In Raleigh, Sadlack's is now ready for the wrecking ball. And last month, crews leveled the block that once housed The Brewery and its neighboring dive bar, The Comet Lounge, to make way for more student amenities. But alternative country—the particularly pugnacious strain of Americana that thrived regionally in those very spaces—is reviving itself even as its old haunts disappear.
In December, during a celebratory show at The Pour House, The Backsliders premiered new material 15 years after their breakup. They'd reunited a year before but had just turned the corner to be more than an act from the past. Weeks earlier, Backsliders frontman Chip Robinson also played S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest, a three-day y'allternative convocation that had disappeared for a decade.
"People just grow up and then they remember how much fun it was playing music with those guys, whatever particular group of people it was," Robinson says of these returns to bands of yore. "It becomes fun again, which was what it was really all about to begin with."
Along with The Backsliders, 6 String Drag was at the forefront of Raleigh's alt-country scene of the late '90s. But when they hit the Pour House stage this weekend, you needn't wonder if Bill Clinton is the president. They're getting the band back together with the express purpose of making new music.
After roughly a year promoting and performing songs from his latest solo album, Memories & Birds, former 6 String Drag frontman Kenny Roby began eying a trove of unreleased music he'd amassed: forgotten 6 String Drag songs, solo demos and outtakes, other one-off or otherwise unheard recordings. He started sending them to various musical cohorts, his erstwhile bandmates included.
The concept was simple: Put a bunch of musicians in a room together and play in the style of the Everly Brothers, the Meters and Charlie Rich, not "Let's get the old gang back together for a reunion run." But Roby's new lineup is the old lineup: vocal soul mate Rob Keller on bass, guitarist Scott Miller and drummer Ray Duffey, or 6 String Drag. Roby chalks it up to "a little bit of work, a little bit of fate and the right people saying yes." Nostalgia doesn't seem to enter the equation.
Roby's most recent album, Memories & Birds, offered an eclectic, mature set of story songs, somewhat in the vein of Randy Newman. For all that record's decided introspection and sonic delicacy, the new 6 String Drag should swing hard in the opposite direction.
"I needed to do Memories & Birds," says Roby. "In my mind I've needed to do all the records that I've done. And now I need to do a rock 'n' roll record."
Sessions begin in mid-January at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium. Jason Merritt, who crafted the nuanced, layered sound palette for Memories & Birds, will again produce. Roby is eager to work with him in a more fluid musical situation.
"Memories & Birds was very much a producer record. Now I just want that energy," he says. "I'm sending these guys demos, but I'm not really arranging them tight and saying, 'Everybody just learn your parts.' We're gonna do it Blood on the Tracks style. I'm pretending to know what the hell's gonna happen. But I don't."
The Backsliders re-formed under decidedly less high-minded circumstances: Robinson had agreed to play a benefit and figured he'd draw a better crowd with his old band behind him. Since then, they've found the sort of personal and musical momentum that Roby hopes 6 String Drag can locate.
"It was just so much fun playing together again, we just started doin' it," Robinson says. "I figured just maybe a couple times a year, but people kept calling and dates were getting booked and we just kept taking 'em and taking 'em."
Whether 6 String Drag Version 2.0 finds a similar groove is anyone's guess; first they have to play a show and make a record. Roby's even unsure as to whether or not he'll harmonize with Rob Keller, a simpatico mix that became the band's trademark.
"I want to do what these songs call for," says Roby. "If they call for Rob and I singing together, great. If it calls for another guy in the band, or a guy who's a friend who's hangin' out singing on it, great."
But in the eyes of Robinson, and probably the bulk of devoted 6 String fans, anything but those twin vocals would be akin to sacrilege. "For me, 6 String Drag was always about Rob Keller and Kenny singing together, because they sing together like brothers. They always have. I mean, the harmonies are that tight."
Roby is well aware of the power of their vocal meld, but he's a practical guy. "If it were a solo record, I wouldn't care as much if Keller and I sung a lot of harmonies," he says. "If it were a band record, I'd feel obligated, because that was a signature on most of the songs."
The Raleigh show may look and feel like a reunion, but Roby says it came about because it coincided with a planned preproduction session. All the original members will be onstage, save for drummer Ray Duffey, who couldn't make it from Indiana twice in two weeks. Filling in will be the versatile Bill Egan (Demon Eye, Bleeding Hearts, Richard Bacchus), whom Roby admires for his ability to play anything: "As a teenager he played polkas and society gigs with his uncles," Roby notes.
As a new year begins, Roby's getting back on the horse for another ride, as he seems to do with every record. He's said that Memories & Birds has sold fewer than 1,000 copies, despite his higher expectations and a swell of critical kudos. He just turned 42. Does it get harder?
"I've gone through times when I've believed some of the criticism about me, doing different vocal styles, musical styles. That's a criticism for some people: It's too all over the place. But then the person right next to them is saying that's what they like about it," he says. "I'm stuck with that. I'm always gonna try to make the great record. Still trying to make music that makes me cry when I hear it. Or makes me wanna jump off a building or go scream in the streets. Or makes me wanna go play it for someone else. As long as I still have that, all is well."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Strings, restrung."