Local group puts local sounds in a blender and creates an infectious drink
by John Sewell
Writing about local musicians on a regular basis, it becomes practically impossible to avoid having a jaded attitude about the hopes and ambitions of area players. Sure, there is more talent in the Knoxville area than you can shake a stick at, and many of the bands are actually good enough to make it. But we all know that show business is notorious for grinding the hopes and dreams of the talented to dust in short orderall the while pushing prefabricated, soulless tripe on an unsuspecting public that eats it up.
Almost all the musicians that make it to the club level have lingering hopes that maybe, just maybe, they'll get lucky and eventually be able to eke out a living doing what they love most: music. So I have good news for the world: there is a musical combo amongst us that probably really will make it.
Knoxville's CC String band is creating a sound that is both high-brow and accessible, mixing country, jazz, swing, and bluegrass into a seamless unit that is undeniably great. These guys probably won't get on MTV (who cares?), but they've surely got what it takes to continue their musical exploration and actually become lifelong professional musicians.
Formed around the core unit of husband and wife team Robinella and Cruz Contreras (the CC of the band's moniker), The CC String band is a melting pot of urban (jazz/blues) and rural (country/bluegrass) influences that results in a singular musical vision. With the exception of Robinella Contreras, all of the members are formally-trained musicians, and the technical ability of the band is astounding. But don't expect a lot of self-indulgence from the players; what's most important is the songs.
"If I had to classify our music right now, I'd almost call it country swing," says Cruz. "My brother (violinist Billy Contreras), his focus is jazz. And our bass player (Taylor Coker), he's a jazz major and I majored in jazz piano. We don't really want to be categorized as a jazz group because we just really like country, swing, and bluegrass."
Cruz says that although the jazz influence crept in later, his first musical love was country and bluegrass. "I'm originally from Franklin, Tennessee, near Nashville," he says. "That's where my musical influences really come from. There's a guy there named Buddy Spiker there. He's a country fiddle player and he taught my brother and me how to play.
"When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a country musician," Cruz continues. "I was playing piano and I was told the best country studio musicians could all play jazzthat's how they got so good. So I decided I'd go to school for four years and come back to Nashville and play country. I really had no intention of playing jazz.
"So I came to UT and learned jazz from a great teacher, Donald Brown. I gave it my best try, but all along I was playing banjo, mandolin, and guitar as well. It wasn't until later that the jazz influence started coming in."
The lone member of the group without extensive music training, vocalist Robinella Contreras is actually the band's ace in the hole. Her vocal style mixes the elusive high and lonesome sound so sought after by bluegrass singers with a sultry, smoky feel somewhat similar to jazz legend Billie Holiday. Hearing Robinella sing, it seems as if it all comes naturally. There is not a trace of affectation in her heartfelt singing, which works equally as well on jazz standards and country classics.
"I've just been singing jazz for around a year," says Robinella. "Before that, I just did country and gospel stuff. But I've been singing since foreveralways sang, just never in front of people. I never sang in front of people until I met Cruz.
"We met at a bluegrass jam," Robinella continues. "Bluegrass is not that hard to play, and a lot of people around here play it. We were just jamming at a friend's cabin and that's where I met Cruz." This meeting was in 1998, and the couple have been inseparable ever since.
The band plays regularly in a number of area venues including weekly gigs at Union Jack's on Thursday nights and Sundays at Barley's Taproom. They hope to expand into area markets, a move that seems inevitable. For those of you not hardy enough to check them out their area shows, there's the album, Robinella and the CC String Band (Big Gulley Records), available at local shops.
The CC String Band performs other people's material, but don't expect carbon copies of other artists' songs. Instead, the band interprets classic tunes in a style of their own, a process by which classic tunes are reinvented and made personal. They plan to begin writing original material in the near future, and, as usual, they're aiming high.
"I try to write songs, but so far none of them compare to anything that we're doing," says Robinella. "I'll try to write something like Duke (Ellington), and that's tough!
"It's kind of scary playing with Cruz and Taylor and Billy," Robinella continues, laughing. "Cruz is trying to get me to branch out a little. I get self-conscious because they're so good. I just do what I can!"
April 13, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 15
© 2000 Metro Pulse