Longtime Bloomington musician returns to B-town for a show of original music with local icon Tom Roznowski
Nell Levin chuckles about her lifelong musical journey from her birthplace in San Francisco to befriending some guy no one had heard of in Greenwich Village named Bob Dylan, to churning out progressive bluegrass from Bloomington, Indiana, in the ‘70s Mecca for Cool: Aspen, Colorado.
And – it had to happen – she wound up back in California and then, one day, decided to move to Nashville. Music City. Swimming pools. Country stars.
Made lots of friends. Played a lot of music. Got a lot of rejection letters from the powers that be. Those issues you write about can offend people with different opinions, they said.
“So we decided we’re old and we’re going to say what we want to say,” Nell says with good humor. “We’re not going to be the next big thing.”
Nell and her partner, Michael J. August, will perform Saturday, Oct. 29, at the cozy basement-level Orbit Room on the downtown square in Bloomington. They’ll draw heavily on their latest CD, “Welcome Home,” from late 2020. It landed in the top 10 in several categories in folk music charts. It also was a finalist out of roughly 350 entrants in a Songs for Social Change list.
Take that, Nashville.
Also on the bill that night – Bloomington’s beloved singer, songwriter and radio host, Tom Roznowski. Levin played fiddle, sang, and served as executive producer for Roznowski’s celebrated 1999 album, “A Well-Traveled Porch,” a Grammy finalist nominee.
Nell and Michael were members of Nashville’s Shelby Bottom String Band which formed in 2008 and performed for nearly a decade and continued on as the Shelby Bottom Duo after that. Inspired by the life and labor history of Swedish-American labor activist Joe Hill, they recorded a CD dedicated to his life and values, included three other songs not on the CD and through video streaming platforms such as Zoom performed the Joe Hill Road Show to 29 different audiences.
“The funny thing about the pandemic was that we couldn’t play live for audiences but we reached audiences we normally wouldn’t have,” Nell says.
(Yes, we’re talking about the “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me” labor hero immortalized by Joan Baez at Woodstock.)
On “Welcome Home,” Nell and Michael tackle those issues mainstream country music would rather not address: the outsourcing of American jobs, environmental destruction, non-violent resistance, urban gentrification and the plight of immigrants.
Not that the album gets too heavy or preachy. There’s an energy to the songs, like an old-time string band, swing band, or jug band might impart. There are humorous observations on life: dating scenes, trendy food like Nashville hot chicken and a minor classic: “ Election Year Rag.” Written by the brilliant, late songwriter, Steve Goodman, “Election Year Rag” (video attached to his story) encapsulates the wit and social commentary that characterizes the album.
The players on the recording of “Welcome Home” won’t be around for the local show but they are well worth noting. Musician Brad Benge plays multiple instruments and produces the CD. His recent production credits include artists including Tommy Emmanuel, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, Jerry Douglas and other well-respected artists.
The Oct. 29 show starts at 6 p.m., tickets are available through The Orbit Room in person and online, and seating and standing room are limited (hint, hint).
AND THEN THERE IS THIS
Back when “progressive bluegrass band” was a bit of an oxymoron, a group named Goldrush formed in Bloomington. The beautiful voice and claw-hammer banjo style of a young Bob Lucas provided the gee-whiz punch to the band, but every member was in synch with the “new grass” vibe with Nell on fiddle and vocals; Brian Lappin on backup vocals and banjo; Tim Duran on mandolin; and John Orie Stith on bass. Tom Britt, John Hedgecoth and John Summers added pedal steel, banjo and fiddle.
A few years ago, Nell got the inspiration to find the tapes for the album the band recorded in 1974. Lucas said “Good luck with that” and sure enough, original recording engineer Mark Hood said, yeah, he’s had that tape in his basement for 40 years and remastered it to be transferred to a CD.
Nell has a few copies remaining of that “we thought it was lost forever” recording and they’ll be for sale at the Oct. 29 show. The artists will have recordings and other merchandise available.
Want to watch the video to “Election Year Rag?”