Kenny Roby‘s music is deceptively simple. His new self-titled album features mostly just him and his acoustic guitar on a dozen original songs. It doesn’t seem that he’s doing anything new. The singer-songwriter world is full of such artists. Roby’s material is not flashy, and he writes in plain English. One doesn’t need a dictionary to understand the lyrics. The songs have titles such as “Suzanne”, “God-Sized Hole”, and “I Don’t Believe It’s Magic” that evoke past artists such as Leonard Cohen, David Olney, and John Sebastian. Roby’s tunes also seem friendly. One can hear small snippets of old melodies between the riffs that gently decorate his songs in that old familiar way.
But there is something special and different about Roby that elevates him above the bulk of musicians working in the same field. What initially seems unsophisticated reveals itself to be more complicated and captivating. His guitar work buoys the songs and continually brightens the mood without sounding cloying or show-offish. Despite Roby’s prominence on the self-titled album, he gets in a solid groove with a crackerjack band that features Daniel Littleton on guitars, Jeff Hill on bass and cello, and Tony Leone on drums. Roby is also joined by some guests, including the aforementioned John Sebastian on harmonica, Amy Helm and Dori Freeman on vocals, Brian Mitchell on accordion, and Amy Laber on the autoharp.
Roby has a relaxed and comfortable voice. There is a soft, gruff bottom to his singing, suggesting he has experienced life’s difficulties, but he still has a positive attitude towards the future. “I’ve always been ok / Even when I ain’t ok,” Roby croons in a mellow voice on “Leave It Behind”. He just takes a breath and blows his cares away. “Every day is a new day,” he sings on the opening track, which seems to be the latent theme of the release. His first-person protagonists understand that every day has the potential to bloom into something special.
The songs depict Roby as a dreamer with a sense of reality. He knows you can teach a boy to fish, but you can’t make him eat. “What’s Happening Here” in his world is more important than the current geopolitical reality. He may call everybody “Buddy”, and he’s “Married to a Train”, but not everyone is his friend, and his wife can be a stranger. And experiencing failure doesn’t mean one can’t keep one’s head held high because one can always build a new reality and try again. These are modest truths. Roby expresses them with the strum of a guitar and an unhurried voice as if he’s telling the listener something they already know with a pat on the back and a warm smile.
The last track on Kenny Roby’s eponymous release has the musician confess that he used to “make gadgets and widgets / And heart-shaped candy treats”, presumably referring to creating a more intricate style of pop music. He now advises one to sing about the “secrets of crickets” and “the dish runnin’ away with the spoon”. Keeping it simple doesn’t mean the same thing as dumbing it down. Roby has learned the more obvious facts of life are as byzantine as just observing the world without filters. He sings these modest verities like he means them.