It is not unusual for an entertainer to write a book, typically a provocative memoir. Should Justin Robinson ever turn his attention to literary pursuits, it is our fondest wish that he author an almanac. While Robinson is most often recognized as a musician—first in the Grammy Award-winning, old-time African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and now as leader of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes—his passions are not limited to any single field. Currently, the North Carolina native divides his energies among several projects. In 2010 he returned to school to study forestry. "If I'd have known you could get paid for being out in the woods all day, we probably wouldn't have been having a conversation about music today," he admits. Inspired by a recipe unearthed from a vintage Southern cookbook, he recently launched his own culinary venture, Pearl Gray Frozen Custard. "I love ice cream. If I don't eat it every day, I certainly wish that I could." Robinson is an avid embroiderer as well; the elaborate cover art of the Mary Annettes' Precious Blood EP is his handiwork.
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And yes, he makes music, too. But Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes' debut full-length, Bones For Tinder, paints a much more vivid picture of this eclectic individual than his work in the Carolina Chocolate Drops ever did. "Bonfire" and "Nemesis and Me" recall the crepuscular indie rock of the Go-Betweens, while the slowly unspooling lyrical intro to "Kissin and Cussin" flirts with sepia-tone hip-hop. "Ships and Verses" dishes out grooves that could prompt the foot soldiers of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation to bust out in a buck and wing or a merry minuet, as mandolin and fiddle licks run rings around Motown handclaps. For "Vultures," strokes across the autoharp ride skeletal funk breaks with the surprising grace of an equestrienne sitting sidesaddle. It is impossible to pigeonhole the Mary Annettes. "I couldn't characterize it in any one genre," concurs Robinson. "It's what I like, which is lots of different things… and everything I've been influenced by."
Justin grew up in Gastonia, NC. His mother is a cellist and classically trained vocalist, his older sister plays piano, and Justin began violin studies in the second grade. Actively listening to music—not just playing records or the radio—was an integral component of daily life. While studying at UNC Chapel Hill, Justin met kindred spirits Rhiannon Giddens and Don Flemons at a Black Banjo Gathering. "We were all young, we were all black… and we were all interested in the same obscure traditions." As the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the trio would tour the world and record three critically acclaimed albums, including 2010's Genuine Negro Jig, which won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording. But after five years, Robinson elected to leave. Focusing exclusively on a single pursuit simply ran contrary to his nature. "I'm an explorer by nature, and I always have been," he concludes. "I've always wondered what's on the other side of the ridge.” So long as he regales us with the sights, sounds and tastes of where his adventures lead, we hope Robinson never stays in one place for too long.