Posts Tagged With: Kenny Roby

Hot times at Gillie’s, back in the old days

So I’m not the only one around these parts with a closet-full of relics from the Whiskeytown era. For example, the flyer below just turned up on Instagram via Angela Clemmons, a longtime friend and former News & Observer co-worker. She and I both wound up at more than one Whiskeytown show back then — possibly including this one, although it’s not one I remember.

Note that in addition to “Whiskey Town” and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby and Rob Keller, the bill included Tonebenders and How Town; read more about that branch of local music’s family tree here. According to Steve Grothmann, “Park County” was the house on Park Avenue in Raleigh where all these bands practiced (and many of the players also lived) in the mid-1990s. And not a bad price for an evening’s entertainment, either!

Also of note is the venue, Gillie’s, a bizarre joint where you’d sit at the bar on swings that hung down from the ceiling (a setup that created ample opportunity for drunken mayhem). A few years after this show, Gillie’s closed down and underwent a major remodeling to reopen under its original name from its days as a movie house, the Lincoln Theatre.

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From past to present: 6 String Drag

6SDB&WOver the last year or so, Kenny Roby, Rob Keller, Scott Miller and Ray Duffey have taken tentative steps toward putting their long-gone band 6 String Drag back together as a serious ongoing concern. That’s a welcome development because the years have been kind to their brand of combustible country-soul. I saw 6 String Drag play a spectacular show in early 2014, which made it clear that they hadn’t lost a step from their mid-’90s prime alongside the Backsliders and Whiskeytown in the Triangle’s top twang troika.

Soon after that show, 6 String Drag went into Mitch Easter’s palatial Fidelitorium studio to record their first album since 1997. A bit more than a year later we have Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll; and my God, is it wonderful. Tight in all the right places and gloriously loose everywhere else, Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll feels like a 40-minute pass to be young again — but not in a creepy, grasping way. It’s the work of people whose spark, collectively as well as individually, has never gone out. You can read a bit more about the record here, and also a longer review here.

Given the vagaries of a music industry that stopped making sense years ago (if ever it did, really), I have small hope that Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll will do enough to set 6 String Drag up as a fulltime occupation for its principles. But the fact that it exists at all feels like a minor miracle that should be celebrated. The album release show happens Friday night at Kings in Raleigh; do not miss it.

(Photo credit: Rodney Boles)

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Ryan Adams picks up Bloodshot, while the NC Music Love Army sticks to the plan

BS20Ryan Adams released just one full-length on Bloodshot Records, but that album was a doozy — his 2000 solo debut Heartbreaker, which (as recounted in chapter 12 of “Losering”) cracked 300,000 copies in U.S. sales. That’s the Chicago-based alternative-country label’s commercial high-water mark by far, with albums by Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo next in line. All these years later, Heartbreaker remains Bloodshot’s top seller even though the label’s licensing agreement for it expired last year, which means that Heartbreaker is officially out of print nowadays. That probably won’t be changing anytime soon, either. When I inquired with Ryan’s publicist about whether or not a reissue was in the works, the answer that came back was, “There are no plans that I’m aware of” (and she would know).

Nevertheless, Heartbreaker remains a big part of Bloodshot’s history. So it’s no surprise that its songs dominate While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, a two-disc Bloodshot tribute album set to be released Nov. 18. While No One Was Looking compiles 38 covers of songs from Bloodshot releases, with versions by luminaries including Ted Leo, Handsome Family, Minus Five and the regrettably named (but still quite good) Diarrhea Planet. Four songs on the track list came from Heartbreaker, more than any other album in the Bloodshot catalog:

* “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” — performed by Blitzen Trapper from Portland, Ore. (thanks, Erin!)
* “My Winding Wheel” — Seattle indie-folk duo Ivan & Alyosha
* “Come Pick Me Up” — Superchunk
* “Oh My Sweet Carolina” — San Francisco’s Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

You can listen to the very fine Blitzen Trapper cover below, and the versions of “Sweet Carolina” and “Winding Wheel” are also both quite lovely. But the real revelation is Chapel Hill punk band Superchunk’s “Come Pick Me Up” — take a listen to the stream on Pitchfork — which revs up the original’s dirge pace to a fast and gleeful raveup (stoked by Whiskeytown alumnus Jon Wurster on the drums). Covering Ryan’s Heartbreaker songs is getting to be a thing for Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan, who similarly recast “Oh My Sweet Carolina” with his other band Portastatic for another tribute compilation a few years back.



