Nell Robinson: Let a thousand flowers bloom

Hilary Perkins, aka Nell Robinson, plays the Freight in downtown Berkeley on Saturday. Photo: courtesy Nell Robinson

As a musician, Berkeley’s Hilary Perkins may be a late bloomer, but she’s on the cusp of earning a well-deserved spot on the national stage. A singer-songwriter steeped in bluegrass, country and old-time songs, she performs and records as Nell Robinson, a moniker adopted in honor of her Alabama-raised grandmother. In just a few years, she’s released three critically hailed albums and patiently honed an arresting musical production exploring the stateside costs of American military engagements.

Perkins returns to Freight & Salvage on Saturday with the latest incarnation of the show, formerly known as Soldier Stories and now rechristened as The Rose Of No Man’s Land, with a glittering cast of collaborators including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Doe, Maxine Hong Kingston, and guitarist Jim Nunally (Perkins’ steady musical partner). Perkins is donating proceeds from the concert to support hiring a full-time chaplain for the Berkeley Food and Housing Project.

“The music has grown and the stories have expanded,” says Perkins, who credits Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry, with whom she’s been recording an album based on the show, as a primary catalyst in the production’s evolution. “It’s gone in this new direction, lush and spacious, almost like a movie, and that’s Joe’s influence.”

The production now takes its name from a 1918 song celebrating the Red Cross nurses who worked at the frontlines in World War I. Perkins came to feel that Soldier Stories didn’t capture the diversity of voices included in the show, which intersperses letters written by soldiers from the front with an array of songs drawn from various sources (including Rodney Crowell, Johnny Cash, and originals by Perkins and Nunally). First moved to create the show when her brother in law enlisted to fight in Iraq, Perkins found further inspiration in her family when she sought to bring in stories from back home as well as those deployed.

“I got my very talented nephew, Henry, a writer in LA, to travel around the country and record some of the old lion’s in the family, uncles, aunts, cousins, even my mother,” Perkins says. “Now we have stories from the perspective of soldiers, loved ones and parents, all the people effected by war and service. Rose Of No Man’s Land seemed to capture that spirit, acknowledging a feminine presence in the midst of war.”

Since it premiered eight years ago at the Freight, the show has found rapt audiences around the country, including at a sold-out night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. But Saturday’s production may well reach much further, as it’s being taped for broadcast on PBS by veteran producer Peter Berkow, who’s launching a new public television concert showcase called “Sierra Stages.” He’s worked with numerous folk, rock and roots musicians, including the Bay Area band Blame Sally, and is responsible for turning Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel into a phenomenon with a series of scorching concert videos (which have become a staple of public television fundraising drives).

“She’s an amazing voice, and a strong stage presence,” said Berkow from his home in Chico. “I was captivated by her music and by her story. She embodies something very important. You can start doing music at any point. She made a decision relatively late in life to get out on stage. There are all these preconceived notions that you have to start really young. But she’s come into her own and she made things happen really quickly. She attracts the best players, like Jim Nunally and Keith Little. She’s writing songs with Laurie Lewis. People are drawn to her and want to work with her.”

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Robinson is joined at the Freight by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Doe, Maxine Hong-Kingston and Julian Lopez Morillas. The band includes Jim Nunally, Keith Little, Sam Grisman, Craig Eastman, and jazz percussionist Zach Harmon. Photo: courtesy the Freight

While The Rose Of No Man’s Land is bigger and more ambitious than ever before, in her own music Perkins has been stripping things down to essentials. Released last month, her third album House & Garden (Nell Robinson Music) eschews a bluegrass band in favor of Nunally’s consummate guitar work and harmony vocals.

The album’s original concept included string band instrumentation, but “when we were rehearsing a couple of songs to prepare the band arrangements, I thought we don’t need a band. Just two voices a guitar and a story. We both have a deep love of front-porch country music.”

Focusing on their original songs, the project grew out of their rehearsals at his Crockett studio, where he has nurtured a strawberry plant grown from a cutting taken from his late father’s berry patch.

“My uncle Allen crossbred azaleas and named them after his nieces, who he dearly loved,” Perkins says. “We started thinking how our gardens are such incredibly rich metaphors for our lives and relationships. That started us writing, writing, writing and ended up inspiring these songs.”

When she’s not working with Nunally, Perkins performs backed up by John Reischman
 and the Jaybirds, and in her yodeling duo with Cary Sheldon, the Henriettas, a project devoted to the music of
 the DeZurik Sisters, Grand Ole Opry stars of the 1930s and ’40s.

“I’m drawn to stories,” Perkins says. “I’ve realized that’s the common theme in all of my projects.”

Related:
Nell Robinson: A little bit of Berkeley bluegrass (09.28.11)

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events — the calendar is free and self-serve.

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  • Chris

    Another thoughtful, well-written music article. Thanks!