ALL YOU NEED IS ‘LOVE’: Robinella crafts an ode to home, hearth, family and friends on new album
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
These are the snapshots from the life of Robin Ella Tipton Bailey, Robinella to those who know and love her music, circa 2013:
The look of concentration on her father’s face as he stands in the choir pit of the family’s church during Bible School, clad in overalls with the straps hanging down, clutching a guitar and leading 45 kids through a sing-along of Loretta Lynn’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.”
The smile on the face of her husband as he returns to their Lord Avenue home, tired and sweating and smelling of sweat and hard work, after an afternoon spent on the land they own in rural Blount County.
The laughter of her two sons chasing one another around Studio 212 as the tang of fresh paint fills the air.
The familiar feel of her old guitar, taken down from its perch and played in solitude on her front porch, notes and the lilting honey sounds of her voice drifting into the Maryville night on a dusky breeze.
These, she told The Daily Times this week, are the things she treasures. They’re the things she loves, and at age 38, she’s discovering the tranquility and steadiness of love in a way she hasn’t known before. It’s taken her miles and years to get to this place, and her new record — “Ode to Love” is a celebration of them all. It’s a fitting title for a girl who feels as if she’s coming into her own: as a wife, a daughter, a mother, a friend and a musician.
“I’m almost 40, and I’ve mimicked enough artists until I’ve finally started sounding like myself,” she said. “Or maybe I’ve sounded like myself all along but just didn’t have the confidence to say it. When I was younger, I had a different idea about love than I did up until not too long ago. Love, to me, is about stepping outside of myself.
“It stopping thinking about myself and starting to recognize the needs of family and friends and everyone around me. It’s about taking care of your husband, about learning to be a parent. It’s going to the movies with friends and if one of them forgets something, leaving to go get it for them and not minding that you’re going to miss part of the movie. It’s forgetting about yourself.”
And in so doing, she’s discovered, finding who she really is. For so long, the girl born in the Lanier community measured success by the number of shows played, records sold and tours booked. These days, as an unofficial artist-in-residence at Studio 212 and a re-emerging singer-songwriter who will offer up “Ode to Love” at the WDVX-FM Meadowlark Music Festival at the end of the month, she’s content. And that, she added, is worth more than any amount of record contract residuals and ticket sales revenue could ever buy.
“Before, if you asked me about the future, my answer probably had something to do with music and my musical goals,” she said. “Now, it’s family — the boys, Webster (Bailey, her husband) and me. Everything else is on the side. We’ve reached our goals: We’re taking care of our boys, and I’ve got a wonderful circle of friends to be with. There’s less pressure, and I don’t feel like I have to prove anything.”
Most folks who follow music around these parts know Robinella’s story, and even those with a passing acquaintance to homegrown artists are probably familiar with how she became an East Tennessee country/jazz icon. In college, she formed The Stringbeans with her ex-husband, Cruz Contreras, and local singer-songwriter Jay Clark; after Clark moved away, she and Contreras started Robinella and the CCstringband. Over the next several years, the group rose to the top of the East Tennessee music scene, signing a contract with Columbia Records and putting out a follow-up on the Dualtone label. They toured across the country, landed a hit video for the song “Man Over” on Country Music Television and played “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” She still found time for a standing gig at Barley’s that lasted for 11 years until she called it quits in August 2009.
But then trouble came calling. She and Contreras divorced, which meant the band that was so popular was no more. She was a single mom balancing a music career and a young son. She made it work, however, eventually meeting Bailey and marrying again. In 2010, she released “Fly Away Bird,” her last studio album, and a live record, “Sunday Kind of Love,” a farewell to her Barley’s gig.
“The last album was a divorce record,” she said. “This time, I wanted to make an album of love songs.”
“Ode to Love” still draws from the past: “Genuine Love,” a torch song that puts her in the role of a perfectly styled lounge singer in a long red dress singing in front of a jazz band, was a song she wrote with Contreras but never recorded because it didn’t fit on any of the CCstringband releases; “My Crazy Love,” recorded with fellow Blount County musician Mike McQueen, also dates back to the CCstringband days but is one Contreras never cared for, she said.
