Hooked on Bluegrass

Hilary "Nell Robinson" Perkins

I got hooked in many different ways, all around the same time. My love of singing is intertwined with my love of bluegrass. A little over 3 years ago, at age 45, I started on a path that kept winding it’s way to bluegrass. As with wine appreciation, my understanding started out with whatever I randomly found and then as I learned what I liked, my appetite grew for understanding the complexity of this form of music. And like wine, I still like what I like – whether it’s “real” bluegrass or not.

Steps on the path:

I listened to and obsessed on the sound track from O Brother Where Art Thou. Then my brother sent me a gift of O Sister and O Sister II – which I further obsessed on.

For my 5th wedding anniversary, I secretly prepared a song to sing to my husband (Skip). I had not sung in public since I was 9. For over 30 years, I had been singing alone in the car, especially for the many years I had a pickup truck with no radio. I loved to sing but it was an underground, private activity. Full of terror, literally feeling as if I were having an out-of-body-experience, I stood and sang a song to Skip, among family and close friends. He came up and joined me to finish a song we both really love. We shared a part of ourselves with each other and people we love. Out of terror…bliss.

Then came the Closet Musicians Workshop at the Sweetwater and two sessions with others like me, who wanted to explore bluegrass and country music. This was in the period of randomly picking songs I liked. I learned about connecting with the audience – they turned on a light in me - and I did not want to ever turn that light off again.

My friend David invited me around that time to a neighborhood bluegrass jam. Well, geez, there was Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, there was Suzy and Eric Thompson and many others. I hid behind a plant and listened. I asked someone what was bluegrass: this fellow (and I don’t know who it was) looked at me like “how did you get in here” when I asked if Alison Krauss was bluegrass (he said “Who is she?”). Along with the welcoming and open folks, there are also the snobs.

Somehow I got the nerve to search for Laurie’s website later that day and saw she listed her email (I thought what the heck, doesn’t she realize people like me will try to get in touch with her?!). I wrote her an email and asked in a very sheepish way whether she would consider giving me a lesson. We met that night! Thus began 3 years of work and music, laughter and tears, and friendship with Laurie. I love the songs that make me cry. This was the first of my many encounters with the generosity and inclusiveness of the bluegrass community.

I grew up in a family deeply steeped in old country music from a listening perspective – all the many forms were interesting to me because I enjoy variety, not because I really understood their history or musical structure. I understood music generally – I am a classically trained flutist. But what can I say – like wine – I just liked what I liked and thought about it no further. With Laurie’s training, and songs shared by many friends, I now hear so much more.

I am hooked on the harmonies and the occasional haunting and electrifying discord, the flat 7s, the possibilities of making something interesting with a melody; the crisp mandolin chops, the fiddle cry, the guitar flat-picking; the bounce of the banjo; the drive; the sad, sad songs may be my favorite.

I completely lucked into forming a band after I strangely got a gig. For their willingness to give me a chance after booking me by mistake, Caffe Trieste in North Beach has a special place in my heart – as do the musicians who performed with me in my first band (Brian Judd, Jacob Groopman, Andrew Conklin, Jonathan Schiele, Larry Chung, Dan Booth). Our music brought something to life in me.

It has only been since I began singing that I have looked for family connections to roots music. Maybe I am trying to overcome the messages that may have led my singing to go underground in the first place: I am a private, behind the scenes person!; Don’t sing through your nose! (little did I know it could be an asset!); Sing like other girls; Don’t sing in public, that’s showing off!; and so on.

I named my band after my grandmother (Nell Robinson) and a town near the family farm in rural south Alabama (Red Level) where my mother grew up. It provides me some sense of connection to know some family stories: my mother has a beautiful voice and always sang in church (and cried during the music), Uncle Carroll could sing like Hank Snow, Great Uncle Milton played the banjo and sang. Of course, Uncle Milton was the wild one – as a young man, he left the farm to travel the country boxing; he also taught me (and all the great-grandkids and cousins) how to roll my own cigarettes.

I discovered the CBA – thanks to Larry Carlin, another person who has been incredibly giving with time, advice, encouragement, – and joined. As part of a community that has been so generous to me, I feel a need to give back. I created a workshop in 2007 called Take the Stage – a band performance workshop at the Freight & Salvage for closet musicians. People apply (I must admit I have not turned down a single person yet) and we group them into bands, who work with a professional coach (like the many-talented Dave Zimmerman) for 8 weeks, culminating in a show at the Freight. This program is about music – but it feels like all love to me. People love the music and they share a part of themselves that brings that love right back at them. The last show was sold out – people were high for days.

Next step in the path is songwriting. My southern family has lots of great story-tellers – something I never felt I could do well. But at this point in my life, I have lyrics coming out my ears. Not too many melodies, darn it – but they are slowly emerging. I am working on a song about my Dad right now – called Butch – his nickname as a kid. I am recording that and more of mine and friends’ this April.

So the obsession continues and grows...I am on a Stanley Brothers binge right now – East Virginia Blues, The Memory of Your Smile, geez what beats that!? Well, maybe singing about my Dad

(posted 3/22/2009)

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