If you hadn’t heard any of her lyrics, Robin Contreras’ sunny disposition might lead you to peg her as an airhead. She’s goofy as can be, perpetually grinning and telling you things she probably shouldn’t, like the fact that her 1-year-old son, Cash, sometimes poops on the floor when she takes his diaper off and lets him run around. Her speaking voice has that same airy lilt as her singing, but her Maryville accent is much stronger without the music. Don’t be too quick to judge, though. Underneath the blond-streaked hair and pretty face, Robin can get pretty philosophical, even grim, when talking about life, her new album, and her son.
Sitting at a sun-drenched table at Barley’s, where she and her band have played a Sunday night gig on and off for years, Robin is clad in a bright yellow hippie blouse, looking right at home. “We feel a loyalty to Barley’s because we’ve always played here,” she says. “Well, we played at Union Jack’s for a long time too, but it got too small.”
For a band that’s stayed at the top of the Knoxville music scene for nearly a decade, it’s changed its tune a good deal over the years. Under the original moniker, The Stringbeans, the sound was more bluegrass than anything else, with the primary emphasis on stringed instruments. When singer Jay Clark headed for Nashville, the band became Robinella and the C.C. String Band, and the music evolved into a kind of indescribable sound; most people were calling it country-swing, but it was a little bluesy and bluegrassy and jazzy as well, due to husband Cruz Contreras’ jazz background. Now, the band’s paring down the name to just Robinella. “I think Robinella’s easier to remember, and I just don’t think we sound like a string band anymore,” she says.
Though the C.C. stood for Cruz’s initials, he seems more than willing to let his wife own the spotlight, as the proud papa’s in the car with the baby for much of the interview.
Cruz and Robin met while in school at UT, she in art and he in music. One day she was in the music building with a friend who was carrying a banjo when they ran into Cruz, also carrying a banjo. The two boys exchanged numbers, but it was Robin and Cruz who would end up playing music together, despite her lack of formal training.
Robin’s only previous musical experience was at church, growing up in Maryville. “I mainly listened to the mainstream radio,” she says. “But the church that I went to had a choir where you just walk up and sing in the choir, like the old-style choirs.” Her songwriting still draws heavily upon her Christianity and fondness for old gospels, and her voice remains as girlish and unaffected as it must’ve been when she was a teenager.
Ever since its emergence on the Knoxville scene, the band has been told by excited fans that it was going places. Rivaled only by Scott Miller, Robinella has been for a while Knoxville’s best hope at hitting the big time. After two independent releases and opening for some big names like Kasey Chambers and Earl Scruggs, then appearing unexpectedly on Late Night with Conan O’Brien a few years back, it seemed on the brink of fame and fortune. The band even scored a contract with the recording giants at Columbia. But the 2003 release, titled simply Robinella and the C.C. String Band , didn’t ignite quite the fire Columbia had hoped, and the label dropped the band after the album sold 60,000 copies. A week later, the Nashville company Dualtone snatched up the wayward crew.
The new album, Solace For The Lonely , may jar some old fans’ ears, as it rings a little poppier and more polished than its previous homespun-feeling albums, but that also means it will likely reach a new audience. Though Cruz’s mandolin and brother Billy Contreras’s virtuosic fiddle still bring that old-time string feeling, there’s also heavy emphasis on percussion and electric guitar.
Producer Doug Lancio, who worked with session musicians to embellish the acoustic tracks first laid down by Robin, Billy and Cruz, is largely responsible for the album’s bells and whistles. “At first, I didn’t know what to think, because musically there were some things that were very different, but Robin really liked what he was doing so I supported her in that,” says Cruz. “It took a couple weeks for me to adjust to it. At first I was like, ‘Wow, what have we done?’ But now it doesn’t seem strange at all.”
There have been numerous changes in the band line-up over the years, and the most recent ones may explain the album’s diversion. “The previous band kinda came to an end when the last record came out,” says Cruz. “Our guitar player Steve Kovalchek, who played with us for a bunch of years, his love has always been jazz and he moved to Nashville to pursue that. Our bass player Taylor Coker got married and had to change his thing. And at the same time, we were about to have our own baby, so babies and marriages and getting older had a lot to do with it.” Newcomers Daryl Johnson on drums and bassist David Peebles were both friends of Cruz from his days in UT jazz school. And Nashvillian Hans Holzen on electric guitar, has been playing sporadically with Billy and Cruz since the boys were childhood friends.
