RobinElla makes beguiling music that has no name. The acclaimed singer-songwriter has had folks struggling with descriptions as long as she has been making music. She has slipped in and out of genres ranging from bluegrass to jazz, always dodging labels. Her new CD Solace for the Lonely is no exception.
The tragic “Whippin’ Wind” could pass for a mountain folk tune. “Press On” is a lovely spiritual, while “Solace for the Lonely” adds a hot jazz fiddle to its spiritual text. “All I’ve Given” and “Waiting” could be pages from Billie Holiday’s songbook. “Down the Mountain” and “Come Back My Way” are melodic country tunes. “Little Boy” has a funky groove, while “Teardrops” is a slow heartbreaker. “Break it Down” and “I Fall in Love as Much as I Can” are jazzy tracks, and RobinElla’s version of the Melanie classic “Brand New Key” is pure pop pleasure.
“One thing I can say about my music is that I write all different types of songs,” says RobinElla. “It’s not like I’m stuck in one mode or anything. And our band was like this from the beginning.”
Longtime fans will be pleasantly surprised to hear that RobinElla’s sound has taken a leap forward on this collection. Solace for the Lonely adds new electronic, keyboard and percussion layers to her acoustic musical base. But RobinElla hasn’t changed that drastically. The charm of her music remains intact. Her style has more depth because of her evolution.
On stage, she has an undeniable charisma. Perhaps that’s because she has been singing in public her whole life. “As a kid, I was always very outgoing. I guess I might have been a bit of a ham. My dad has nine brothers and sisters, and they all play and sing. He was also the song leader at our church, so I grew up singing there.”
Born Robin Ella Tipton, she was raised in the mountains of East Tennessee. Her highly musical family enjoyed the sounds of Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, among many others. The singer-guitarist stayed close to home when she went off to college, enrolling in Knoxville’s University of Tennessee as an art major.
“I wrote my first songs when I was in my freshman or sophomore year in college. But I didn’t know if they were any good or not: I only played them for myself.”
Multi-instrumentalist Cruz Contreras had grown up near Nashville, so he had also developed a love of country music. But at the University of Tennessee he became a jazz piano major. After he and RobinElla met at school, they formed the bluegrass band Stringbeans with some fellow students in 1997. Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s alternative weekly, honored Stringbeans as Best Bluegrass Group in its 1999 Readers Poll,
But by then, the group had dissolved. When various members graduated from UT, they drifted apart. Cruz and RobinElla married in 1998 and a year later formed RobinElla and the CCstringband (“CC” for bandleader Cruz Contreras). By this time, RobinElla had discovered jazz vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. So as it evolved, the new band began incorporating jazz elements into its country sound. Her winsome Appalachian accent coupled with jazz vocal phrasing, plus the group’s acoustic instrumental prowess, soon set it far apart from others.
“When Cruz and I first started playing music, we’d often just play jazz,” RobinElla recalls. “We used to practice jazz standards and began incorporating them in our gigs. We would move from a bluegrass standard, to a jazz standard and back to something classic country.”
The group recorded its first album, RobinElla and the CCstringband, in 2000. A second CD called No Saint, No Prize followed in 2001. Both were on the independent label Big Gulley Records. Although the sound was increasingly eclectic, Metro Pulse gave three Best Bluegrass Band awards to the group and added two for RobinElla as Best Female Vocalist in 2001 and 2002.
The group’s reputation rapidly spread beyond Knoxville. Columbia Records liked what it heard and signed RobinElla in 2002. The label took seven songs from the band’s two prior albums and released them as the CD Blanket for My Soul that year. Next came 2003’s RobinElla and the CCstringband, which resulted in their first truly national exposure.
“RobinElla emotes like a melancholy angel, with one wing in a jazz club and the other in a honky-tonk,” raved The Atlanta Journal & Constitution. “She sings country-influenced jazz that is positively silky,” added The Boston Globe. “RobinElla Contreras…draws comparisons to Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday,” marveled No Depression. “It’s a country-swing-bluegrass-jazz-fusion taste treat,” said Billboard. Reviewers agreed that this was music that was unquestionably genre bending but undeniably wonderful.
RobinElla sang on NPR’s “Mountain Stage,” appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and performed on PBS’s “SoundStage.” CMT aired RobinElla’s video of “Man Over.” Conan O’Brien featured her on his NBC show. The group toured nationally, opening for Bob Dylan, Kasey Chambers, Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, Nickel Creek, Robert Earl Keen, Del McCoury and Rodney Crowell, among others. RobinElla also performed at the Bonnaroo music festival in 2003.