Once upon a time in Raleigh, North Carolina, for about 10 bucks total, you could get the best sandwich in town and a dose of red-hot rockin’ honky-tonk courtesy of Kenny Roby.
Like a punky John Prine, Roby rocked the joint with folky country-flavored yee-haw music with an alt label stuck in front of it by those who were too lazy to savor its uniqueness. The music could have fit in anywhere: folk, country, rock, a happy wandering of styles that was laid back and easy-going except when it wasn’t, all blended into one smooth concoction that went down easily.
Steve Earle liked what he heard so much he signed Roby and his band, Six String Drag, producing 1997’s High Hat, but the band dissolved the next year. On their 2018 reunion album, Top of the World (ND review), Roby channels Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, and Tom Petty on “Lets Fool Around Til the End of the World,” with Petty’s influence dominating the melody and vocal action.
But on his solo records, especially on 2020’s The Reservoir (ND review) and now his on eponymous new one, Roby is much quieter, more introspective. After relocating to Woodstock, New York, Roby seems to have soaked up some of the spirits wafting around the area. Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan hang around spiritually in Roby’s work, as do a few other folkie notables.
“God Sized Hole” sounds like Newman was whispering in his ear (and slipping into Roby’s vocal cords as well), and Roby has Costello nipping at his heels on “Only Once.”
He’s got some real-life help from other folkie icons as well. Amy Helm adds blissful vocals to the choruses on “New Day,” giving it a churchy feel, if your church is the House of Twang for All People, sweetened by a harp sit-in by the legendary John Sebastian. Ironically, Sebastian, who got famous with The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 hit “Do You Believe in Magic,” apparently has switched sides, aiding and abetting Roby’s counterposition on “I Don’t Believe It’s Magic,” which states “we don’t need magic, Just love.”
Kenny Roby is a nice dip into the singer-songwriter’s musical gene pool, reflecting his inner demons and his outcasting methods.
Kenny Roby is out Aug. 5 via Royal Potato Family.