“They’re all positive songs,” she said of the new record. “‘Cry For Me Sometime’ might be the saddest one on there, but it’s not too sad; it’s about a person who’s dead and in the grave, singing to a person still alive. ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ everybody will recognize the chorus, but the band helped arrange that song, and I wrote new verses and a new melody for it. It’s traditional, but it’s my own, too.”
“Ode to Love” is also the least country album Robinella has ever done. She’s long flirted genre boundaries, and on the new album, she channels her inner jazz chanteuse more than ever before. The driving force behind it is jazz guitarist and producer Frank Vignola, who’s worked as a sideman to Madonna, Ringo Starr and Leon Redbone, among others; she traveled to Connecticut to record for two days with Vignola — who also played on it — and then finished it up at Wild Chorus Studio in Knoxville. Guest performers on the album include dobro master Rob Ickes, jazz vocalist and string bassist Nicki Parrott, Blount County bluegrass phenom Jesse Gregory on mandolin, Blount County boy and Knoxville Jazz Orchestra bandleader Vance Thompson on trumpet, harmonica player Michael Crawley and her band: bass player Taylor Coker, guitarist Mike Seal, drummer Nolan Nevels and keyboard player Justin Haynes, the latter two of whom perform with her in the R&B side project Pulse.
The instrumentation on the record is more intricate, more complex; her vocals more relaxed and playful; the songs themselves more languid and confident. “Ode to Love” is the soundtrack to a mesmerizing waltz between two well-dressed and glamorous lovers, exchanging secret smiles and soft cheek-to-cheek caresses as they float across a dance floor before an admiring crowd that can’t take its collective eyes off of them.
Is Robinella one of the dancers, body locked and hands pressed to her husband? Is she the girl with the band, serenading them? Take your pick. She’s content with either role, because it’s the music — the love that it embodies — that sets the scene.
“I’ve learned more about love from my kids and from other people in the past few years,” she said. “With Cruz, we were in a mad dash to see who came out first, and it shouldn’t have been that way. We were artists together, creating together, and it’s hard to make anything else your focus when you live like that.
“With Webster, our focus is on Cash and Beau. We focus on family the most, and he’s been an example for me of how not to be selfish. Plus, he’s real good-looking, and he smells really good!”
(One song on the new album, “I Ache for You,” was written during her courtship with Bailey.)
“Ode to Love” will be celebrated when Robinella plays the Meadowlark Festival, but copies of the CD should be ready to sell by next week. Copies will be available at The Village Tinker and Studio 212, both in downtown Maryville, and she hopes the new album will lead to more opportunities to share it with her longtime fans. (She’s currently in negotiations to revive a modified version of her regular Barley’s gig at the soon-to-open location in downtown Maryville.)
She’s realistic about her musical future — Contreras, she pointed out, has found a great deal of post-CCstringband success with his band, The Black Lillies, and sometimes she can’t help but compare herself to what he’s done in the years since the old band split. But then something comes along, like a recent five-day trip to Minnesota and Kentucky. She’s apart from her family, her husband, her sons, her friends ... her comfortable porch and her art studio and her small-town sunsets ... from her church and her friends and her life ... and she realizes that she’s chosen wisely when it comes to her life today.
After all, she’s chosen love.
“I’ve fallen off the cliff in terms of popularity, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less a singer or an artist; I’ve just decided to put other things first,” she said. “I enjoyed that trip to Minnesota and Kentucky, but that was a nice limit for me. These days, when someone calls me and wants me to play out of town, I have to ask, ‘How much will you pay me to leave everyone?’
“I played a wedding last weekend, and a lot of people asked me, ‘Are you still playing music?’ I try to explain to them that my guitar is always hanging in my house, and I pick it up and play it when I’m inspired to write a song. I’m always playing it, but not everybody hears it. And any more, I just focus on one show at time.”