From Red clay to Bluegrass

Published 11:59 pm Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One would never expect to find mention of Red Level and Loango in California, but that’s exactly what happened as one bluegrass artist, with ties to Covington County, released her debut album, “Nell Robinson and Loango.”

For those who don’t recognize the name, Nell Robinson was once a teacher at Red Level School and whose family owned a farm on Brooklyn Road.

Her granddaughter and Berkeley, Calif., resident, Hilary Perkins, fell in love with the haunting sounds of the soundtrack “O Brother Where Art Thou” and established a bluegrass band in her grandmother’s honor — Nell Robinson and Red Level.

“My connection (with Covington County) goes back a long way,” Perkins said. “My grandma — who was my mom’s mom — had been in the area for years. My mother married a man in the Air Force and we moved a lot. For us, Alabama was home.

“The farm on Brooklyn Road has such a special meaning,” she said. “It was a place where we would could go and people would recognize us.”

Perkins said naming her band in honor of grandmother was an appropriate way to honor her memory, and the band’s music is a tribute to the place where she felt the most comfortable growing up – Covington County.

In fact, her most recent visit to the area was last summer for a family reunion of the Robinsons, Cumbies and Foshees.

Perkins said the album is a mix of bluegrass, country and Americana music.

“Bluegrass can be fairly eclectic,” she said. “I love all sorts of wonderful country musicians. What people call bluegrass now, we call hillbilly music. Bill Monroe was one of the greats. When I heard (the O Brother) soundtrack, I was transfixed. I listened to it a thousand times. The music was so powerful. It spoke to me.”

From that point on, Perkins said she was hooked. The 20-year non-profit fund-raiser veteran decided she was going to sing — and sing songs that had a message.

“Bluegrass (music) sounds simple, but it isn’t,” she said. “The more you listen the more complexity you hear. The bluegrass music and old-time music is about hard lives, but it’s sung in a really matter of fact way. It’s not overly emotional or self-pitying. It really is telling the stories of lives — the happy, silly and the really hard parts.

“I find that compelling,” she said. “When someone is telling those hard stories in straight matter, you get a chance to feel it, and that’s what I try to do with my music.”

To hear a sample of Perkins/Robinson’s music, visit The CD will be released in the coming months.