Nell Robinson,
On the Brooklyn Road
(Red Level, 2011)

On the Brooklyn Road, you're in the Deep South, beside a tiny Alabama hamlet where Nell Robinson, in her adult life a resident of the Bay Area, grew up. Brooklyn Road is a fond if unsentimental remembrance of that life, supplemented on occasion by voices of her rural relatives recalling the old days. The music is all acoustic, drawn from regional waters where bluegrass, folk and country still swim in their natural habitat.

A first-rate downhome vocalist, Robinson sings in a crisp, soulful alto-soprano that richly serves the material. That material is a mix of originals, traditional and modern folk, and mid-century country (including Hank Williams's gospel standard "I Saw the Light" and Loretta Lynn's career-launching "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl"). For good or ill, depending on how you feel about such, Robinson can't help falling victim to the urge to cover Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love," preserving it -- as how else? -- as unapologetic schlock and guilty pleasure. (In that department, I confess, I would have preferred the equally dumb yet irresistible "It's Now or Never.") The core of her back-up band here consists of the respected likes of John Reischman & the Jaybirds. The album, in short, has everything and everybody in the place they need to be.

You can liken Robinson to Gillian Welch, Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Emmylou Harris (in her country-folk days, anyway) without doing injustice to anybody on any side. Robinson is good at all she attempts on this, her second CD -- I somehow missed the first -- but among the qualities that separate her from the just-mentioned masters is her sense of humor, notable in her romantically dubious "Don't Light My Fire" and on her and sister Cary Sheldon's yodeling-chicken harmonies on "Crawdad Song." If that latter doesn't crack you up, you need to have your personal laugh track looked at.

On the other hand, the neo-oldtime ballads "Red Clay Creek" (written by Robinson) and "Wahatchee" (co-composed with Laurie Lewis), both based on historical events, are grim indeed. Jim Scott's "The Last Old Shovel," a favorite of hard-core mountain bluegrass bands, and Richard Brandenburg's "Mayflies" are just plain heart-breaking. Robinson's way with a song takes her convincingly through sorrow, comedy, and all points between.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 October 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new