6 String Drag – Carolina, In The Pines
“Hey, we’re 6 String Drag, and we don’t know nothing ’bout playing no songs for y’all.” Singer Kenny Roby shambles up to the mike and addresses the audience with his denim locomotive engineer’s cap pulled low over his eyes. It’s midnight on a sticky July Friday in Durham, North Carolina. 6 String Drag are minus their lead guitarist for the evening, and nobody in the band is too optimistic about their chances of surviving the show in one piece.
The crowd — a weird mixture of hardcore local country fans, aging singles-bar veterans, and a cluster of ballroom dancers out looking for a good 3/4 beat — is scattered at a handful of tables on the perimeter of an enormous, utterly empty dance floor. When I caught Kenny standing at the back of the room before the show, about all he could do was shake his head and say, “Get ready to laugh.”
Now, up onstage, Kenny shoots a couple of sidelong glances at his bandmates — bassist Rob Keller, drummer Ray Duffey, and part-time trombonist/pianist David “Pops” Wright. A few deep breaths later, Roby kicks his heel in the air, brings his right arm down hard on his Telecaster, and launches into “Bottle of Blues,” the opening cut from High Hat, the band’s second album and their first for Steve Earle and Jack Emerson’s E-Squared Records.
Wright leans into his electric piano, re-remembering a song he hasn’t played in the year since he quit being a full-time member of the band. And he’s pulling it off, too: The high notes come swirling out of the revolving speaker of his Leslie cabinet. They ricochet around the half-empty club, blending up near the rafters with Kenny and Rob’s voices as they carry each other through the chorus:
Take me back
Take me back
Bottle of blues
Her heart’s crying
She’s been trying
To keep me away from you
By the time they make it to the bridge, and Roby is shouting “I ain’t got no home no more,” at least one thing is obvious to just about everybody in the room: Roby’s home, at least for tonight, is right there in the middle of that stage.
Ten years ago, home was Clemson, South Carolina, and Kenny Roby was a 16-year-old punk, dressed like Madonna in a gold-nippled teddy and combat boots, heckling the audience, quoting Minor Threat lyrics, and opening for such ’80s punk-rock luminaries as Suicidal Tendencies with his band, the Lubricators.
You couldn’t grow up punk in Clemson without knowing Ed Campbell — and you couldn’t know Ed Campbell without learning a good bit about country music. Ed was big and round-headed and bald, and his punk band, Next Generation, played the first version of George Jones’ “White Lightning” that most of the teenage punks had ever heard. It was fast and fiery and rip-roaring — and, when you finally got around to hearing the original, not all that different in spirit from Ol’ Possum’s rendition, hiccups and all.
Roby says, “Yeah, Ed had a lot to do with the country influence of about half a dozen to a dozen people in Clemson,” including not only Roby and Keller, but also former 6 String Drag guitarist Tony Tidwell, whose own debut CD on Athens’ Ghostmeat Records is a raw, roughnecked adventure in foothills country-blues.
It’s no surprise, then, that Roby quickly outgrew the confines of punk. He took the Lubricators as far as they would go — which turned out to be about 270 miles northeast, up Interstate 85, to Raleigh, North Carolina. But the songs he was hearing in his head kept veering further and further away from the music he was playing with the band, and by 1992 he’d had enough. After six years, he broke up the Lubricators, and began thinking about what was going to come next.
Feeling a little homesick — personally, musically, or both — Roby packed up and returned to Clemson, moving in with Keller. For the next two years they woodshedded, nourished on a steady stream of country and bluegrass from Keller’s parents’ record store.
Says Roby, “We listened to a lot of Louvin Brothers, a lot of ’30s to ’60s stuff, country and bluegrass. Every night we were singing, and writing, and we were learning covers — just doing it for fun. We had a little side band that just did country covers, bluegrass and honky-tonk; Ed Campbell played mandolin, and acoustic, and slide, lap steel, that kind of stuff. We were called the Welfare Liners.”
Out of those months of learning songs, and writing a whole lot of new ones, 6 String Drag emerged. But the self-titled album that documents those first two years is hardly some kind of pure bluegrass-and-old-time festival. Its songs run the gamut, from the full-on rock of the aptly titled “She’s a Hurricane” to the near-perfect honky-tonk tear-jerker “The Hand That Knocks Me Down,” with a chorus that performs the country-music equivalent of a hat trick: “And I would gladly take you dancing on the darker side of town/If I could only win the hand that knocks me down.”
Although much of the bluegrass and traditional influence was reduced to accents — a mandolin here, a fiddle there — one traditional element remained firmly at the foreground: those old-time brother-style harmonies. Keller says, “I love the brother harmony, oh yeah. The Louvin Brothers had a lot to do with it. That brother-type style in general, it’s great fun singing that stuff.”
All those months of singing together every night taught Roby and Keller how to work out those brother-style harmonies almost without thinking. Kenny’s rich, sweet voice sang the melodies; Keller’s high, almost womanly tenor handled the harmonies. It’s an unearthly effect, intensified by the fact that they’re apt to use it at any point in a song — verses, choruses, anywhere it’ll fit. “We probably use it a lot of places where we shouldn’t,” Roby suggests, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody to agree with him.
“We’re gonna play an old camp meeting song we learned off Ralph and Carter Stanley.” Back in Durham, Roby and Keller are standing together on one side of the stage, Keller leaning on his standup bass, as Roby undertakes to introduce their first cover of the night. “You know, my 9-week-old son’s middle name is Carter, and that’s no coincidence,” Kenny tells the crowd, grinning. (Neither is the name 6 String Drag, a variation on the Stanleys’ song “Five String Drag”.)