Even beyond the four Heartbreaker songs, Ryan casts a long shadow over the rest of While No One Was Looking. In terms of both songs and performers, the album is littered with Ryan’s former collaborators (Caitlin Cary, Alejandro Escovedo) and rivals (Robbie Fulks, Old 97s). Superchunk isn’t the only act from Ryan’s home state of North Carolina, either; there’s also Hiss Golden Messenger, Dex Romweber Duo and most of all the North Carolina Music Love Army — featuring Ryan’s old Whiskeytown bandmate Caitlin, head Backslider Chip Robinson and 6 String Drag’s Kenny Roby — turning Graham Parker’s “Stick to the Plan” into something like an ironic latterday answer to the old Kennedy campaign theme “High Hopes,” describing a certain political party’s apparent we-know-best attitude:

Don’t pay no attention to what the experts say
Too much intelligence gets in the way
Yeah it gets in the way
You know it gets in the way
And if you wanna be happy
Be like Forrest Gump everyday.

NCMLA14The NC Music Love Army has been busy this fall in conjunction with the upcoming midterm elecitons. One of the nation’s marquee contests is North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis — a brutal and interminable campaign that’s on course to be the most expensive in history, with total spending expected to top a staggering $100 million. To raise spirits, awareness and turnout, the Love Army crew has been putting out new songs that can be heard here. The most notable of the new tunes is an environmental anthen called “Senator’s Lament,” in which Caitlin Cary’s fiddle features prominently. The lyrics are below.

“Senator’s Lament”

There are places in the ocean
They are dark and sacred still
We cannot reach them
But we can ruin them
With a greed no sea can fill.

Oh green mountain, her bones are older
Than the pillars of any town
But we move her with our big plans
Dig out her heart and steal her gown.

Oh Carolina, how I love you
And your ever-changing ways
I didn’t see how much I hurt you
I only hope I’m not too late.

There are children in the harvest
Their backs are bent to rain and sun
And we profit while they’re poisoned
When they fall, don’t no one come

There are places in the ocean
That are dark and sacred still
We can’t reach them, but we can leave them
And we can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive
We can ask this land to forgive…

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6 String Drag is back and would like to thank all their beautiful friends for all the beautiful vibrations

Of all the lovely and heartfelt Everly Brothers tributes there have been since Phil Everly’s death on Friday, one of the best happened late Saturday night onstage at Raleigh’s Pour House. In the midst of a torrid reunion performance with plenty of old favorites and new songs, 6 String Drag broke out the 1957 Everly Brothers classic “Bye Bye Love” — and it was just as beautiful as anyone could have hoped for, Kenny Roby and Rob Keller’s voices blending just like Don and Phil’s used to.

Bye bye happiness
Hello loneliness
I think I’m-a gonna cry-y…

The rest of the show was pretty much start-to-finish awesome, too, especially the cover of Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Mendocino”; below is a partial setlist (incomplete because it was hard to shoot amidst the madness by the stage), and you’ll notice “Bye Bye Love” isn’t on there. They took some liberties with song selection, but not a soul in the sold-out house was complaining. There were lots of guest appearances, too, including multiple members of Whiskeytown. I couldn’t get a decent picture of Caitlin Cary, so I borrowed one from my buddy Caleb P. Rose. And 6 String Drag sounded as great as ever. I can’t wait to hear the recordings they’re making in a few weeks.

Anyway…one for the ages, and you shoulda been there. I hope it happens again real, real soon.

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Six String Drag’s partial setlist — Jan. 4, 2014, at the Pour House.

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Caitlin Cary, shot by Caleb P. Rose

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Friends near and far, throwing rocks at the moon

SadlacksRIPFor those of us who were in Raleigh during our town’s glory days as epicenter of mid-’90s alternative-country, this holiday season has been just like the old times of the “Losering” era. It seems like we’ve all been saying hello again, as well as goodbye for good.

December brought the end of the building that housed one of Ryan Adams’ favorite Whiskeytown-era watering holes, the Comet Lounge, which was finally torn down two years after the demolition of the adjacent Brewery nightclub. And New Year’s Eve brought the end of Sadlack’s, the Hillsborough Street sandwich shop/bar where Whiskeytown formed two decades ago, which is closing to make way for a hotel. I went to Kenny Roby’s show there last Saturday night to report this story about the end; and while I was there, a Sadlack’s regular who may or may not have been drunk got in my face to rant, because I apparently chose the wrong person to interview. On the whole, I’d say it was a very Sadlack’s interaction, along with the following response from an angry reader (reproduced here in all its sub-literate glory):

Sadlack’s not well written at all, lame and denigrating you so called journalistic hack, you must be a smart ass never traveled punk yankee go home…news and disturber another rag with paid articles written to favor their advertisers

Golly, guess he told me.

