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The start-and-stop journey of Kenny Roby to the best record of his life

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In December, Kenny Roby gave one of his first performances in support of his new record, Memories & Birds, which he finally released in April. The first of three acts on a Friday night bill at downtown Raleigh bar Kings, Roby and his three-piece played to an appreciative audience of 25 people or so. By the time headliner Mark Eitzel went on, the crowd had thickened slightly.

Roby took the low turnout in stride: "It wasn't as bad for me as it was for him," he offered, referring to Eitzel.

Two attendees—a newly married couple from Charlotte—had driven up to hear Roby after stumbling upon his performance a few weeks earlier in support of style-busting indie rocker Citizen Cope. After Roby finished "Colorado," the elegiac centerpiece of Memories & Birds, the husband bellowed, "You epic fuckin' bastard!"

Roby responded, unfazed, "Well, that's a new one."

Roby comes by his unflappability honestly. Now 41, he's been performing on stages since the late '80s, when he led a high school punk band called The Lubricators. As a frontman, Roby was "pretty hard to ignore," remembers Jac Cain, who played bass with The Lubricators after they relocated from Roby's hometown of Clemson, S.C., to Raleigh in 1991. "Energetic, vibrant and he's physically imposing, so he was a pretty strong presence onstage," Cain says. The Lubricators toured with heavy-hitters the Circle Jerks and Jane's Addiction, but Roby soon outgrew the band's full-blast approach. He left the group about a year later. "That's when Kenny was really starting to come into his own as a songwriter," Cain says, "when he evolved into the Americana thing."

By the mid-'90s, Roby's "Americana thing" became 6 String Drag, which he started with his old friend Rob Keller and which lit up the Triangle music scene at the height of the great alt-country hope. The band signed to E-Squared, the large imprint run by alt-country statesman Steve Earle. 6 String Drag made one more well-received record and broke up.

Roby subsequently released three soulful, increasingly soul-baring records, which have earned him comparisons to Randy Newman and Elvis Costello thanks to certain shared virtues—genre mastery, a way with a phrase, an undeniable vocal similarity. Yet Roby is releasing his latest record himself, after drumming up a few thousand bucks via Kickstarter and enlisting a core group of loyalists to get the word out.

The cold realities of today's music market may no longer come as a surprise, but for a man who's been making music so long—and, with Memories & Birds, just made the record of his life—those realities bite a bit harder. Nevertheless, after a hiatus of about seven years, Roby remains undaunted.

"I just understand that I chose to do it this time," he says over coffee, "to get out there and try to help promote the record and try to have somewhat of a career again. So on the days that I'm suffering through it, I'm like, 'OK, I chose to do this.'"

Roby has no illusions about the current state of the music biz, where the mere idea of having a dedicated booking agent has become what he terms "the holy grail." Roby relies on a couple of close pals and associates to help him. Gary Waldman is "as much a friend as a manager," and Brad Hunt handles radio and oversees distribution of the music. But the bulk of promoting Kenny Roby falls to Kenny Roby.

He's a realist, not one for dwelling on what-ifs, yet he can't help speculating as to how his old band's country-soul hybrid might have fared in the roots-music-loving climate of the current mainstream.

"If we'd have come out five years ago, who knows what could have happened? From what I understand, [Avett Brothers bassist] Bob Crawford was a big 6 String Drag fan," he says. "If 6 String Drag went out today as we were back then, opening up for The Avett Brothers, we would have a career. We had momentum. And right about then ... everybody pulled in different directions."

As Keller remembers the end of 6 String Drag, the band had simply outgrown the lifestyle: "With everybody getting wives and girlfriends and gettin' pregnant and everything, it was just tough to stay together and stay on the road, which a band like that has to do to really make a career out of it."

The career that Roby has had instead has tested him. Roby as a solo act first bowed in 2000 with Mercury's Blues. Abetted by three of four of his former bandmates, he enriched 6 String Drag's mix of styles with a newfound world-weariness of tempo and spirit. The reviews were positive, and he toured Europe and made a small run through the States. But the record failed to build a substantial audience.

