They’ve never sunk their claws into Nell Robinson personally, but the twin specters of addiction and alcoholism have long stalked her family, emerging from the shadows over years and miles to make her loved ones bleed.
In December 2018, however, they were not content to simply wound. They claimed the life of her niece, Gigi, the daughter of her sister, Leslie, and at 59 years old, Robinson — who performs as half of the Nell and Jim Band, which recently released the new album, “Western Sun” — finds herself turning to music as a way to mourn her niece’s passing and to lift her soul up out of the quagmire that was her end.
In fact, “Hurricane,” the fifth track of “Western Sun,” is dedicated to Gigi, whose struggle is brought to life in the tropical storms that regularly batter the Florida Panhandle she called home. Gigi’s addiction may have been the storm, but some of the lines, Robinson told The Ties That Bind Us recently, were taken from her sister, who stood unflinchingly in the maelstrom of her daughter’s death and inspired Robinson with her strength, her fortitude and her sorrow.
“I didn’t know what to say, but my sister really inspired me, and I feel like this is a story I can bring out through music,” Robinson said. “In the live shows where we’ve sang it over the last year, at every show, without exception, at least one person came up and said, ‘I have a hurricane in my life,’ and they’ve shared their stories, and it’s just so powerful. The song has evolved over the years, and it partly evolved from those interactions with people.
“And to be surrounded by this band, where we’re all emotionally connected as well as musically connected, was amazing. I can weep and they can week, and we laugh and rip each other like siblings and even have our disagreements at times. But every time I sang this song, they held the story and held me with their presence, with their love, and with what they express through their playing.
“It’s just a little blessing to give to my niece, to perhaps comfort her in a way,” she added. “Like the song says — ‘be at peace, baby, struggle no more.’”
Southern roots and family ties
Robinson was born in Dothan, Alabama, and family is the heartbeat that pounds out a steady rhythm of idyllic childhood memories. Summers were spent in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood with her grandparents and her Uncle Alan, and she remembers Friday trips to the community library, where she staggered out the door with a stack of books taller than she was. Her father’s people hailed from the Birmingham area, devout Christians who frowned on alcohol and obscenities, while her mother’s relatives lived in the small, unincorporated community of Brooklyn, Alabama, almost three hours to the south.
“My mom grew up in this very rural area, just surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, and when I was a kid, you could walk down the road, and every house for miles on the right or the left would be kinfolk,” she said. “My dad was in the military, and we moved every couple of years, so it was wonderful to go back to Alabama and be known and seen within a context, within a history. That held a lot of meaning for me.”
She grew up with younger twin sisters and a brother who was six years older, and the transfer of their father’s duty stations brought them closer together. Today, distance has separated them, but in reminiscing about the past, Robinson’s voice swells with the sweet ache of love and longing for simpler times. She counts herself and her siblings fortunate, she said, that they had strong role models to draw upon when they began to produce offspring of their own.
“When my sisters and brother and I had children, we had spun out all over the country,” Robinson said. “I was in California; one sister was in Illinois; Leslie was in Florida; and my brother was in Virginia, so our experience as aunts and uncles was quite different from how we grew up. Our family on both sides was really concentrated and really intense, and they tended to have really big gatherings and reunions, and we could go there and get to know two generations of family.
“We so to this day treasure our aunts and uncles, and so when I would go to visit my sister in Illinois, for instance, we would do what our aunts and uncles did: We would sit on the lawn and just watch the kids run and play, while we sat there and caught up and talked and drank iced tea. We tried to get all of the kids together at once, and we were able to do that many times over their childhoods.”
Robinson’s brother had children first, and his oldest son is the elder of his generation. Robinson’s own daughter, Cass, now lives in Berkeley, California. Her younger sister, Lynne, lives with her husband and two sons less than two hours from the farm where their mother grew up. And Leslie wound up adopting three children: Zoe, the baby, who recently graduated from the University of Alabama; Josh, who’s working as an electrician’s apprentice; and Gigi, the oldest.
The Nell and Jim Band is born
One of Robinson’s earliest memories of Gigi was before she came home to live with her parents, when Robinson flew from California to Florida to help Leslie paint and organize the nursery. Life quickly pushed her back to the West Coast, however, where she landed when she was just 16 years old. At the time, she was still Hilary Perkins, but taking her grandmother’s name for the purpose of performance, she began to embrace the traditions of music that fed her soul as a child.
