new album of originals Swing Left.