6 String Drag – Carolina, In The Pines
Roby and Keller begin to sing, a cappella, a traditional gospel song named “Jacob’s Vision” — scruffy, lanky Roby with his low voice, broad Keller with his high, clear tenor. The ballroom dancers stand frozen in place. The fortyish singles at the bar quit swapping notes about the thirtyish singles across the room. Every single person just plain stops, stands, and listens. When the song ends, two or three minutes later, they applaud, slowly at first, as if temporarily unsure where they are and how they got there.
This is no isolated phenomenon, either. After 10 or 15 minutes of 6 String Drag, even a confirmed country maverick like Steve Earle confesses to feeling a little bewitched.
“Somebody wanted me to see Whiskeytown,” Earle recalls, “so I went down to Bubbapalooza [Memorial Day ’96] in Atlanta. I walked in, and 6 String Drag were playing before Whiskeytown. I’d never heard ’em before; I think I had a tape, but hadn’t ever gotten around to playing it. Three songs into their set, I turned to my partner and said ‘Let some neurotic co-dependent A&R chick sign Whiskeytown — I want to make a record with these guys.’
“We went to breakfast the next morning, and basically offered them the deal right there.”
Back in 1995 Roby and Keller had packed up and moved back up the highway to Raleigh, where prospects for playing and getting noticed were a little brighter. For over a year, guitarist Glenn Cannon had made the five-hour drive to Raleigh whenever they needed him to play. Now, however, things were getting serious, and Cannon opted to stay behind in Clemson. Taking his place was guitarist Scott Miller — not to be confused with the identically named leader of the V-Roys, a Knoxville, Tenn., band coincidentally also on E-Squared.
6 String Drag then went to Nashville to record their second album, High Hat, with Earle and his co-producer, Ray Kennedy. (Miller, too, has since left the band to spend time with his own newborn baby; he has been replaced by William Tonks of Athens, Georgia.)
If their first album was their own spin on the age-old collision between country and rock, then High Hat augments that already-messy pileup with a healthy dose of Stax/Volt R&B and Dixieland. It’s the direct result of what Earle half-jokingly refers to as the band’s “obsessive musicology” — their persistent need to unravel musical threads, to trace styles and influences back, as far as they can go.
Roby explains: “It’s just a natural progression; it’s just genuine interest. You’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, this is killer, where’d he get that from? Oh yeah, he got it from this guy! Yeah, Ray Charles, he was influenced by Charles Brown. Okay, listen to Charles Brown. Well, who’s he influenced by?’ And you go back, and split off, and before you know it, it’s like 1920, and you’re saying, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
“We’re not freaks; we don’t know everything about music, but we’re interested in it. That’s why I don’t mind too much people saying stuff about us being influenced by bands, like The Band, who are obviously an influence on us. Because if we just say that, and it gets written somewhere, then some kid might pick up our record in 20 years and go, ‘Well, I like this a lot; what did they listen to?’ And then they go back and all of a sudden they’re back at the turn of the century — or the turn of the century before that one.”
And what a happily convoluted pursuit High Hat would give them. The record’s identifiable influences are almost uncountable. There’s the distinctive, Elvis Costello-style vocal phrasing of “Driven Man”, which also provides the best single line of the album: “When your grandpa died they took his farm with a pen/I heard your new man used a pen like them.”
There’s Dixieland (“Over and Over”), rockabilly-gospel (“Top of the Mountain”), and anthemic, Springsteen-esque rock (“Cold Steel Brace”). And then there’s “Gasoline Maybelline,” with its familiar laid-back, walloping roll and punchy horns. “‘Gasoline Maybelline’ definitely came from watching The Last Waltz too much, and then discovering Lee Dorsey shortly thereafter,” Roby says. “Then all of a sudden I was listening to a bunch of New Orleans stuff, and within a period of a year it all sort of came pouring into the picture.”
Despite the range of styles, Roby insists the band didn’t set out to create an intentionally patchwork album. “None of the songs on the record were put on there because ‘it’s a horn song,’ or ‘it’s not a horn song,’ or ‘it’s a guitar song and we need a guitar song,'” he said. “We just picked which ones we liked the most, and then went, ‘Okay, this is that kind of arrangement, that works together.’ Whatever comes into our heads, you know — a horn, or a guy screaming falling down a hole — if it works with the song, it works with the song.
“Doug Sahm was a huge influence on us in terms of that. Just having the courage to do a country song, into a horn song, into a hard-as-hell song. He just didn’t give a damn. He just loved different kinds of music, and he said, ‘Well, if I can get away with it, and I don’t think it sounds too bad, then I want to try it. Fuck it.'”
6 String Drag repay the favor on High Hat with “Elaine”, a loping, mournful song that openly evokes the spirit of Sir Doug:
Please don’t mention New Mexico
Please don’t even mention her name
I’d have gone anywhere she said go
I can still see the old Rio Grande
And the Pontchartrain
Why do I miss Elaine?
Back in Durham, their set nearly over, 6 String Drag choose to invoke the spirit of Sahm a bit more directly, with a spirited rendition of “Mendocino.” The song is a staple of the band’s live set, and it only missed being on High Hat because, as Earle puts it, “Kenny’s too good a songwriter for us to take up any space on the album with covers.”
Nevertheless, covers were an integral part of the band’s genesis, and they’re still an integral part of their live set, particularly when they’re close to home. See, when 6 String Drag plays their Carolina home turf, they do so with the assistance of their part-time horn section, including trombonist David “Pops” Wright and sax player Steve Grothman (whom careful readers will recognize as Whiskeytown’s former bassist).
And when Pops and Steve are on that stage, swinging the band through a cover of James Brown’s “Night Train”, or extending the band’s own “Top of the Mountain” out through a few choruses of “When the Saints Go Marching In” — that’s when the common thread running through all of 6 String Drag’s disparate material becomes most obvious.
It’s the one thing they’ve taken from every influence: Ray Charles. Elvis Costello. Doug Sahm. James Brown. Ralph and Carter Stanley. The Band.