Come New Year’s Eve, the Backsliders presided over the end out on the back patio with a last-rites set that included a couple of new songs good enough to qualify as encouraging. But just like always, it was “Throwing Rocks at the Moon” that put a lump in my throat. Title track of a 1997 album that really should have launched the Backsliders to stardom (or at least beyond dayjobs), “Moon” is a pretty-much-perfect evocation of bittersweet goodbyes. I found myself thinking about Ryan, of course, who left Sadlack’s and Raleigh behind long ago; and also my old friend Peter Blackstock, for whom I wrote that first No Depression Whiskeytown story all those years ago — and who just left the Triangle to move back to Austin and take the rock-writer job at the American-Statesman. I really wish he could’ve been there, so I sent a silent toast in his direction

6SDI’m also wishing Peter was gonna be here this weekend for Saturday’s reunion show by the third band from Raleigh’s alt-country kingpin troika, Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag. Of course, the principles get a little twitchy about calling this a “reunion,” a word that carries the baggage of expectations. But no matter what they’re calling it, 6 String Drag’s four members have reconvened to record new music, which they’ll do later this month at Mitch Easter’s splendid Fidelitorium recording emporium over in Kernersville. I can’t wait to hear it. Meantime, here’s a preview of Saturday night’s show. Yes, of course, I’ll be there.

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Counting down: Sadlack’s

PosterGoneThe days grow ever shorter at Sadlack’s, the working-class Raleigh watering hole where Whiskeytown first formed in the fall of 1994 (see Chapter 4 of “Losering” for particulars). It’s scheduled to close by the new year to make way for a hotel/retail project on the Bell Tower block of the Hillsborough Street strip, but demolition of a sort is already in progress. At right is the space on the interior west wall that once held a framed 1994-vintage Whiskeytown flyer, which I hoped would find its way onto the wall somewhere at the new Berkeley Cafe that Sadlack’s owner Rose Schwetz will reopen in 2014. But it’s already disappeared and I’ve heard varying reports as to whether it was stolen or salvaged. For now, at least, the graffiti here on the right is the only trace of it left. Also gone is the autographed Ryan Adams photo that had been on the same wall. Maybe they’ll both turn up at the Berkeley eventually.

(ADDENDUM: In a major piece of good news, Rose reports that she has saved and stashed the Ryan artifacts for safekeeping and they’ll be on the wall when the Berkeley reopens — yay! Also, here is a preview of the last night.)

Nevertheless, the ghost of Ryan Adams is still very much present. Below is some graffiti on Sadlack’s south-facing wall, a worst-bartender list that some regulars put together. And look who comes in at an emphatic, exclamation-point-marked No. 2 (with his Whiskeytown bandmate Phil Wandscher rating an off-to-the-side honorable mention); I’m only surprised our man DRA didn’t rate the top spot.

If you live in the greater Raleigh vicinity, there’s still time to drop in on Sadlack’s a time or two before the end, especially during the closing run of shows. The final stretch looks like this:

Debonzo Brothers (Dec. 26) — One of the many very fine acts who played our Ryan Adams tribute show back in May.

Terry Anderson’s Olympic Ass-Kicking Team (Dec. 27) — The iconic Woods/Fabulous Knobs/Yayhoos member usually plays a Christmas-night show somewhere in Raleigh to mark his birthday. But this year, Anderson passed on that to play Sadlack’s one last time.

Kenny Roby and Friends (Dec. 28) — with a 6 String Drag reunion in the works for next month, this one has ample potential to be a really, really cool night.

Cousins (Dec. 29) — Local supergroup’s lineup includes Greg Rice, current keyboardist in the Backsliders (and just an aside, the 29th is my birthday).

Backsliders (Dec. 31) — And speaking of those Backsliders, they get the closing “Last Waltz” slot on New Year’s Eve, a show that should be positively epic. I fully expect the place to be in smoking ruins by the end.

SadsBottom10

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Reading rainbow

Photo courtesy of Kevin Currin

Major thanks to everyone who came out for the first two “Losering” readings, this past Thursday at Quail Ridge in Raleigh and Friday at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill. They were both lovely events with attentive audiences, especially Quail Ridge, although that night got off to a somewhat unpromising start. I read a passage, which seemed to go over well enough, and then I asked for questions. The only person to raise a hand was a young man who apparently thought I was Ryan Adams.

Ummm…!

