Tucson probably has its share of sun-swept and suntanned singer-songwriters. Lord knows, every Austin establishment that serves a bubbly golden has heard its quota of Townes-wannabes. And I’m almost afraid to consider the army of tough-armed grrls sweeping the San Francisco coffeehouse circuit. My point: It would be easy to assume that every decent-sized U.S. town has their own version of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Kenny Roby — a hard-working singer-songwriter and an engaging performer.
But you’d be very wrong leap to that conclusion. Please, now hear this: Roby isn’t your average hometown songwriter, and Raleigh is damn lucky to have him.
Let’s flash back to last century, when you might have heard Roby and not even known it. He first commanded attention with his band Six String Drag, whose excellent High Hat found a home on Steve Earle’s Artemis Squared label in 1997. High Hat was one of those shining stars that both defined and transcended the narrow ‘alt-country’ nomenclature. It’s definitely an up-tempo rock record, but one made handsome by horns n’ harmonies. Roby and drummer Ray Duffy’s harmonies are all over High Hat — high and keen, low and gospelesque, they complement music that is loose, soulful, and impassioned, with just the right mix of shambolic elements. This was a band that had spent time with the best Stax sides and Stanley Brothers records, and there was a long period when High Hat was my one-stop shop.
Roby’s aptitude as a craftsman of song shone on “Keep on Pushin'”, the album’s closing secular gospel number. The first couplet sets the scene of a pastor gone astray: “There’s a man that stays on my street / And his name is Reverend Joe / He can drink more than most other men I know”. It’s a five-minute story of epic perseverance, and salvation doesn’t come until the closing refrain: “God forgives a soul / That forgets it could fly”. Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, “Keep on Pushin'” evokes a unique combination of emotions.
Less recognized than High Hat — but equally worthy of your attention — are the three solo albums that Roby has released over the last ten years. Although “I’m just a rock singer” is a line from 2000’s Mercury’s Blues, the album proved Roby to be much more. His soulful voice wraps around lyrics that touch upon both the delicate (“In a Dress”) and the lighthearted, as in the shuffling tale of high-school envy “Why Can’t I Be You?”. The textured and stately “Ace, My Radio, and Baseball” employs distinctly American imagery (“Man I love to hear the bat crack / Through my AM radio”), while Roby transforms the North Carolina trad tune “Raleigh & Spencer” into the lanky jazz romp “In This Town”. The two-part “Early Mornin’ Blues” is written from the perspective of a down-and-out Bill Clinton, weathering the throes of his scandal, asking: “Do you have nothing to hide?”. The song is so well-crafted that the subject matter is far from obvious; in fact, I first learned of the song’s subject while researching this piece, though I’ve heard the song umpteen times. The instrumental component of the record is also masterful, collaborative, and full, making it easy to forget that Mercury Blues is a small-label release recorded with a handful of Roby’s local friends.
Roby’s next album is his most personal and strongest. 2002’s Rather Not Know was written in the wake of his father’s death. It’s a more acoustic affair, and takes relationships, religion, and loss as its foundation. The title track is written from the perspective of Roby’s mother, and is built around the refrain “If that’s all there is / I’d rather not know”. Couplets like “I used to wait for a card / Now I hate a holiday” leave a hearty lump in the listener’s throat; such memorable lines appear throughout the release. Roby returns to the subject matters of high school (the sparse “Elizabeth Jones”) and history (“Wilderness”). He also successfully navigates two gospel tunes: “I Need a Train” pairs a rockabilly chug-a-lug with an unforeseen religious theme, and “Tidal Wave” could be disguised as a Bill Monroe gospel number. Conversely, “Glad It Ain’t Me” is two jaunty minutes that illuminate what furrier members of the animal kingdom think about how we humans have treated the planet and each other (and concludes that we, um, got it wrong).
The album’s centerpiece, however, is the 5-minute-plus narrative “Leo and Betty”. It tells the intricate and tragic tale of a war veteran and his misunderstanding wife, a song with all of the suspense and vivid detail of a short story. Heart-wrenching, with unexpected and beautiful elements, “Leo and Betty” is a song I imagine both Dylan and Van Zandt would envy. Mining a similarly melancholy vein is “Highway Cross”, where Roby takes this ubiquitous object and builds a delicate and unique narrative around it. The narrator explains:
They say that he’s in Heaven
What a beautiful belief
Why [do] they always speak of Heaven
Like it causes me no grief?
Moving away from the acoustic and confessional, 2006 introduced Roby with a new band and album, both titled The Mercy Filter. The album’s thirteen songs showcase the poppier and rockier sides of Roby, as both the size of his band and the volume increased. “Bein’ Alone”, with its deceivingly effortless chorus and anthemic guitars, should have been a radio hit. Whereas Rather Not Know‘s mid-tempo orientation focused on the lyrics, The Mercy Filter sounds much more like the band effort it is, and the background vocals (ooohs and ahhhs abound) and diversity of instrumentation (cello, synths, keys, horns, and handclaps) are reminiscent of a less-gritty Six String Drag. While the album has several potent moments (“Bettin’ on the Blues”, “Foot Solider”, “The Committee”), Roby’s strength as a singer-songwriter too often takes a backseat to the sonic template. That said, I’m guessing that The Mercy Filter would rank among the best that a Tucson or San Fran small-circuit musician could offer.
Surprisingly, you can still catch Roby in solo or band form — a true entertainer in either setting — delighting crowds around the North Carolina Triangle for less than 10 bucks. This same scene recently lost Tift Merritt to the Country Music Television crowd, and lost Ryan Adams under a mop of hair. Roby’s strength and versatility as a songwriter certainly ranks in the leagues of both of these artists.
Roby, keep on pushin’; Raleigh, hang on tight.