In late 2001, Roby's father died, and he went into a tailspin. Not the usual rock 'n' roll tailspin, but the tailspin of a guy who refuses to wallow. For a time, he put music aside and concerned himself with the business of raising his two sons while his wife dealt with breadwinning. He wondered whether or not he wanted to be a musician. He studied theology. He gave up cigarettes and swore off booze. He went back to church. He'd done all these things to varying degrees in the past; now, he did them with vigor.

When the urge to write songs returned, it came back full-force and hasn't left him since. "I'd probably be writing even if I was laying in the hospital and couldn't talk and couldn't use my hands or anything; it would still be in the back of my head just churning," he says. "The oven's always on; the water's always heating, if not boiling."

The record that followed, 2002's Rather Not Know, marked a shift from the earthly concerns of Mercury's Blues toward the ethereal terrain of death, dying and reunion.

And then, another long silence. He re-emerged four years later with The Mercy Filter, a slanted rock 'n' roll record. In typical Roby fashion, serious themes are sometimes obscured by ebullient music, such as on a rollicking, Buddy Holly-informed song called "The Liver." If you listen long enough, you'll hear that it's his "clean record."

"Because of my family responsibility, any problems I had weren't really well publicized," he reckons. "It's not like a Steve Earle thing. You don't have to do the big clean record if nobody knew that you were dirty."

Soon thereafter, Roby, then 34, finally felt compelled to find a job outside of music.

"I'd asked for so much from so many people to kind of sustain my artistic career," he says. "Not only do I need a paycheck, but I need some daily discipline, because I'm going a bit nuts left to my own devices. I needed a daily work schedule to keep some sanity."

When Woody Allen's jailbird in Take the Money and Run breaks a rule, he's punished by having to spend the night with an insurance salesman. It's a milieu that would seem particularly unsuitable for a guy who lives and breathes music. But in 2003, Roby took a gig sorting mail at an insurance company, a job he says "any monkey could do." Upon hearing his music, his co-workers were incredulous.

"One guy was like, 'What the fuck are you doing here?'" Roby remembers. "And I was like, 'I got a family.'"

Seven years is a ridiculously long pause between albums, so it computes that Memories & Birds is a world away in spirit from its predecessor. The former addressed faith, doubt and getting one's shit together; in the dusty, elliptical narratives of Memories & Birds, Roby all but completely subsumes himself.

"There's no 'I' on this record at all," he says. "I'm involved, and there's part of me in the songs, but it's totally about these characters."

That character focus derives from a pretty unexpected source. Roby shared the mailroom with a philosophy and physics double major who had just graduated from college. They listened to books on tape, trading recommendations and sharing insights on Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Carl Hiaasen, murder mysteries and Western tales. Roby compares it to the education people get in prison.

Roby has long dreamed of making a concept album, and in a sense, he's just made one. The songs on Memories & Birds suggest eight linked short stories, or a series of four diptychs. "Thematically, I ended up pairing a lot of songs together on the record, because they just worked. Like, this could be the kid when he was young, this is him when he grows up. It wasn't like I sat down and wrote the record that way, but it kinda wanted to go that way," he says.

Various configurations of 12 musicians playing strings, woodwinds, glockenspiel and kalimba, along with traditional rock instruments, add flesh to Roby's imaginings. According to Jason Merritt, who co-produced the record and played keyboards and several other instruments, they were looking to pair accurate execution with a human touch.

"There should be some rub," Merritt says, "and there should be some tension. Don't fix the mistakes sometimes. The way you want to put the chords together really invoked a certain mood. Maybe that darkness sounds at times imperfect."

The set opener and title track so strongly evokes Sunday morning in New Orleans that it almost conjures its own weather system. The song's bewitching theme touches down in a couplet grounded with enough regret that it hints at a novel-length backstory: "Wrote a letter to my mother that I'll never send/ Wrote another to myself and tore it up again."

Roby wrote the song in an hour, sitting at a coffee shop, yet it has the agelessness of a standard, a melody made to be hummed. Indeed, it's graced with a brief but essential whistled passage that adds just the right hint of Otis on the dock of the bay. "I'm not a good whistler," he tells me. "Whistling's real lonely. If it's too pretty, it's not lonely."

