Celebrity Access: The Nell And Jim Band Talk Roots Music, Inclusion, Coffee

June 2, 2019  by Joe Reinartz

BERKELEY, Calif. (CelebrityAccess) Jim Nunally and Nell Robinson are the duo fronting the aptly named Nell And Jim Band, an acoustic quintet grounded in bluegrass, Americana and even a little jazz.

The act has had its share of accolades, notably for the most recent Steel album (“The sheer purity of their voices, and stark arrangements of these songs, and the gorgeous lyrics – All Music Guide), and rightly so, considering Nunally’s pedigree, if not that of the other members as well.

Nunally was the guitarist and vocalist with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience for over 13 years. He is a recipient of two Grammy and IBMA Awards and is a two-time Western Open Flatpicking Guitar champion. His work is featured on soundtracks for The Beverly Hillbillies Movie, among others.

Robinson has been described as a “modern-day Patsy Cline” and “one of the freshest voices in roots music.” She was a non-profit executive for 20 years and her last position was with the nonprofit magazine Mother Jones as Chief Philanthropy Officer.

We talked to the couple as they traveled the highways and bi-ways, focusing on two main concerns: 1) How does one go from working at a magazine to a full-time band? and, 2) What’s the deal with roasting coffee?

The Nell and Jim Band are: Nell Robinson on flute & vocals, Jim Nunally on guitar & vocals, Jim Kerwin on bass fiddle, Alex Aspinall on percussion, and Rob Reich on accordion & keyboards. Tour dates are available here.

How did this go from someone working at Mother Jones to becoming a band?

Nell: We met through a workshop I started at the Freight & Salvage called “Take The Stage Workshop.” I hired Jim to coach the band. When it came time to put out my first album, I thought it would be fun to half the album be produced by Laurie Lewis and the other half by Jim.

We got to know each other in the studio. The second album was all Jim and he brought in John Reischman & The Jaybirds to back most of the tracks. When it came time to tour the album, On The Brooklyn Road, Jim talked to the Jaybirds to see if they’d like to tour with me. We did that for about a year. I got to know Jim and all the wonderful Jaybirds, who were extraordinary musicians and humans.

At some point, we went to a radio station to promote the album. Coming back, Jack suggested we do a duo. I have to tell you, I was floored. Jim is a world-class musician and I didn’t feel worthy. But I was smart enough to take the chance. I was musically outmatched but he liked the blend of our voices.

We started working on a duo album and writing music together. Over the course of that album, touring, and releasing a project called The Rose Of No-Man’s Land, a live show I had founded and was to be a show on PBS, produced by Joe Henry, we began to put together a live band. I had a lot of good friends on there, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Doe, and writer Maxine Hong Kingston.

Through touring with that band, we got to know more about them, and put together our own sound. Jim and I gelled with deciding to front our own band. We came together with the album Baby, Let’s Take The Long Way Home. Right around that time, this collegial and musical partnership deepened. It grew into love.

That’s an absolutely wonderful thing because I can honestly say he’s my best friend and to fall in love with that is a gift.

It’s a long journey that brought us here, and we landed in clover.

Jim: Nell said something that is key to this: The Jazz School in Berkeley accepts us because we have these great players in the band that are actually jazz musicians even though Jim Kerwin has played with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in Old & In The Way. Our accordion player, Rob Reich, does everything including writing circus music, and our drummer has played with Asleep At The Wheel and great, old country artists. The band is an eclectic band. And Nell is playing the flute, and plays an amazing solo at the end of a Grisman instrumental. It’s an amazing tour. People come up at every gig saying, man, tell me about your flutist.

It’s really a trip. Her skill is amazing – not just as a singer and songwriter.