Alabama Americana songwriter Hilary Perkins, a.k.a. Nell Robinson has an epic and historically relevant antiwar-themed new album out, The Rose of No-Man’s Land – streaming at Spotify – with an all-star cast of players and special guests. It’s a mix of classic and cult-favorite war-themed songs from the Americana songbook from across the ages, along with Robinson’s originals which draw on letters sent home from the wartime front from throughout her family history. As you would expect from such serious material, most of the music is on the slow side. What’s most interesting about it is that none of these songs are didactic or preachy: they let the war stories and veterans’ laments speak for themselves, reminding that pretty much everybody who goes to war and survives it comes home a pacifist. In concert, Perkins involves the audience a lot more actively than just in a singalong way, and she’s bringing that show to Joe’s Pub on Saturday night, Nov 22 at 7 PM with her band and special guest Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Tix are $25.
The album opens on an aptly somber note with a brief, slow instrumental take of Bill Monroe’s My Last Days on Earth, Jim Nunally’s steady acoustic guitar paired with Greg Leisz’s resonant dobro. Robinson’s direct, uncluttered, vibrato-infused vocals give the traditional song Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier an imploring edge. Kathy Baker reads the first of the letters – from the real Nell Robinson, Perkins’ grandmother, to her soldier on the front in World War I, offering some unexpected comic relief.
The rest of the band – David Piltch on bass and Zach Harmon on drums – come in on Luther Presley’s Waiting for the Boys to Come Home, Levon Henry adding a celebratory clarinet solo. But the optimism is short-lived, the band returning to gently sobering mode with the Civil War narrative Blue-Eyed Boston Boy and keeps that going with the old folk song One Morning in May
A bluegrass romp through Rodney Crowell’s Scots Irish takes the theme forward in time to the Vietnam era and then today with some sweet flatpicking from Nunally and mandolin from Leisz. They follow that with a blue-flame take of Johnny Cash’s Vietnam talking blues Drive On with similar energy and cynicism, Elliott taking over lead vocals. X’s John Doe duets with Perkins on her starkly wistful bluegrass original Happy to Go – a revealing look at the psychology of defending one’s country – as well as on an aching take of Mel Tillis’ Stateside, pushed along by Craig Eastman’s fiddle.
Guy Clark’s Heroes, a chilling narrative about a shellshocked Gulf War vet, gets a gorgeously hushed treatment. The Forgotten Soldier Boy, another slow number from the Bill Monroe repertoire, revisits the theme from a WWI point of view. A Nunally original, Poppies stays in that era, Piltch’s all-too-brief bass solo adding an aptly bittersweet edge. Perkins sings an a-cappella verse of the country gospel title track, then follows that with another purist bluegrass original, Wahatchee, a brutal battlefield ballad set during the American Revolution. The album seems to hedge its bets at the end, closing on a patriotic note with Gene Scheer’s American Anthem.
The rest of the letters are as affecting as the songs. Kris Kristofferson reads a bitter, pessimistic 1866 assessment of Civil War Reconstruction; Doe voices a funny 1944 vignette; Maxine Hong Kingston delivers a brooding 1932 recollection of the veterans’ march on Washington, DC; and Elliott reads Marcus Cumbie’s 2012 poem Grove Hill. Click here for the text and song lyrics. What does all this prove? For one, that veterans always get the shaft after their service is done, no matter how much ink gets spilled over their heroism. In 2014, the majority of Americana combat veterans, some of them poisoned by the radioactive waste in U.S. munitions, return home too disabled to work.