Rock band with Americana roots celebrates its 20th anniversary, looks to the future
Kenny Roby has tried his hand at a lot of things. He’s delivered pizzas. He’s worked for an insurance company. He’s been a barista. He’s been a clerk behind the counter at a record store. But it’s probably that last one that most shaped Roby’s main focus, which is making music. Roby is the frontman and singer of Raleigh’s 6 String Drag, a band that came on the scene in the mid-’90s, made some influential Americana-ish rock’n’roll and then split up for a stretch, during which time Roby released several solo records. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “Hi Hat,” 6 String Drag’s signature record from 1998. That record is getting a deluxe reissue, complete with a vinyl pressing for the first time, and last month 6 String Drag also released a new record, “Top Of The World,” its second in the band’s 21st-century iteration. The band plays Greensboro’s sympathetically named On Pop of the World this week, on April 7. Roby spoke with me on Easter Sunday by phone from his home in Raleigh.
Roby, 46, is like a lot of musicians in that his connection to different styles and periods runs deep and wide. He has the seemingly encyclopedic musical knowledge that one gets from listening to records, studying songs, and selling albums and CDs. In the course of our conversation, Roby made casual references to bands and artists like the Del Fuegos, X, Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, the Blue Sky Boys, the Zombies, Uncle Tupelo, the Stanley Brothers and many more. This was all by way of discussing the swirl of influences that shaped and contributed to 6 String Drag’s sound, as well as making sense of the era (the 1990s) when a lot of great and previously obscure music was being released on CD for the first time.
That record-store experience was formative because Roby, who grew up in South Carolina, was working there with his friend Rob Keller, fellow 6 String Drag founder. The two were both spending days in the record shop, and they were roommates as well as budding musical collaborators.
“We worked together at the same store, and then we lived together,” Roby said. “And we’d buy things and go home and learn them. Rob and I had gone through our phases of being really into traditional music.”
The re-issue of “Hi Hat” offers a glimpse into how those influences filtered into their music. A bonus track features a cover of the Louvin Brothers’ exquisitely mournful and aching “Lorene,” complete with air-tight vocal harmonies.
Some critics and reviewers have possibly made more of the Southern-tinged to 6 String Drag’s music than what is fully warranted. As Roby sees it, they’re a band that (like the British Invasion bands, and most other rock bands of note) were making rock’n’roll that was simply and naturally informed by a familiarity with American musical traditions like the blues, gospel, old-time, country, bluegrass, soul and beyond.
“I had friends who were really into traditional music. They were turning me on to Buck Owens and the Bad Brains,” Roby said. “But we grew up in the South, and our parents did like Hank Williams.”
In the 20 years since “Hi Hat” came out, Roby and the reinvigorated 6 String Drag, with Dan Davis on drums and Luis Rodriguez on guitar, have moved a little away from some of the twang and drawl of the earlier records. The new record has both the muscle and thrust of punk rock, with plenty to bring The Clash to mind, along with the narrative punch and detail of Elvis Costello and The Hold Steady. Roby hits a sweet spot that balances the urge for hooky satisfaction with more layered and narrative depth.
“I do like the pop-song thing, and I’ve gone into that, and I’ve gone into the singer-songwriter, storyteller phases of my life,” Roby said. “It’s hard for me just to do a story song and it’s hard for me to just do a pop song, so I tend to mix them up.”
Listen to the top-notch “Let’s Fool Around Til the End of the World,” off the new record, a song that has character, detail, pop compression and durable melodic refrains. Feathered into the song are themes of faith, family, and political identity.
“There’s aspects of it that are talking about pride and patriotism and the positive and negative aspects of it,” Roby said. “I don’t say it out loud.”
That not-saying-it-out-loud element is one of the things that makes Roby’s songs rich and rewarding. There’s a sense of subtlety and fruitful uncertainty about his material.
“With me, I don’t know 100-percent what a song’s about. It’s like, OK, Let me paint this picture in my head,” Roby said. “A lot of times, to make the character three-dimensional intellectually, or emotionally, but also psychologically, you have to leave some mystery, because you can’t fall in love with something if you know everything about it.”
The allure of a story and characters is strong, but the melody and memorable music are Roby’s first concerns.
“Sometimes I feel like you should just write prose or poetry if you can’t pull off the main function [of making music] which is to make songs that people enjoy listening to,” Roby said.
When I ask Roby if he’s ever considered writing fiction independent of his songwriting, he laughs and says he’s too disorganized and lazy.
But songs like the title track from “Top of the World” don’t suggest the work of a lazy dude. There is a lovely delicate slow-blooming Beatles-esque chorus, a sneaky structural complexity and a satisfying build-and-release wired into the song.
Roby has a worldly perspective on his talents. He’s tried his hand at a lot of things, and while he knows that the music business is a dying industry, he says he’d rather have three music-related lines of work (solo projects, etc.) than have several sidelines that allow him to work on music only in his free time.
“From my perspective, I’m not better at anything else than doing this,” he said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See 6 String Drag at On Pop of the World Studios, 1333 Grove St., Greensboro, on April 7.