Nell Robinson: A little bit of Berkeley bluegrass

When Hilary Perkins was trying to think of what she could give to her husband as a 5th wedding anniversary present, she was stumped. Her spouse, Skip Battle, was an extremely successful businessman who had almost anything he could want, so no simple trinket would do.

Perkins decided she would sing him a song, even though she was so unsure of her voice she generally only sang out loud in her car. She selected the song “Forever & Ever, Amen,” by Randy Travis and belted it out in front of the group of friends who had gathered for the occasion.

“You have never seen Skip Battle look more shocked and surprised,” said Perkins. “He was floored. He loved it and got up and finished it with me.”

Perkins was even more surprised than Battle. While she had been terrified before her performance began, once she was on stage she found herself having more fun than she had had in years.

“It was intoxicating,” said Perkins, a Berkeley resident. “It took me back to when I was a little girl and I organized shows with my sisters and friends all the time. To get that flush of excitement back at age 45 was just intoxicating and it has been a wild ride every since.”

That present of a song to her husband launched Perkins on a music career, one that has brought her high praise and increasing notice in the past five years. She has performed on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and at the Strawberry Music Festival. Her debut CD, Nell Robinson in Luango, made national bluegrass and Americana charts.

On Saturday, Perkins, who performs under the stage name Nell Robinson, will play with Jim Nunally and the All Star Band at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, considered one of the leading festivals of its type in the country.

“I am so thrilled; it is such an honor,” said Perkins, who now wears her blonde hair streaked with blue. “When I got the phone call (asking her to perform), I said, ‘Is this a joke?’”

Warren Hellman, the founder of the festival, personally sent Perkins’ CD to Dawn Holliday, who books the event,  and suggested Perkins perform. While Hellman bankrolls Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, he doesn’t have final word on which acts are selected. Fortunately Holliday liked Perkin’s music as much as Hellman does.

“I am a huge fan,” said Hellman. “I love Hilary. I love the blueness of her hair, too.”

Before the Hardy Strictly Bluegrass Festival, though, Perkins has another important gig: a party at Freight & Salvage on Thursday, Sept. 29 to celebrate the release of her second CD, Nell Robinson on the Brooklyn Road. This CD, like her first, harkens back to her family roots. (Her grandmother was named Nell Robinson.) Brooklyn Road was the name of the red dirt road leading to her family’s farm in Alabama. The songs on the album are interspersed with field recordings of stories told to Perkins by her mother and uncles.

“I am bringing people home to Alabama with me,” she said.

Before the release of her new CD, Perkins spent five weeks in Spain by herself, walking the Camino de Santiago, the road pilgrims have traveled for centuries. So much has happened in Perkins’ life the last few years, including success and the death of her father on the day she appeared on Prairie Home Companion, that she felt she needed time to slow down and process.

“Music has really changed my life,” she said. “It’s so different now. I felt it was time for me to just walk and be alone with my thought and have some of those big internal shifts settle in and see what happens.”

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  • North Berkelyite

    Love to hear Nell Robinson sing.