Timeless songs of migration, immigration and assimilation
Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally both have roots in America’s deep South, musically and personally. On Western Sun, the third album they’ve made as Nell & Jim Band, they explore themes of migration, immigration and assimilation, with the help of their songwriting friend, Chris Wadsworth.
“The album was the apex of several years of hard work,” Nunally said. “We were building our sound as a band, writing original music together, and with our friend Chris, and arranging the music with a group of great players.”
“The album title refers to the new songs we co-wrote with Chris,” Robinson said. “Tunes about the hopes and dreams of those who have migrated West and North, stories about the heartbreak and sacrifices they made along the way. This is a theme that is still very moving to us and very relevant. The current U.S./Mexico border policies have been monstrous and magnify the suffering of people already desperate. It’s disgusting. We love people of all cultures and are lucky to be able to hear and celebrate the enriching blend of sounds, languages and new instruments that immigrants’ music brings into our communities and our lives.”
“We recorded the album before the pandemic was in full swing,” Nunally said. “It was difficult releasing it during the COVID shutdown. Our shows in Europe, Canada and the U.S. were canceled. As the quarantines were spreading, we decided to continue our exploration of the themes on Western Sun by collaborating with film-makers. We created short films for a handful of tracks.”
“We both come from rural working-class families,” Robinson said. “We can look to our grandparents’ generation for some stories of real hardship. We identify with, and have a special love and admiration for, working people. We believe their lives and their stories are important.”
When the duo put together the program for Western Sun, they used new arrangements of songs they’d previously recorded or played live, as well as the material they composed with Wadsworth with this collection in mind. The band included Jim Kerwin, who played bass in the David Grisman Band, drummer Alex Aspinal and Rob Reich on accordion and keyboards. Robinson played flute and sang; Nunally played guitar, banjo and sang. They cut most of the songs live, with the help of producer Lowell Levinger, who was known as Banana, when he played with The Youngbloods.
“Lowell understood what we were going for,” Nunally said. “Having a set of ears focused on our performances and the intricate differences between takes really speeds up the process.”
The arrangements on the album include elements of folk, rock, bluegrass, country and world music. “By Stars and Sunrise” is a quiet country ballad. It’s played with subtle rock and Irish music flourishes supporting Nunally’s bluegrass harmonies, as he sings of an interracial couple’s journey from Texas to California. The lyrics of “The Fire ” reference the devastation of the prairie fires that sent homesteaders West in the last century, as well as the California fires of recent years. It’s a quiet mid tempo tune that opens with ambient accordion notes. Nunally finger picks the melody, while Robinson sings of a family trying to escape from disaster. While the father looks on helplessly, his wife and child are swept away by the river that was to be their refuge from the flames.
The album lightens things up with several instrumentals that allow the band to stretch out. “Poland” is a polka taken at a rapid tempo. The band learned it when they played at a Polish music festival a few years back. “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” a traditional tune made popular by Ralph Stanley, is played in an arrangement that has a mix of international styles. “We begin with the African origins of the banjo,” Nunally said. “Alex created an improvised percussion intro, then we blend into a jazzy bass call and response with the drums. When the flute comes in, we hear the Irish influence. Then the banjo arrives, and we’re into the Scots-Irish influences, as heard in the music of the Stanley Brothers and this tune, in particular.”
With the COVID situation still in flux, Nunally and Robinson are adopting a wait-and-see approach. “We felt stunted during the pandemic,” Nunally said. “That was the time of the least songwriting we’ve done since we have known each other, almost 15 years. I found the press focus on musicians ‘enjoying a break from touring’ to be very misleading. Most of the musicians we know were in mourning over the loss of performances, and income from touring and album sales.
“As for band plans, we aren’t making any at the moment,” Nunally continued. “We are focusing on getting back in musical shape. We are starting from the ground up, going back and looking through all our songs and refreshing ourselves. There is a lot of material, and one forgets just how vast and great the old stuff is when you haven’t visited it in a while.”
To find out more about the band, the solo careers of Nunally and Robinson and upcoming dates, visit their website, nellandjim.com. Listen to their music on Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/nellrobinsonjimnunallyband. Robinson and Nunally also run the Whippoorwill Arts and the Music aLIVE projects, nonprofits that help the roots music community organize free concerts. More at whippoorwillarts.org.