Black Music Matters Festival

Nell and Jim Band

Western Sun – 2020 (Whippoorwill Arts)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Nell and Jim Band

Nell Robinson is a veteran singer and flautist whose resume includes appearances on Prairie Home Companion and tours with folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Guitarist Jim Nunnally has been a fixture on the West Coast bluegrass and folk scene for several decades, known widely as part of David Grisman's band, but also for his work with John Reischman's excellent band, The Jaybirds. After first collaborating as Nell and Jim in 2013 with a follow-up disc in 2017, they return with their band (Rob Reich, keyboards and accordion; Jim Kerwin, bass; and Alex Aspinall, percussion), joined by vocalist Chris Wadsworth who co-wrote several of the 15 tracks.

"Americana" is a term that in recent years in the music industry has often been used to denote "we don't know what else to call it," music that is difficult to apply a convenient label to, and it is true that "Western Sun" does not quite fit into any standard marketing category. On the other hand, "Americana" turns out to fit nicely with the album's underlying theme of the stories of the countless people from around the world and within the U.S., from colonial to relatively modern times, who have headed to the West in wagon trains and overloaded Ford pickup trucks looking for a better life - sometimes finding it, sometimes not.

Nunnally draws on his own family's story, with some help from John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" for "Travelin' The Road West," a tale of striking out for the Golden State in "a bucket of rust"; "In My Beautiful Dream" is an upbeat tune with a "Bakersfield" feel to it, kind of like Buck Owens might have sounded if he'd had an accordion in his band; and the "Handsome Medley" dips into the traditional repertoire that many of the emigrants took with them, putting "The Handsome Cabin Boy" and "Handsome Molly" back-to-back.

The arrangements are adventurous, to say the least, highlighted by one of the four instrumentals, the well-worn bluegrass standard "Clinch Mountain Backstep". This version begins with an extended drum solo and works in bass, flute, accordion and - yes - banjo solos along its five-minute way. Ralph Stanley never did it quite that way, but he probably would have liked it. Despite the innovative approach to the arrangements, though, the emphasis is on the melodic qualities of the music throughout, there are no forays into extended progressive jazz chords and solos. It's all about the songs, and Robinson and Nunnally are both quality vocalists who get plenty of support from their band on that score as well.

This is not run-of-the-mill bluegrass, folk or any other easy-to-label class of music. Iflooking for comfortable clichés and themes, this album may not be quite your cup of tea. But these are all outstanding, accomplished musicians, and they're making music that's worth paying attention to.