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U OUGHT TO KNOW.

Byline: - Sandra Barrera

Name: Robinella Contreras

Age: 27

Occupation: Vocalist for Robinella and the CCstringband

Why U ought to know her: Come May, Robinella and the CCstringband makes its debut on Columbia Records. The east Tennessee acoustic string band of jazz musicians who mingle a little bluegrass, country and swing into their sound is celebrating its major label future by hitting the road.

Through a fuzzy mobile phone, Contreras, who - depending on what she sings - sounds like Dolly Parton or Billie Holiday, indicates that her band is Seattle-bound to open on tour for Australian alt-country singer Kasey Chambers. They pull into the El Rey on Thursday. ``We got our bus a couple of weeks ago and just renovated it,'' she says as the bus being driven by her father rolls past farmhouses and bundles of hay along the Nebraska highway. ``My whole family and some friends helped us get the bus ready for the trip.''

Since forming in the late '90s, Robinella and the CCstringband has attracted a lot of attention with its unique mingling of genres. The band has gone on a brief jaunt with Americana singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen Jr. and even shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Nickelcreek and Earl Scruggs.

But going on a national tour is a first for the young band, founded by the singer born Robinella Tipton and her University of Tennessee sweetheart- turned-hubby Cruz Contreras, 25. He plays mandolin. The lineup is completed by upright bass player Taylor Coker, guitarist Steve Kovalcheck and violinist Billy Contreras.

Nervous?: ``Well, you know, I was pretty uptight about having the bus ready in time. We bought this bus last minute and renovated it, and it all came together fast.''

And speaking of the bus: ``It's a Silver Eagle 40-foot-long bus. It's got red floors and red seats - well, we kept three benches. It's sort of retro. We bought this Danish futon. It's got a green-and-black heart print on it, and we bought a zebra rug and a little round black shag rug. My uncle built eight oak bunk-beds in it, and it's got a couple of oak closets with a refrigerator and a microwave. And he made me a little dressing room in the back with a big mirror and those big bulbs like you always see in a movie dressing room. My aunt and my mom and my brother's wife sewed all the curtains for the bus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because they were off work.''

Piquing Columbia's interest: ``It was, once again, because of some generous people. A fan of ours, who actually was a musician signed to Atlantic Records, told his old A&R person about us, and she came down to see us. Because of the whole AOL-Time Warner merger, she got laid off for a year and was looking for a new project. And she said, 'I'll get you a record deal if you let me be your manager.' She brought back two VIPs from Columbia. They came to a show of ours in Knoxville, and they liked us enough to sign us.''

On the night in question: ``We must've told a million people to come down for the show. We normally have a pretty good crowd, but this was like the biggest crowd we'd ever had - we just got a great response.''

Ready to debut: ``We already made our new record. It's got five originals completely, and one has original lyrics with an old instrumental jazz song called 'Sweet Honey Bee.' So now it's 'Honey Honey Bee.' ''

Jazz: ``I didn't have an interest in jazz before I met my husband, who's a jazz musician and who introduced me to the other guys in the band. I was just a country girl singer, and now I've got a broad range of vocalists I listen to and learn things from. Instead of just listening to some Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss, I get to listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.''

Becoming the jazz singer: ``Cruz and his little brother kinda presented a little challenge for me. I remember how they were talking about how I wasn't really a jazz singer, and I was like, 'Guys, I know I can do that.' The first song I learned was 'In a Mellow Tone,' and then I learned a scat solo off an Ella Fitzgerald recording, and that was the very first thing that I tried to do.''

Just because it looks like a bluegrass band doesn't mean it is: ``We're just a string band. Our instrumentation makes us look like a bluegrass band, so sometimes we get labeled as that, but I'm far from a bluegrass singer. In our local kinda trendy paper called the Pulse, we've been voted Knoxville's best bluegrass band like four years running. Anybody in Knoxville who knows who we are would tell you we don't just play bluegrass. But they would be at a loss for words when it came to labeling us, too.''

Where U can hear Robinella and the CCstringband: The band will be opening for Kasey Chambers at Los Angeles' El Rey Theatre (5515 Wilshire Blvd.) on Thursday. Show time is 7 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 and available through Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at (213) 480-3232 or at www.ticketmaster.com.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 2, 2003
Words:891
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