Robin almost seems wary to broach the subject of the new album, because she knows it’s different. But different can be good. And besides, she says the songs, once inked into the pages of her journal, sort of took on a life of their own. “I just started writing the songs with other instruments in mind. Like for the title track, ‘Solace for The Lonely,’ I had percussion in mind,” she says. “So I guess the songwriting itself changed the music.”
“Solace,” a patchwork of a song made up of several gospel song titles as its main lyrics, showcases Robin’s trademark sultry smokiness that brings out Knoxville audiences in droves. Then “Press On” takes an ethereal turn, with Robin musing about her own death and going to heaven to a gorgeous but stark background of slow drumbeats and shimmery cymbals, reminiscent of a ghostly funeral procession. Robin recalls that the first line of the song, “See me someday sleeping/flowers draped across my knees,” came from something her father once said. “After my mamaw died about a year ago, he came back from the funeral and said, “Gosh, those flowers looked pretty on Mommy’s legs,” of the traditional bouquet lying on the casket.
The theme of death continues with “Whippin’ Wind,” a ballad that tells the story of two lives intertwined, despite their polar differences. The song’s about Robin’s first boyfriend who died recently, but it’s also about her own life, its events modestly presented as sheer luck. “It’s about two people, one of them has bad luck, and the other one always gets the chances and has good things happen to them,” she says. “I wrote it right after he got killed and I had him in mind. He was always kind of mischievous. He went to jail for drugs when he was 18.” After he got out of jail, he married, but his wife left and he continued to get into trouble, she says. Then one day, police officers came to his house and tragedy ensued. “In the paper, it said he was throwing kitchenware at them. My dad collects the rent there, and the neighbors said [the police] shot him through the door,” she says, her voice lowering to a whisper. “It’s sad because it seemed like he never got any breaks.”
In the song, Robin writes, “One man’s story is another man’s song,” acknowledging her own perspective as a perhaps exploitive bystander. “The whole thing just made me really sad even though I hadn’t seen him very much,” she says.
But Solace has an upbeat side as well, reflecting more accurately Robin’s bubbly demeanor. On “I Fall in Love as Much as I Can,” a swingin’ little jaunt, she coos about her flirty ways, be they imagined or real. “Robin has a vivid imagination, I know that for sure,” Cruz laughs. “But that song’s as true as it can be. She was around for a long time before I showed up, so I’m sure she had a lot of crushes, a daily crush, probably.”
Another charmer is “Oh So Sexy,” a honky-tonk tune about finding love in a bar. This one, however, isn’t autobiographical. “I guess I see a lot of single people at the bar when I play. You know, it’s a whole other show, when you’re onstage and people are moving around doing stuff. I’ve done my songs enough that I can perform and watch people at the same time,” she says. “So maybe it’s a barroom romance that I saw from afar or maybe I daydreamed it for myself.”
Though obviously enamored with their son, both Robin and Cruz say making an album with a new baby was a juggling act. “It’s like having a lead weight around your ankle,” says Cruz, jokingly. “When Cash was about to be born we were really wanting to make another record at that time, and I thought, ‘OK, he’ll be born, and then three weeks later we’ll just set him in the corner and we’ll just make our record. You know, he’ll be a newborn baby right?’ And it doesn’t work like that.”
Still, Robin’s found it easier to get inspired creatively since Cash was born, as there’s more stillness in everyday life.
“Cruz and my dad just built me a studio, because I’m always working on something and Cruz gets tired of the mess. So I’m doing my artwork a lot,” she says. “With the baby I’ve had more time to be at home and do my art, and actually writing songs too isn’t hard when you have a baby there. They don’t go too far. You sit on your butt a lot and watch them.”
With a name like Cash Contreras, it’s not too surprising that the fuzzy-headed toddler has already expressed interest in music. Robin sent out valentines with pictures of him playing guitar, drums and fiddle. And his musical inclination is only going to get stronger, as the couple intends to take him on the upcoming tour for the album. “A lot of people in the industry assume you gotta leave your kids at home, and you gotta go out and have this sort of pristine image,” says Cruz. “But it won’t happen with Robin and Cash because, he’s going where we’re going.”
While national fame and recognition may still be in their future, the Contreras family isn’t too concerned with it. Though fans still rush the stage after performances telling them how they’re going to “blow up,” Robin and Cruz take it in stride. “We have to do what everybody does and make a living. I think we look at it realistically. We try to have enough success so we can keep doing it and try to keep the music fresh enough that we’re still into it,” says Cruz. “As long as things keep getting better, we’ll keep doing it. And things always keep getting better. It’s a very slow blow-up.”
Who: Robinella CD release show When: Sunday, Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Where: Barley’s Taproom How much: $5