They come together on the first Sunday of every month, gathering in the upstairs banquet room/music hall at Bluetick Tavern on East Broadway in downtown Maryville to hear Robin Ella Bailey — the Blount County native known as Robinella — take them on a journey.
There’s nothing on the line — no major label deals or late-night television appearances or massive festival dates to promote, all of which she’s experienced in the past, back when music was her primary focus. And there have been times, she told The Daily Times recently, that she’s even mused about hanging it up altogether — and sometimes, she added, she’ll bring it up to those who come to see her at her regular monthly gig.
“I’ve asked the audience a couple of times if I should end it, what they would think if I just kind of stopped playing, and they’re always like, ‘No, no, no!’” she said. “But I’ve thought about it a few times, that maybe I should just call it quits. But they seem to want more, so that’s the reason I keep doing it. And really, I don’t have any other reasons.”
But that may be as good a reason as any, because those in attendance might not be enough to fill up a large theater, but they’ve loved Robinella for a long time. It’s a broad mix, from friends of hers and her husband, Webster Bailey, to those with whom she attends church. There are Maryville residents who have known her since she was a young girl, growing up in the Lanier community with her parents, Jerry and Nell Tipton. There are friends and acquaintances from her time as an artist, back when she had a space at Leanne Moe McQueen’s Studio 212.
And then there are the long haulers, those individuals who have followed her since her days as a young University of Tennessee student, when Robinella and the CCstringband held a regular Sunday night residency at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville, before she had two sons and signed a deal with Columbia Records that produced a stellar album showcasing what she does best: a sublime combination of country, bluegrass, jazz and R&B-tinged pop.
“I’ll announce to them that I play music if I’m just meeting someone, because Maryville’s growing so fast,” she said. “The thing I’ve marveled at lately is that even though it’s super, super quaint — my church crowd comes, and my friends come — is really the fact that Randy (Burelson, owner of Bluetick and the Aubrey’s chain) keeps asking me to come back. I don’t think he’s ever made much money on me, but for some reason, I think he likes me.”
It’s not hard to understand why: Her lilting soprano tugs at the heart on sadder songs and makes it impossible to keep from dancing on faster ones, and her long history building a fanbase around the region has earned her loyalty from those who have found solace and comfort in her music over the years.
There’s Mike Finn, who’s been coming to see her for a couple of decades now. They became so close that Bailey used to make chocolate every Christmas with Finn’s now-deceased wife, Judy. And then there’s Steve Hobart, a fan who drives down from Ohio three or four times a year to get his Robinella fix. To Bailey, it doesn’t make sense on the surface, until she considers what music has always meant to her.
“Music is like that: It’s more than just the person playing it,” she said. “When you talk about it being a comfort, that’s really why I do it at this point in my musical career, and that’s why I continue to play that one show.”
The preparation isn’t what it used to be: The shows are just infrequent enough that she has to go back and memorize the words to some of her most popular songs on a monthly basis, and she’s still proud enough of her body of work that she insists on enlisting the aid of players who have reputations in various other genres around the East Tennessee music scene.
There’s three of the scene’s top jazz players in her band: Clint Mullican on bass (although he’ll be replaced this weekend by Daniel Kimbro); Hunter Deacon on drums; and Matt Coker on keys. Maryville resident Dave Slack sits in on bass on occasion, and another Maryville resident, Jack Wilburn, joints Barry “Po” Hannah to provide some guitar work. Mullican even suggested they convene to record a new album last year — which would have been her first since 2018’s “Get Down South” — but the pandemic interfered.
Now, she said, she’s not sure if it’ll ever happen. And if not — that’s alright, too. Because those sweet Sunday gatherings may not be what she envisioned as her musical future in her early 20s, but as a wife and a mother and a farmer and a sometimes artist and a woman who’s content with her life, it’s everything she needs.
“In my opinion, if you’ve done music right, then you’ve not made a pile of money,” she said. “In a way, musicians are comparable to preachers. Good preachers aren’t thinking about finding the big-time church with the big-time salary and the gold offering plates, and true musicians aren’t after riches. It’s more like you’ve been led around by your music and done what you’re supposed to do with it.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll never do anything besides Bluetick, but it’s very flattering that Randy’s kept me on, and that people I know come to my shows. These are people who are dear to me, people I’ve seen come back for years and years, and they keep coming. And that’s a big deal.”