Robinella and the CCStringband Winning Over Country Audiences

Jazzy Ensemble Has Opened for Kasey Chambers, Rodney Crowell and Robert Earl Keen

Robin Ella Contreras, who fronts Robinella and the CCStringband, wanted to say thanks to the elderly owner of the farm where they filmed their first video, “Man Over.”

“I said ’Hello, I’m Robin and thanks for letting us use your farm.’ And he was like, ’Yeah, I sprayed it down with pesticides pretty heavy before y’all got here so you wouldn’t get ticks and stuff.'”

Her husband Cruz, who plays mandolin in the band, starts cracking up. But Robinella groans, remembering scenes from the video. “As it turned out, I rolled around in the grass and I floated around in a boat, and there was this strange blue foam on the water.”

So, were all the fish floating to the surface?

“Actually,” Cruz says, “he told me all the fish had died there.”

Chuckling, Robinella picks up the story: Cruz jumped in, floated back to the top, and she cleaned blue foam out of his mouth and ears — after reviving him with mouth-to-mouth.

She’s joking about that last part, of course. In fact, throughout the interview, the husband and wife tease each other, lean on each other and finish each other’s sentences. They have been married for six years and make their home in Maryville, Tenn., not far from where Dolly Parton grew up. They are expecting their first child in early May.

That’s why the band members — which include Cruz’s brother Billy on fiddle, Taylor Coker on upright bass and Steve Kovalcheck on guitar — have temporarily parked the tour bus after taking their charming combination of jazz and country coast to coast. They say the audiences have remained mostly the same since the early days, which means happy toddlers, pierced teens, adults with day jobs who appreciate the early shows and grandmothers who recall when swing-flavored music was popular the first time around.

In 2003, the young ensemble opened shows for Kasey Chambers, Rodney Crowell and the Del McCoury Band and performed for Conan O’Brien. But it’s the warm-up slot for Robert Earl Keen in New Orleans that Robin, who turns 29 on Feb. 3, remembers best.

“There was a guy drinking right at the stage and he was like, ’Hell yeah!’ I grabbed his beer, and I drank a whole bunch of it because we were just trying to hold the stage with Robert Earl. Because what we aren’t used to is having one kind of group of people, and these were rowdy boys.”

“Rowdy Southern frat boys,” adds Cruz, 27. “And they’re there to hear Robert Earl Keen.”

“And drink beer,” Robin says. “So I was like, ’OK boys, I have worn my short skirt.’ I had my short top on, the V low cut.”

“You know my grandma was at that show, too,” Cruz says. “She lives in Texas and she came over to New Orleans to hear it, and we were like, ’Oh please be nice to us tonight.'”

Robin recalls, “I said, ’Cruz’s grandma is here! Give us some good treatment so she’ll know that we’re doing well in life!’ Then I drank some of the guy’s beer. Chugged it to be cool.”

Cool is important. The topic comes up later when Robin wishes for cool maternity clothes, like those her cousin had. (Their baby boy will be named Cash Tipton Contreras; Tipton is her maiden name.) And it surfaces again when they talk about meeting musicians in the Times Square studio where they mixed their self-titled major label debut. Impressively, they recorded it in Woodstock, N.Y., in just eight days. They expect to work on the follow-up in March.

Robin says, “It seems like all the art that Cruz and I make … .”

Cruz interjects, “I think there’s actually going to be some … .”

“I wasn’t done talking.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“It seems like all the art that Cruz and I make … uh … what’s the word? You’re supposed to fill in the word. ”

“I have no idea what you’re going to say.”

“Make it up as we go.”

“Impromptu? Improvise?”

“Yeah, improvise. It all kind of comes together, off the cuff.”

Speaking as the album’s producer, Cruz praises Robin’s new songs as more meaningful and mature, while Robin remains perhaps the biggest fan of the band itself.

“I always try to hang out with them,” she says. “It’s kind of like I chase them. I want to be a part of what they’re doing, and I always try to be really nice, so they’ll let me in their group. I’m a CCstringband groupie, really. I’m always like, ’Hey guys, let’s play Cranium or Rook.’ And they’ll be like, ’Oh god, no, please don’t make us.’ And then sometimes they’ll be doing something, and I’ll want to join in and I’ll just beg.”

She doesn’t mind traveling with a bus full of boys, either. Asked to choose which boy has the most disgusting habits, Robin just laughs.

“I could never say that! I like all the boys.”

“Pick on Billy. He’s family,” Cruz chimes in. “If we pick on him, he can’t leave. He’s part of the family.”

“Girls love him. He’s single.”

“And he showers now,” Cruz jokes.

“Cruz, don’t say that,” she shoots back.

“OK,” he says with a grin.

“We used to pick on him,” she explains, “but when he first played with us, he was 16, so he went through a grunge stage where he had a different look. Now it’s changing all the time, you know? He’s got some good fashion sense, so he’s always making changes.

“We’ve got some finicky boys. Steve’s a little on the finicky side actually. And Taylor’s extremely quiet, but they’re not really gross. They’re not gross. Sometimes they talk about gross boy stuff, but if you’ve hung around a bunch of boys and they’ve talked about gross boy stuff, you know all you can do is laugh because it’s pretty darn funny. You can’t keep up with it, you know what I mean? You can’t make up what they say, but you just sit there and laugh. You’re like, ’Eww, that’s so gross,’ but it’s so funny, too.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.