Loneliness and isolation are the record's recurring themes. The ostensible answer to the wistful opener, for instance, is the chamber-pop R&B of "The Monster," a sprightly snapshot of small-town weirdness and xenophobia. As on the record's other groover—the Motown-infused "Tired of Being in Love"—the darkness is easy to miss amid the swagger of horns and soul-queen backing vocals. As he puts it, it's a bubblegum song, but it's about a woman's isolation from her husband, a shell-shocked Korean War vet. It's Roby's way of summoning the façade of American life in that era: "How everything's OK and bubblegum, and we're just gonna wipe our tears and wash the dishes."

Roby first dove deeply into music as a kid in Clemson. His fascination was nurtured through friendships with knowledgeable buddies eager to share the stuff that stirred their souls. He rattles off Randy Newman, George Jones, Bad Brains, Mott the Hoople and Captain Beefheart by way of example.

"Guys were pulling from everywhere before there was an Internet," he says. "Through being friends with different people in a small town, you get everything. If you're artistic—gay kids, drama club kids, poets, artistic people—as long as you weren't a jock or going to the Baptist church, you were pretty much part of the scene. It wouldn't have been this way as much in the big city."

Roby's openness to musical cross-pollination manifests itself on Memories & Birds in sometimes oblique ways. The influence of Stephin Merritt's eclectic and playful Magnetic Fields, for instance, is more theoretical than applied.

Says Roby: "It wasn't, 'Oh, I'm gonna sound like the Magnetic Fields or I'm gonna write songs like him. I wanted to write with that freedom that he has, with his range. The parts some people would make fun of, I like that—just one slight twist away from being pop or going country or blues."

Magnetic Fields also stoked Roby's willingness to simply go with what sounded good to him, regardless of its provenance. "When I started writing more, I kind of left things in that early morning voice, like that 'early morning, I'm not gonna sing really loud 'cause the kids are still asleep upstairs' voice. Or when I'm sitting there with the voice recorder at work and I can't sing loud, and I'm like whispering, singing real soft like that, in a cubicle—well, I kind of left things that way."

His willingness to leave it that way is something Jason Merritt cites as one of the record's great strengths. The seven-minute "Colorado" is his favorite moment on the album, but it was initially a nest of vipers.

"I certainly had my misgivings about it, but just living up to Kenny's example and just going with it and not judging it as we went, that was really important," Merritt explains. "I'm used to three-and-a-half-minute pop songs. You start thinking about the audience out there and will they be able to hang with this. And it was great to just say: The hell with that. I'd say that's what I'm most proud about this record: We just did it. We just sort of let it happen, with no particular agendas of how it might be received."

Roby's openness to new means extends beyond his music, too. As of February, he's out of the insurance business, having taken night school classes and earned his massage therapy license with specialization in sports and pain management. He chose massage "because it was one of the only things I thought I was good at, that I was fascinated with, that wasn't music."

He gets as animated discussing antagonists and prime muscle groups as he does talking about his beloved Doug Sahm, or his unlikely embrace of late-period releases by bands such as Hüsker Dü, The Replacements and the Minutemen. Well, almost as much.

"I come from a family of teachers," he says, "so I enjoy educating [clients] and saying, 'This is the issue.' I like that aspect of it—the teaching."

Trying different things keeps the music fresh, too. "I sing a little bit in lower keys now, without quite going the Leonard Cohen route," Roby says. "So I've got more range. I can sing higher stuff better now because I've learned to sing better."

Roby is like a veteran baseball pitcher who doesn't have the same fastball he once had, but he still knows how to get guys out. He warms to the analogy.

"But when he hits that fastball, it's like, 'Whoa. He's been throwin' 80. Where did 93 come from?' I've become a pitcher instead of a thrower," he declares. "There's your article right there: a pitcher not a thrower."

Once the baseball riff passes, Roby completes the thought, finishes the diptych.

"There's no buzz like a creative buzz," he says. "You grab it and doors open."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Over & over."

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