Posts Tagged With: Holden Richards

Kenny Roby rides again

The story that “Losering” tells goes back about 20 years, which is an eternity in terms of the half-lives of most bands and clubs. And yet I feel strange calling it “history” because the threads extend into the present day, and so many participants are still at it; and I’m not just talking about Ryan. Indeed, it’s still possible to see Kenny Roby, one of Ryan’s best ’90s-era peers, in clubs around the Triangle with some regularity.

Kenny gets mentioned in a couple of places in “Losering” and he’s always been one of my favorite singer-songwriters in this town, starting with his time in an early-’90s band called the Lubricators — a name I still think is stupid (and they never let me forget it after I said so in print way back when). But they did have a saying that made me giggle: Live to lube, lube to live. The Lubricators played amped-up rock with room for hooks, the guitars turned up to “roar,” and they’d moved up to Raleigh from Clemson, S.C. They set up shop in a house on Daisy Street, where Ryan would reside with their roadie/pal Tom Cushman after the band moved out.

Kenny’s next band after the Lubricators broke up was a killer, 6 String Drag. To this day, it disappoints me that 6 String Drag’s rocket-fueled country soul didn’t break big. Kenny’s vocal harmonies with bassist Rob Keller were exquisite; and after they added a horn section for live shows, pretty much no band on earth could touch them. Steve Earle signed 6 String Drag to his label and produced a spectacular album with them, 1997’s High Hat, which I asked Earle about when I interviewed him last year.

“This girl drug me to Atlanta to see Whiskeytown,” Earle said, “and 6 String Drag was opening. I signed them instead. Not that I thought Whiskeytown was bad, 6 String Drag was just more interesting to me and I wish to [expletive] they could’ve lasted. Their record was my favorite we made on that label. They were really special. Had this thing like The Band, where it’s so loose it’s tight, and I liked the way Kenny and Rob sang together. But they were doomed to come apart.”

Alas, High Hat didn’t hit and 6 String Drag dissolved before making another record. But Kenny kept at it with 1999’s Black River Sides (which he recorded with Ryan’s future Cardinals main man Neal Casal) and 2000’s Mercury’s Blues, both reviewed here. In 2000, when I published a novel called “Off The Record,” the aforementioned Holden Richards and I put together a fake fansite for the fictional band in the book. Kenny was kind enough to play along and record some tracks posing as said band, bashed out in a single well-oiled evening. All these years later, I still get a giggle out of  “Band Town” and “Dumb and Number.”

A couple of years after that, Kenny made a stunning album called Rather Not Know that, were there an ounce of justice in this world, would have set him up with a nice Randy Newman-sized career. I’ve written a fair amount about Kenny over the years, and the best story of the bunch is probably this 2003 No Depression feature that came out around the time Rather Not Know was released. Ryan was singing his praises back then, too, telling Rolling Stone that Kenny was “the best songwriter that not enough people have heard yet.” He also gave Roby’s record label a quote:

I knew Kenny in Raleigh, NC, where we both had bands, his was better than mine. We shared a few jobs, the most notably a plumbing job. I have been made to understand this record is partially inspired as the result of his father’s death. Kenny has great internal dialogue concerning his relationship to God and to the more tangible ways of man. I think it’s woven into the fabric of this record in more subtle ways than previous albums. The entire record really does more for any argument to this record’s impact as a great piece of art, but this track is the first track on the album and the one that touches me even when I think I’m not listening. Also he is quite a good dancer apparently.

Unfortunately, the acclaim didn’t turn Kenny’s commercial career into something sustainable and fulltime, leading to a few long-ish stretches of musical inactivity (in public, at least) over the past decade. But he’s back on track with an excellent new album that should be coming out before too long. Kenny has grown tremendously as a singer, and on this new album he pulls off some quiet nuances that were once beyond him; great to hear him recording with horns again, too.

Friday night, he’ll play his first full-band show in Raleigh in more than three years, at the Pour House. Funny thing, the guy running sound for that show will be Jac Cain — who played bass with Kenny in the Lubricators all those years ago.

Like I keep saying, it all connects up, past to present and beyond.

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Back to the music

While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.

Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.

Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).

He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.

“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”

Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.

Thank you, sir!

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