Love and fear are two of life’s greatest motivators. Both played a key role in taking Hilary Perkins (aka Nell Robinson) back to the musical passions of her youth and on to pursue a recording and performing career.
Described variously as “a modern-day Patsy Cline” and one of the “freshest voices in roots music,” and compared to early Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Hazel Dickens, Perkins has come full circle on her musical journey. Singing since she was a young child in Alabama, whether in the church choir or the colorful backyard musicals she orchestrated with her friends, Perkins paid homage to her Southern roots by taking the name of her grandmother, Nell Robinson, when she moved on to professional stages and studios.
Those roots were two-edged. One side was rich with storytelling, old world traditions, and a time-out-of mind way of life that Perkins found resonant and enchanting; the other bound by social mores rewarding conformity and discouraging self-expression–whistling women, cackling hens; speak when spoken to; skeletons belong in the closet. Plus, despite very progressive parents, she was raised on military bases where there were serious consequences for not toeing the line. “At a certain age,” she recalls, “ I just went underground.”
Consequently, singing ultimately became a private endeavor, an emotional outlet, and something she did alone, on her own. “It was a way for me to be completely myself, completely authentic, and free myself from certain emotional messages.”
While Perkins went on to work in political organizing and fundraising, she never lost sight of her love of music. In her mid-40s, after “25 years of singing by myself in my car,” she became “intrigued by fear, by what I was afraid of, and exploring it,” Perkins says. “I didn’t want it to get in the way of living.”
Bracketing that motivation was one of love, a force Perkins found even more powerful. On the verge of celebrating an important anniversary with her husband, she mustered the courage to hire a local country band and sing a special tune for him in front of friends and family. “I was terrified; it was like an out of body experience;” she recalls. Her husband got up and joined her for the last chorus and their friends went nuts. “And what happened to me was I didn’t want to stop.”
My Alabama Grandmothers
Nell Robinson (left) and Thelma Bates
(right). Pickin' blueberries
and shellin' peas with them
are some of the happiest
memories of my life.
Not only didn’t she stop, but in moving forward found a deep connection with her audience and a remarkable onstage charisma that served to forge and foster it.
And so with love and fear as powerful fuel, Perkins closed the gap and returned to a place of farmhouses and country stores, backwoods wisdom and back porch ghost stories, fireflies and family spirit that echoes with the sounds of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
The result is what one critic calls “a timeless, sepia-toned world at the intersection of bluegrass, country, folk, and Americana.”
Inspired by tradition but not bound by it, she finds value in the past, in the lives of her elders and those they knew, in the rich tapestry of tales they told and which she in turn re-tells in her own fashion as Nell Robinson. Perkins speaks of stories that “foster this deep connection to people and place, so much so that sometimes I miss a past I wasn’t even present for. These histories occupy me and music is a voice for expressing that part of myself.”
“Singing is my current mode of subversion. There are all sorts of things I still I feel I am ‘not supposed to do,’ and at this point in time, I relish breaking free of limits I have felt all my life.”
Whether playing with musical partner Jim Nunally or backed by her All-Star band of John Reischman and the Jaybirds, Perkins is equally at home. Her side-projects, from the poignancy of Soldier Stories to the whimsy of The Henriettas, further attest to the breadth and ambition of the youthful musical passions she let flower.
In performance, she’s interested in bridging worlds and breaking down the barriers between performers and audience. She invites fans and ghosts alike to be part of the show. Everyone is welcome.