“Both of our parents were devout Christians, and I remember sitting in the pews with my feet not long enough to touch the ground, listening to the choir, and my mother would sit in church, and tears would stream down her face,” Robinson said. “She and I were alike in that we’re introverts and very quiet people for the most part, but when she spoke, she spoke loud. She was a very deep person, and she was deeply moved by church and a beautiful sermon and beautiful music. I think I connected that deep emotional impact, sitting by my mom in church, to the power of music.”
After performing for several years in the Bay Area, Robinson met Jim Nunally, who had performed as a guitarist and vocalist with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience for more than a decade and whose musical roots were also familial in nature: His grandfather was a Dust Bowl sharecropper who taught his son to play the guitar, a tradition that was passed down to Nunally. In seeking a producer for her 2010 album “Loango,” Nunally came recommended by friends, but he wanted to see the stuff she was made of before he agreed.
“I sat down, terrified, and he said, ‘Just pick a couple of songs you want to sing for me,’” Robinson recalled. “I had been working on my own version of ‘Walk the Line’ and had figured out the key changes for my own voice, and when I played that, I think he really enjoyed it, because he’s a big fan of Johnny Cash. I didn’t know what the circle of fifths was, but he identified that that was what I was doing as I was changing the keys.”
Music provided the foundation stone for a relationship that’s grown and deepened over time. In 2011, Nunally produced Robinson’s record “On the Brooklyn Road,” which featured John Reischman and the Jaybirds. In 2013, Robinson and Nunally released the duets record “House and Garden,” and a year later, they teamed up with producer and alt-folk troubadour Joe Henry, who produced “The Rose of No-Man’s Land,” which featured such guests as Kris Kristofferson, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and John Doe of the seminal punk band X.
It was early in their partnership, however, that Nunally revealed himself as an authentic and soulful partner as well as a talented musical one, she said.
“I remember where I was singing a song I’d just written about my dad, and I came into the control room and just burst into tears,” she said. “He and Keith (Little, a frequent collaborator with Nunally), and they were so loving and caring and so real for me, and I just felt like, ‘These are really deep people, and I love them already.’ They helped me have an experience that is beautiful and cathartic. Here I was, this nobody, and he was so accomplished but so kind to me and showed respect for my fledgling songwriting. That showed me what a dear person Jim Nunally is.”
Addiction strikes home
While Robinson’s career flourished on the West Coast, her niece’s life began to spiral out of control in Pensacola. She credits her sister with being Gigi’s rock — in fact, she added, Leslie often served as the family lodestone upon whose shoulders many burdens were carried.
“We had some members of our family who were real secret keepers, but Leslie was always very open,” she said. “My sisters and I had been molested as kids by a family friend, and it was never spoken or talked about — almost like it didn’t exist. But Leslie, in our early 20s, brought it out and talked about it, because that is her nature. She’s very matter-of-fact and outspoken and honest, and she was very honest about everything happening with Gigi.”
In her teens, Gigi began taking greater risks, Robinson said. Her parents helped her find therapists and therapeutic programs to redirect her, and for a time, she seemed to find her place as a hula-hooping hippie girl who looked great and smiled frequently. By the time she reached her early 20s, however, heroin came into the picture, and she was never able to fully escape its grasp.
“She really fought it. She really tried,” Robinson said. “She went into a number of rehab programs and drug programs, and she came out of it after a little while, but she slid back in. She had a child, a beautiful little boy named Jonah, but then that relationship broke up.”
Nunally got to meet her niece once, she said, during a trip back to Florida in which he charmed Nell’s mother, renting a rubberized wheelchair so she could enjoy the white sand beaches of Destin. Gigi, at the time, was heavy into her addiction, and her behavior was “erratic and alarming.” The next time Robinson went back to Florida was for her niece’s funeral.
“I don’t remember what I was doing, but I noticed that my sister Lynne had been trying to reach me on my cell, and I had missed a bunch of calls,” she said. “I tried to call her back but didn’t get her, and then a few minutes later, my brother called and gave me the news. I wasn’t able to talk to Leslie for a couple of days.”
She and Leslie had become estranged earlier that year, and when they finally talked, it was the first contact the two siblings had established in several months. In Pensacola, Robinson felt awkward and out of place, almost, but her daughter accompanied her, and together, they tried to offer unspoken support and love to a grieving arm of the family.
