Jim Nunally talks to Bluegrass Today

Jim Nunally, a San Francisco Bay Area native, has enjoyed a varied musical journey, not only as a musician, but as a composer, record producer and teacher.

He had been preceded in that journey by his guitar-playing grandfather, an Arkansas native, who taught his son, who, in turn, passed along the art of playing the guitar to Jim. In its passage through three generations, the musical roots of the past have been retained and played a part in Nunally getting to work with the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience and Keith Little. Additionally, he has played as a duo with Dix Bruce; as part of John Reischman and the Jaybirds; and in Bangers and Grass.

Nunally played on the Grammy award-winning True Life Blues: The Songs Of Bill Monroe, Tone Poets and the David Grisman – Sam Bush collaboration, Hold On We’re Strummin’.

Also, he has played on the soundtracks for The Beverly Hillbillies Movie, Snoopy’s Reunion, and Andrew Jackson: Atrocious Saint, among others.
In 2007 Nunally released his first solo album, Gloria’s Waltz, a CD that is devoted to songs that his mother likes. His two instructional DVDs, The Art of Rhythm Guitar: Strums and Walks and Runs, are based on over 25 years of experience teaching at music camps.

Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally

Nunally’s musical sphere expanded when he met and co-produced an album by Nell Robinson, whose music has Americana and folk elements.

Subsequently, the twosome worked together to record a CD House & Garden described as “old-school sounding” as if the songs were “alternate cuts from a Carter Family session from the 1930s” with harmonizing “in the vein of the Everly Brothers.”

Since then their lives have seen love blossom, and their careers have led to an expansion from a duo to a quintet with Pete Grant on pedal steel, Jim Kerwin on bass fiddle and Jon Arkin on percussion.

Jim Nunally expanded on the story that brought Nell Robinson (a moniker adopted in honor of her Alabama-raised grandmother) together and to cut tracks for their recently-released album Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home, mixing Alt-Roots and Folkbilly….

“Nell and I met when she created and curated a performance workshop called Take the Stage. The workshop was for aspiring musicians who left music behind, for whatever reason, but were interested in getting back into performing, as well as helping others who simply had the ambition. Participants were organized into bands and she hired professional musicians, such as myself, to mentor and coach them to prepare them for their performance.

She had also been referred to me as a producer for her first solo album, Loango. Laurie Lewis produced half of the songs and I produced the other songs in my studio in Crockett, California. After her first recording, she hired me to produce her second CD, On the Brooklyn Road.

During the recording of this project I began to notice how well our voices blended in rehearsals. I put some thought into the possibility of working as a duo and what it would be like to work with two voices and one guitar. It was an eye-opening experience for me and led to a duo CD called Life in the Garden, which gained a life of its own. Reviews noted the similarities between the sparse sounds of the Carter Family and harmonic sensibilities of the Everly Brothers, which is exactly what we were going for. This was powerful for us because most of the material was original.

Parsing it down to one guitar and two voices was a huge departure for me. I had primarily been playing in bluegrass bands since 1975. I played on some really great projects that ended up being high-profile in the bluegrass domain: True Life Blues – The Songs of Bill Monroe won a Grammy in 1996 and I received two Grammy Award certifications. It also won two International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards.

I played on the soundtrack to The Beverly Hillbillies movie where we re-cut The Ballad of Jed Clampett with the original singer Jerry Scoggins. The band was Bela Fleck, Jerry Scheff, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall and me. An interesting television special for CBS was Snoopy’s Reunion in which Snoopy plays bluegrass guitar and has a bluegrass band! And he is using MY GUITAR, that dog…

I was used to hearing the duo sound because that is what I grew up with. My father was a great singer and he taught me to play guitar when I was eight years old. He played the old-time country blues from the Arkansas region he was raised in until he migrated to California, where he was influenced by the local country music scene that later became known as the Bakersfield Sound.

When I was about 14 years old, an older friend Pat Dorn introduced me to the sounds of bluegrass music. I really started eating it up and was lucky to meet some excellent bluegrass musicians while still a young teenager. I met a banjo player named Bob Smith who was playing in a band in San Jose with none other than Tony Rice and Darol Anger. Tony had just left J.D. Crowe & The New South and moved to California to play with David Grisman. Bob started showing me how Tony played certain things. I was only 15 at the time and this was amazing.

Over the past 16 years I toured all around the US and Canada with John Reischman & The Jaybirds. We did one tour to Europe, which was a blast. About a year or two after joining John’s band I got a call to play in the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience. So, for the past 15 years I have been pounding the bluegrass beat with two of the finest mandolinists in the world. This has been a real treat.

Now taking those honed bluegrass skills, I am working hard with Nell to create our own unique sound that absolutely has the bluegrass pulse and influence, but also takes our music to a whole new world of original writing and arranging.

Our band members have some interesting history related to bluegrass too. Nell, of course, worked with Laurie Lewis. I have appeared on stage or on recordings with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Sammy Shelor, Bill Keith, Nick Hornbuckle, Alison Brown, Bill Evans and Alan Munde, to name a very few.

Jim Kerwin is another Grisman alumnus. He has been playing with the David Grisman Quintet for over 32 years. He played with David and Jerry Garcia, then played some powerful bluegrass with legend Red Allen.

Peter Grant cut his bluegrass teeth with a number bluegrass bands but one particularly notable group is the Dillards. He filled in for Doug Dillard for a while playing not only banjo but pedal steel as well.

Our drummer Jon Arkin, while being a well-versed virtuosic jazz musician, heard Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys first hand when just a little boy because his dad played in the BAND! To me this explains how he can play a bluegrass groove with such precision even though he is more well-known in the jazz world.

When I think about our band it really makes me feel grateful to be with such talented players.”

Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally Band’s Baby Let’s Take the Long Way Home (Whippoorwill Arts, NJB 0588), featuring 10 new songs, originals by the duo, and two choice covers (Jim & Jesse’s Pardon Me and the George Jones – Melba Montgomery duet, I’d Jump the Mississippi), was released on April 21st.

Bluegrass Today is pleased to premiere this video Hillbilly Boy, inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic epic, The Grapes of Wrath, and with an opening riff that gives a nod towards the Bakersfield Sound.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.