The girl who will be growling and swaggering her away through a cover of R. Kelly’s “Bump n’ Grind” on Saturday night from the stage of Brackins Blues Bar in downtown Maryville?
Yep. That’s Robinella.
You may find yourself doing a double-take, if you’re expecting the soft-spoken, jazz-country lilt for which Blount County’s most famous songbird — who goes by Robin Ella Tipton Bailey to friends and family — is best known. But she’s been branching out of late, throwing her lot in with the dance-rock cover band Pulse and co-opting some of that band’s songs for her own sets.
“It’s more fun than anything — an eight-piece band with four singers,” Robinella told us this week. “(Local jazz singer) Sarah Clapp (Gilpin), she’s involved, and then Shawn (Turner) is the lead singer. Sarah and I do a lot of backup for him, but we sing lead on a few songs, too. It’s really fun. I’m loving it.”
It’s the first collaborative project Robinella’s been involved in since the dissolution of Robinella and the CCStringband following her divorce from bandleader (and now Black Lillies frontman) Cruz Contreras. That was shortly after the release of 2006’s “Solace for the Lonely”; although the two went their separate ways musically, they’ve reunited the full band on a couple of occasions. In recent years, Robinella has scaled back her performances, choosing instead to concentrate on her art projects. She occasionally plays full band shows and tours as a solo singer-songwriter on occasion; in recent months, she said, she’s been able to perform more.
“Beau (her son with husband Webster Bailey) is getting bigger, and Webster is more than happy to watch the boys,” she said. “This year, I’ve already been up to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky. I think I’m going to keep playing.”
In addition to material from the CCstringband era and from 2009’s “Fly Away Bird” album, she’s starting to incorporate some of the Pulse covers into her set. It makes sense, given that her keyboard player, Justin Haynes, is also the bandleader for Pulse.
“I saw them play at the Dogwood Arts Festival last year,” Robinella said. “I played solo, and they were the last group of the night. It’s a total dance band, and I stayed there and danced for a long time. And Justin eventually asked if I wanted to sing with them.”
Given the fun she had as an audience member, she had to say yes. On stage, she adds to the energy of the ensemble with her on-stage enthusiasm and takes the mic for some “upbeat girl songs,” as she calls them.
“They like me to do ‘Rock Steady’ and ‘Proud Mary,’ and Sarah and I just learned ‘Lady Marmalade,’” she said. “I do a couple of ballads and some old-style blues songs like ‘Smokestack Lightnin’.’ And they like for me to do ‘Bump n’ Grind.’ I don’t know who sings it — I think it’s R. Kelly — but it’s fun! I don’t know if they think it’s funny or they like it or what, but I do it.”
Many of those songs, she added, have been co-opted into her own setlist, along with a few other classic covers like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” She’ll give them all a workout — along with other Pulse material — on Saturday night at Brackins Blues Bar; in addition to Haynes, her band for that gig will include Pulse drummer Nolan Nevels, Pulse bass player Clint Mullican and local roots/blues guitarist Jack Wilburn.
“It’s actually going to be new for him, too, but he’s picking up everything real good,” Robinella said of Wilburn.
Playing more — with Pulse and under her own name — has inspired her to get back into the studio as well, she added. She has enough material to make a couple of albums and wants to cut one this calendar year … providing she can find a flow that suits her.
“I’m really going to try to make sure it has some continuity, because my records never have any,” she said with a laugh. “I’m always all over the place with genres, so I’m going to try to focus on a theme and a sound. I’m going to make some kind of album this year, though, even if it just ends up being a gospel album and not new originals.”
Robinella’s performance at Brackins takes place at 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18. Admission is $5.