As his latest solo record, The Reservoir, was taking shape, singer-songwriter Kenny Roby (frontman for 6 String Drag) shared a sparse yet haunting tune with his good friend Neal Casal, an acclaimed guitarist and songwriter who’d worked with Willie Nelson, Phil Lesh, and many more. Written during a tumultuous time dealing with death and divorce, Roby asked Casal for his take on “Room 125.” Casal’s response: “It’s my life.” Tragically, a few months later, Casal died by suicide at the age of 50.
Tragedy is often the portal to beauty, and the passing of Casal, who’d signed on to produce The Reservoir, has brought forth meaningful music and community amid the grief. Casal’s good friend Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) had heard about the power in Roby’s new songs and stepped in to produce, gathering an impressive array of players that included Jesse Aycock, Jeff Hill, Tony Leone, and John Lee Shannon to bring them to life.
The Reservoir honors Casal with its clarity and vulnerability. These songs might represent Casal’s life, but the power of Roby’s songwriting is how well the stories connect with us all. “I never understood how people / Could make a life and be okay,” he admits on Reservoir’s opener “Don’t Ya Know What’s On My Mind.” The clean production throughout allows such confessions to hit home on every shot.
There are more questions than answers on The Reservoir, no matter the subject. In the aforementioned “Room 125,” Roby ponders some of those questions before realizing, “You see this motel’s just a prison in disguise / And you’re the one who locked yourself in Room 125.” He goes on to wrestle with Casal’s decision on “Silver Moon (For Neal)” as he sings, “I will never understand the hearts and minds of other men / So I pray here to the one who hung the moon.”
Musically, The Reservoir doesn’t veer far from its straightforward acoustic center. “Vampire Song (Whatcha Gonna Do?)” sounds like an older Jakob Dylan tune, while “History Lesson” chugs along more traditional tracks. “Hey Angelina” rides an old-school rock-and-roll groove, and the gospel flavor of “Watchin’ Over Me” is another highlight.
Roby originally wanted to call the album History Lesson but changed it to The Reservoir for the way it reminded him that there’s something left in all of us, no matter what has taken place in our past. It’s a beautiful sentiment found in this musical bouquet, largely grown from a season of despair and confusion.