Kenny Roby – Grace Notes
As part of his renewed Catholic regimen, Roby also enrolled in adult-education classes, studying subjects such as “The Theology of the Body.” In a strange way, Roby says, he “kind of went off the deep end” by going so hard in the opposite direction from his life as a touring musician. “Like that Doug Sahm song about, ‘I don’t wanna go home’ — man, that was me,” he says. “Now, I don’t want to go back to that. Before, I was on the edge.”
Somewhat ironically, religion wound up being the catalyst that sparked Roby’s return to music. Discussions with his theology teacher about popular music and how to show grace while singing secular songs eventually inspired Roby to start writing again. “Grace” is a word that comes up a lot with Roby, in conversation as well as in his lyrics.
“I was torn between that whole secular/gospel thing. I really did think about doing a total Shot Of Love move, just straight-up gospel,” he says, referring to Bob Dylan’s heavily religious period, circa 1980. “I listened to Shot Of Love a lot. ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ is like beyond Dylan, that may be his best song. That’s probably heresy to some people, but it’s more important than Dylan.
“Yeah, he got all preachy, but he felt it. It wasn’t just songs for the sake of songs, it was about showing grace. And I realized you can still show grace even with secular music — like Bruce Cockburn, or ‘Rather Not Know’,” he observes, referring to the title track to his new album.
“I play benefits as much as possible now because it’s what I’m supposed to do, I think,” Roby continues. “If I can do some good for somebody who has less than me, I’m not gonna turn it down. Like that Berkeley show, I didn’t know that girl. But where $200 might last me three days, for somebody with a smashed-up leg who can’t work, that means a lot more.
“I might not sing praise in every song, and I still fall off the wagon” — Roby pauses to nod at the drink in front of him — “but there’s that sense of grace there. I hope people get that, even if we’re at a party or a club, cursing and hootin’ and hollerin’. That attitude is one of the biggest changes in me as far as music since my dad died.”
Roby pauses to take a sip before continuing.
“I don’t mean to rant,” he concludes, “but I don’t think I’d be playing music now without this.”
Roby grew up the youngest of six children (and the only one who didn’t graduate from college) in Clemson, South Carolina, where his father taught engineering and math. Before that, the elder Roby was in the Navy for 21 years. So at his funeral, Kenny dusted off an old 6 String Drag song called “Sailor’s Request” and sang it as the casket was lowered into the ground:
Well take me to the edge of God’s green earth
Leave me there for what I was worth
My soul will kick and twitch enough
To kick this coffin off its bluff
Where I’ll rest in the cradle of the deep blue sea
‘Cause she’s the only one for me
Oh darlin’ will you let me in
It could be my last time through again
You know me and you know dry land
The ocean you don’t understand
It brought tears to the eyes of some onlookers. In no time at all, Roby was writing songs again — and once he started, they came in a rush.
On the train back home to Raleigh from his dad’s funeral in South Carolina, he wrote “Tidal Wave”. Perhaps inspired by that train ride, he wrote “I Need A Train” the next morning in the shower. Combined with some other songs he already had, including “Blues Too Blue To Mention” (which dated back to 6 String Drag) and the lighthearted-yet-serious “Glad It Ain’t Me”, an album began to take shape.
As Roby worked, however, one song continued to elude him. He had started it about a month after his dad died, while driving back from visiting his mom with the kids. He kept passing roadside monuments people left at the scene of fatal auto accidents, and thinking about a near-fatal car wreck his father had on Thanksgiving Day 1995. A young man hit a highway median, flipped his car over and hit the elder Roby’s car head-on. Roby’s dad survived, but the other driver didn’t.
“But I just could not finish this song,” Roby says. “Then a few months later, I was about to do my first show in a while. The kids were watching TV and I was in one of their rooms, trying to get it and I just couldn’t. So I started banging around on guitar and suddenly wrote ‘Rather Not Know’ in one sitting. Sang it in the car on my way to Richmond, played it first and it went over really well. I get itchy with new songs, want to play them right away.”