Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally have been melding genres their entire careers—bluegrass, folk, country, jazz, swing, alt-roots, folkabilly, you-name-it—but when it came time to put together Western Sun, their third album as the Nell & Jim Band, Robinson and Nunally wed their passion for songwriting and storytelling, using their vocabulary of way-back influences; a story told from the roots of roots music. Released today via Whippoorwill Arts, Western Sun features Robinson and Nunally as well as their stellar band—bass fiddle player Jim Kerwin (Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Yo Yo Ma), drummer/percussionist Alex Aspinall (Chris O’Connell & the Smart Alecks, Silvestre Martinez) and accordionist/keyboard player Rob Reich (Gaucho, Circus Bella). Western Sun is available today, click here to purchase.
Selections from the 15-song album have been spotlighted by a multitude of media outlets and radio stations across the country, including Folk Alley, who said, “Western Sun showcases Robinson and Nunally’s, as well as Chris Wadsworth’s, innovative songwriting and their canny ability to paint a stunningly memorable portrait through their storytelling. The Nell & Jim Band’s romp across vast musical terrains also reveals their inventive stylings, shining a warm light on traditional music.” No Depression described the album as, “An immense sweep of roots music history that takes the listener on a sonic migration from Europe through the United States to California...that they can articulate their view so lucidly using the musical heritage of their country should give hope to all those who share their view.”
Western Sun feels drenched in history, in both music and story. “The virtuosity of the band, the depth and breadth of their talent, gives us free rein in creating interesting arrangements,” says Nunally. The band has emulsified in the bottom of the great melting pot—a roux of American music—in a way that only a group of musicians with years of experience can pull off; a perfect unit whose sum is always greater than its parts, and that’s what really makes this album shine. The songwriting and composition both serve the storytelling in a way that allows listeners to immerse themselves in the history that’s being depicted. Americana Highways pinned the band’s unique sound and vision as, “Engaging Americana-roots-alt-country music on a traditional path of balladry, bluegrass, folk, & a variety of other genres in a gloriously fluid showcase...Nell sings with an old-school country singer’s clarity while Grammy Award winner San Francisco Bay area musician Jim Nunally, (a former member of the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience) plays with jubilant authenticity.”
Western Sun opens with “By Stars and Sunrise,” a tale of an immigrant who fell in love with a Tejana named Luisa on an Emigrant Trail through what is now called Texas. Co-written with Chris Wadsworth, “By Stars and Sunrise” aims to capture the feels of the Trail and immigrant experiences while studying the Gold Rush era. Nell, the band’s primary lyricist, penned the lyrics while envisioning the song’s protagonist having two children with Luisa before heading west out of necessity, seeking fortune to support their family. The songwriting trio and soaring three-part harmonies on the chorus ring triumphant when the subject returns home; healthy with a pack full of riches. Roots Music Report praised the album’s storytelling, saying, “For folks who enjoy a variety of spiritually-tinged music with compelling stories, this tightly crafted album strikes gold. Nell & Jim Band’s ‘Western Sun' is a fresh, impressionistic album that captures the passionate beauty of contemporary, acoustic music. It’s a strong, compelling set of passion, compassion and emotional impact.”
Deeper into Western Sun, we get to “Travelin’ the Road West,” a lively bluegrass number featuring instrumental breaks from Nunallys flat-picked guitar and Robinson’s signature flute – The Bluegrass Situation recently spotlighted the song, listen here. Written by Nunally about his family, “Travelin’ the Road West” follows southern and midwestern farmers during the Great Migration West of the 1930s. “I can remember my Dad said he had been called an Okie. But he was from Arkansas, his Dad was a sharecropper there. And he, his parents, and sisters moved out west looking for work and a better life in the ‘Golden State’,” recalls Nunally. “Reading The Grapes of Wrath inspired me to write about my own family’s history.” In April, American Songwriter premiered the single and said, “Nell & Jim Band hope to highlight this devastating part of American history with descriptively rich songwriting that can bring those experiences into a more grounded and humanizing light.”
In addition to literature and North American history, Nunally and Robinson also draw inspiration from European culture and folklore. Take “Limonaia,” one of the album’s lush ballads, that was inspired by the true story of Princess Ghyka in 19th century Italy, who lived just outside of Florence at Villa Gamberaia. According to local legend, Ghyka, a renowned beauty, veiled her face at 19 due to what she perceived as the flaws of aging, and continued to live at the Villa with her American companion Florence Blood before passing away at age 24. Robinson explains, “I had in mind not only the story of Ghyka but also the idea that she and her ‘companion’ may have been in love. ‘Companion’ was a term sometimes used for same-sex couples at the turn of the 20th century. Also raising my daughter in this society that still drives women to great lengths to fit a strange view of beauty, I was very aware that the story of Princess Ghyka still plays out today.” Robinson recently with Belles and Gals about the track and the struggles women face as they age—read more here.
“Sequoia Gold” is another Wadsworth-Robinson-Nunally co-write, closely resembling what it would’ve been like around Caspar Creek, CA, during the Gold Rush when the small city grew to a town of a half-million people, most of whom looked towards the redwoods and lumber business after not finding gold. “Chris’ lyrics on this are spectacular, capturing the jargon of the time and place,” say Nell and Jim. “We added a verse at the end and worked together on the chorus. The three of us had a ball playing with the harmonies.”
“The songs are really stories. Some of them historical, some from our families or how we’re reacting to what’s happening in the world,” says Robinson. “So a number of the songs on the album—most of them, really—reflect the diverse heritage and ever-changing world in which our music is created.”
For more information, please visit https://www.nellandjim.com/.
More about the Nell & Jim Band: Jim Nunally—guitarist and vocalist with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience for a decade and a half—is a third-generation roots musician. During the Dust Bowl era, his grandfather, a sharecrop farmer, emigrated from Arkansas to California, where he taught Jim’s dad how to play guitar, and Jim has expertly and passionately carried on the family tradition from his father. Jim is a certified Grammy Award participant and IBMA award winner.
Nell Robinson, born Hilary Perkins in rural Alabama, honored her own family tradition, taking her grandmother’s name when she began performing in the Bay Area at the age of 46, belatedly but ecstatically embracing the musical strains that had beguiled her during her youth.
Robinson and Nunally’s combined experiences and vast knowledge of a range of traditional idioms are further enriched and expanded by those of their virtuosic bandmates: string-bass player Jim Kerwin (Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Yo Yo Ma), drummer/percussionist Alex Aspinall (Chris O’Connell & the Smart Alecks, Silvestre Martinez) and accordionist/keyboard player Rob Reich (Gaucho, Circus Bella).
The quintet made its recording debut with 2017’s Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home and followed it up two years later with Steel. On top of their studio work, Robinson and Nunally wrangled crews of all-star musicians for live performances based on The Rose of No-Man’s Land in 2015 and Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home two year later, both filmed for the PBS concert series Music Gone Public.
Touring extensively, they have performed at the Kennedy Center, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Kate Wolf Music Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, and on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, as well as festivals and concerts in Canada and Europe.