The thought flashed through my mind that this was going to be a long night — or, worse, a very short one. Fortunately, as I tried to explain that I just wrote a book about Ryan and could take no credit for his songs, I spied a rock star in the house. Bless his heart, Mr. Kenny Roby showed up; I was surprised and touched to see him there. So I gave Kenny a shout-out and a plug for his show the next night.

After that, the next hour flew by with lots of fine and thoughtful questions about the book and Whiskeytown and Ryan, leaving just enough time for me to sign a stack of books in a flurry before closing time. My great and loyal friend Scott Huler also threw an after-party where his band the Equivocators played a few Whiskeytown songs including “Faithless Street” and “Midway Park.” It was truly, truly awesome, and a big honor — a night I’ll never forget.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Lee

Friday night at Flyleaf didn’t draw quite as big a crowd; didn’t help that the heavens opened up just before showtime. But there was still a nice nucleus of folks — including Glenn Boothe, owner of Chapel Hill’s Local 506, a club where I saw Ryan play one of his best-ever solo shows in October 1999 (recounted in chapter 11 of the book); Steve Balcom, who used to run the aforementioned Mammoth Records, where the Backsliders recorded back in the day; and noted computer guru/poet Paul Jones. My American Music Series co-editor Peter Blackstock did the introduction, and I was glad to have him there.

The next readings will be Thursday (Oct. 4), at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bull’s Head at 3:30 p.m. followed by The Regulator in Durham at 7 p.m. So if you’re over that way, please do come out and say hey.

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Backsliding away

Back in the mid-1990s, Whiskeytown was hardly the only great alternative-country band on the scene. There was the aforementioned Kenny Roby’s 6 String Drag, as well as the Backsliders — dear Lord, THE BACKSLIDERS — who could give any band on the planet a run for their money on a good night. They were a bit older and more grizzled than a lot of their fresh-faced peers in the Triangle, but the Backsliders were just so damn good that they inspired awe far and wide.

As good as they were, however, the Backsliders rivaled Whiskeytown when it came to bad interpersonal vibes between their co-leaders, Chip Robinson and Steve Howell. Oil and water, Hatfields and McCoys, Tar Heels and Wolfpack — whatever metaphor suits ya, they just did not mix.

“Those guys,” Backsliders bassist Danny Kurtz once told me, “are both their own worst enemies.”

Commercial success might have been enough to keep the Backsliders together, but it was not to be. After 1996’s brilliant Throwing Rocks at the Moon (produced with great aplomb by Dwight Yoakam guitarist Pete Anderson), Howell left the band. And while that wasn’t a mortal blow, Howell did take a lot of the Backsliders’ cool country flavor with him. Robinson carried on with replacements, releasing 1998’s still-good-but-not-as-great Southern Lines; neither album sold, however, so that was that.

(ADDENDUM: Producer Eric Ambel says of Southern Lines that, “90 percent of that record was cut with Howell, Chip, Brad, Danny and Jeff. Changes happened before the record was released with one song getting re-cut and a couple others overdubbed; but the bulk of that record is the original band.”)

The Backsliders dissolved, and Kurtz and lead guitarist Brad Rice wound up in one of the umpteen late-’90s versions of Whiskeytown. Rice later played with Ryan in various incarnations, including the Pinkhearts. He was Ryan’s lead guitarist on “Saturday Night Live” in 2001; and as Rice told me when I interviewed him for “Losering,” he was just starting a guitar solo at the 2004 show in Liverpool where Ryan fell off the stage and broke his wrist. Brad has done plenty more sideman work since then, including a long stretch with Keith Urban a few years back.

Robinson and Howell kept busy with bands and projects of their own, all of them good — especially Robinson’s terrific  solo album Mylow — but neither was as good apart as they had been together. In 2003, they did reunite to play a benefit show for Alejandro Escovedo (who was ailing and without health insurance, a sadly common situation in the music business nowadays). They were still great and it felt as if no time at all had gone by, but it was a one-off…

…Until now. Saturday night, four-fifths of the classic mid-’90s Backsliders lineup (everyone except Brad Rice) will play as the Howell/Robinson Quartet at Slim’s in Downtown Raleigh. It’s another benefit, this one for the Inspirality Elder Project; and I’m told it’s the first time the co-leaders have spoken since that 2003 reunion.

This will probably be yet another one-off with no followup, the Backsliders scattering to their separate corners afterwards. But hey, I can dream.

ADDENDUM (9/30/12): I was otherwise occupied Saturday night, but multiple witness reports say that Backsliders drummer Jeff Dennis went up to Chip’s microphone toward the end of their set and hollered, “David Menconi oughtta write a book about THAT shit!”

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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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