“I did not know what to do. I just had no idea how to be helpful, so what I did was decide, ‘I don’t know what to say, so I’m just going to try to be nearby,’” Robinson said. “I would sit on a couch with (Leslie), and I would knit while she would watch a movie. I don’t think I was all that helpful, but I don’t know how I could have been or what I could have done. It was enormously confusing and very sad.”
Grief delivers a 'Hurricane' to the Nell and Jim Band
The memorial service for Gigi, however, was a breathtaking experience, she said. The girl’s obituary was direct and painstakingly honest, and as a result complete strangers came who only wanted to offer solace and solidarity.
“I saw these complete strangers show up to share the grief and hug my sister and say, ‘I lost somebody, too, and I didn’t tell anybody, because I didn’t know what to say,’” she said. “I felt Gigi’s presence there, and just listening to my sister and my brother-in-law, I just tried to beam my love and support and strength to them. And they were amazing.”
She didn’t realize it at the time, but the seeds of “Hurricane” were planted that day. A couple of months later, grief and loss and the need to make sense of it became to pour out of her. There was no theme, no intent — just purely emotional writing, and once again, her niece’s presence was palpable.
“I started thinking about what a force of nature Gigi was, about how she was such a very strong personality that you felt it when she walked in the room,” Robinson said. “Then, I started thinking about where she grew up and how it was the hurricane corridor of Florida, and what a hurricane her life was and what the drugs were. It just was poetry and lines and thoughts, and then I asked Jim to work through it with me.
“And I feel so blessed to have such a wonderful partner in my life. He’s a wonderful songwriter and musician, but I can also fall apart with him, and he won’t try to fix it — which is perfect. It was hard for me to get through it for months, and at first, I just couldn’t. But Jim let me just sit there and cry and just hold me.”
In the end, the song took on a life of its own, breathing and changing and evolving even up through the final take in the studio. Producer Lowell Levinger (“Banana,” from The Youngbloods) was intimately familiar with the loss of a loved one to overdose, and when it came time to record the track — which opens with the otherworldly sounds of a bass fiddle and organ before chiming guitar and Robinson’s mournful vocals turn it into a lamentation that rivals “The Long Black Veil” — he and the band took the journey together.
“We turned off all the lights in the studio and shared this story. We sang it once, in the studio in its final version, and said, ‘Alright, this is it,’” Robinson said. “We were really torn about whether to put it on the album or keep it private, and we did a lot of reflection and prayer before we decided to put it on there and dedicate it to Gigi. And I’m glad it’s on there, because she deserves to have her story told.
“I think it mirrors my grief, because I went from really being shocked and deeply sorrowful to mad at Gigi; to mad at the person who provided her with the fentanyl-laced drugs that killed her; to mad at the programs she had been in for not working. The words really changed and evolved, though, before finally coming together in the studio.”
Healing, remembering, honoring: Aftermath of a 'Hurricane'
On the other side of grief, Robinson clings close to memories of her niece before addiction stole pieces of her away. Those are the treasures of her cut-short life, and remembering them brings the comfort that helps anesthetize the pain.
“We are remembering that Gigi, holding her in our memory and treasuring that Gigi — not to negate the human being she was with the drug use, but to not let that say, ‘That’s all she was,’” Robinson said. “We have so many happy memories of our children being together, with us as aunts and uncles — vacations we took together. I remember specifically a trip to Spain we all took when our parents were having their 50th wedding anniversary. Gigi turned 10 on that trip, and I have a picture of us waking her up with the little birthday cake and candles and here sweet little bleary blue eyes looking up at us like we were angels.”
There’s a pause as Robinson’s voice cracks, proof that the sweetness of memory still can’t erase the pain — of her niece’s loss, but also for the loss of a future she’ll never get to experience.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding that people who overdose are trying to end their lives, and while that might be true in some cases, it’s more that they’re addicted to something that’s very, very risky for them to be taking,” she said. “My sister and her husband know in their hearts that she wasn’t trying to end her life, because she had very beautiful things, like her two beautiful children, in her life.”
While their lives will go on, Robinson hopes that “Hurricane” may, as they get older, serve as a piece of the tapestry that is their mother. How it will be received by Gigi’s mother is still a mystery: Robinson told her sibling she was working on a song about her daughter’s life and death, and upon its completion, she sent her the finished track. So far, Leslie has yet to speak about it, Robinson added.
“I just think it’s too painful, and I understand that,” Robinson said. “I just decided to let it be and work on it on my own, because it truly is an act of love.”