There's a lot going on in "I Need a Train," track number four on Kenny Roby's new Rather Not Know. It has a train tune's near-mandatory chug as well as the shuffle rhythm of a vintage Johnny Cash number. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was a contemporary of "Hey Porter" or maybe something from the catalog of Hank Snow or early Johnny Horton. Then comes the give-away line "I saw Gracie and the Cubs play in the left field bleacher seats" (as in fan-favorite first baseman Mark Grace), and you realize that "I Need a Train" has got to be a relatively new song.
But a leaving train can represent loss just as much as it does escape, and "I Need a Train" takes an unexpected, and gospel-ish, turn at the end as Roby sings about a celestial rail stop: "We're ridin' around with Jesus on His train." It turns out that "I Need a Train" is a nod to Roby's train-song-loving father who passed away a year ago, and much of Rather Not Know deals with loss and the relentless aftermath, a theme that Roby explores using a variety of scenarios.
There's nothing fancy about Roby's writing; in fact, its directness is its most endearing trait. But being plain-spoken doesn't render lines such as "I tell myself that every day people die/leave lonely husbands and wives/But tell it to the hole in my heart" any less powerful or "It's 20 years gone, I still got the same car/It's still running fine, never got me too far" any less poignant. The former comes from the album-opening title track, a song written from his mother's perspective. The album's closer, the epic "Highway Cross," addresses a similar struggle to come to terms with a loved one's absence. "My dad got in a car wreck about six or seven years ago, and the other guy died who hit him," explains Roby. "("Highway Cross") is written from the perspective of the guy who died's mother. So it's about losing a son." Together, the songs form a pair of undeniably emotional bookends.
There is a respite in the form of "Not Gonna Give Up," its jaunty, defiant chorus spitting in despair's eye, while the equally rollicking "Glad It Ain't Me" is the album's least likely true story. Well, the first verse, at least, is true. "I really was sitting on the back porch two places ago, and I saw a squirrel fall out of a tree about 40 feet high and land on the ground," recounts Roby. "And another squirrel is running back and forth on the branch they were on, looking down and wondering what happened."
To keep pace with the album's narrative variety, Roby employs a number of different musical styles--something he's certainly comfortable with. His music career got off to an early start when, as a teen, he fronted the punk band The Lubricators. Then with the much-missed Six String Drag, he helped perfect a sound that mixed the rootsy, traveling medicine show soul of The Band and Doug Sahm with a decent-sized helping of Elvis Costello, in both My Aim is True and King of America mode. On his solo debut, Mercury's Blues, he added shades of Randy Newman to the mix.
However, Roby's music has always had an acoustic-flavored, even bluegrass-leaning side, and Rather Not Know brings that facet to the forefront. This borders on cliché, but you'll swear that the original spiritual "Tidal Wave" is an ancient mountain hymn that Roby learned from a record by his beloved Stanley Brothers. Earlier, he and the core band--guitarist Scott McCall (on loan from the Two Dollar Pistols), drummer and Six String Drag alum Ray Duffey, alternating bassists Roger Gupton (electric) and Steve Grothmann (upright), and keyboardist/coproducer Rob Farris--branch out and stretch out on "Leo and Betty." "Yeah, it's got that country-soul lick, that kind of James Carr or Clarence Carter kind of thing. Stax and Memphis," Roby muses, probably dreaming of McCall's Reggie Young-inspired playing. And the subtle "Highway Cross" may be the most compelling creation of all, with Nebraska vocals (previously unveiled on "Elizabeth Jones") and a butterfly-fragile, Astral Weeks backdrop conspiring to form quite the meeting of icons.
The album was recorded in Farris' living room studio, a roughly 12-by-15 room with 9-ft. ceilings and hardwood floors. "All live vocals, bass and drums, and a bunch of guitars live--just very few overdubs," is Roby's quick summary. "We were literally in the same room, and I was staring at Ray, no glass up or anything like that. No isolation. There's bleed all over the thing."
And passion and heart. Roby speaks the righteous truth when he concludes, "It's not slick at all, that's for sure."