Kenny Roby – Grace Notes
Into every musician’s life, some hard gigs must fall. Kenny Roby is playing one of those tonight, opening for a pop-rock band in front of hordes of frat-jock types at a benefit show. The cause — raising money for the medical expenses of a woman who tore up a leg playing soccer — is worthy enough. But a big chunk of the audience at downtown Raleigh’s Berkeley Cafe falls somewhere between inattentive and combative, hooting and hollering through Roby’s solo set.
Trying to be a sport, Roby does what he can, throwing a verse of “Mystery Train” into his new song “I Need A Train”. At one point, some dumbass in the crowd yells out everybody’s favorite new heckle: “Summer Of ’69!” Even though he knows only about half the chorus, Roby gamely gives it a try.
Finally, Roby puts down his acoustic guitar and steps back to the microphone to do one last song. Though he’s singing a cappella, Roby finally stops the crowd cold and gets everyone’s undivided attention:
Pass me not, oh gentle savior
Hear my humble cry
While on others Thou art calling
Do not pass me by…
You’d think an old Stanley Brothers hymn wouldn’t connect in such a setting. But Roby sings with such power and conviction that he’s not to be denied. The applause afterward is long and loud, before everyone goes back to drinking and flirting.
A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
“You know, I’ve always done stuff like that,” Roby says a few nights later, nursing a drink at another bar in Raleigh. “But I think I mean it more now. If that makes any sense.”
It does — not just the occasional gospel cover in Roby’s live sets, but also his new album Rather Not Know, released in October on the small indie label Morebarn. It’s not like Roby’s solo debut or his previous albums with 6 String Drag were unsubstantial or artificial; yet Rather Not Know still sounds like the same sort of breakthrough Bring The Family was for John Hiatt, if on a much more modest scale.
Like Hiatt’s 1987 classic, Rather Not Know was recorded quickly with minimal overdubs, befitting the drop-all-pretenses honesty of the songs. Roby describes it a record about “death, dying and reunion.” More than that, Rather Not Know is a record about being lost and finding your way back.
“I listened to my Lord there, with my head on the ground/He told me to go and sing in praise of what I’d found” — that’s a couplet from “Tidal Wave”, one of the album’s more overt expressions of faith. As it turned out, what Roby found was himself and his family, and also music.
“I do think it’s got something, more than any other record I’ve ever written,” Roby says. “It’s more fluid, cohesive, flows better. And there were stories before, but now there are stories with meaning.”
Even though the actual recording of Rather Not Know didn’t take much time, the album had a difficult gestation. It emerged from a long period of disenchantment after Roby released Mercury’s Blues in 2000.
Roby questioned the value of playing music at all, and was even heard declaring that he wouldn’t care if he never wrote another song. He put aside his guitar to stay home and tend to his two sons Ray and Charlie (now 5 and 3 years old) while his wife supported the family with her job.
Then his father died in October 2001 of complications from heart surgery. Although only 61, his father had heart problems for more than a decade, so it was not entirely unexpected. But that didn’t make his death any easier for the son to take.
“After my dad died, I was really confused about my place in the world, let alone my family,” Roby says. “I started going to church again, got sober, quit smoking. And I really didn’t know how I’d do music again. I went through this whole thing: ‘How can I continue singing in this town? Why am I doing this? Is it ego? To get songs out there? How important is that?’ I just questioned the whole thing. I wanted to be there for my family, and I didn’t know how to play music and do that.”