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6 String Drag ends two decade smoke break with "Roots Rock 'N' Roll"

By Brian Baker, February 2015

The last time Kenny Roby assembled 6 String Drag to record a new studio album, Bill Clinton had just handily secured his second term as president. That album was 1997's acclaimed "High Hat," and within months of its release, 6SD had dissolved, sadly capping a brief Americana/roots rock run that had seemed so promising after their brilliant 1994 self-titled debut, their signing to Steve Earle's fledgling E-Squared label and the nearly universal praise that greeted "High Hat."

Three presidents and 17 years later, Roby revived the long-dormant band for their unexpected and totally satisfying third album of new material, "Roots Rock 'N' Roll."

The ground was softened for the release last year when Roby dug out and cleaned up some unreleased 6SD tapes, which he posted as the download album "The JAG Sessions" on the group's Bandcamp page. The response was good, and the nostalgic glance back inspired Roby to contact his old band mates to see if anyone had input on material he had written for his next project.

"I had some songs, I was itchy to record, and (bassist) Rob (Keller) and I had talked on and off for the last few years and done shows with different bands," says Roby. "We thought it would be great to write a little bit and record. I'd see him play bass with other people and be like, 'Damn it, that's my bass player!' Rob and I have never been on bad terms at all, barely even an argument. It helps that he's pretty passive, but never a problem. We got along musically. It just made perfect sense."

The process began with Roby and Keller playing a show together in late 2013 when Roby's bassist couldn't make the gig. He immediately called Keller, who gladly agreed to fill in.

"We decided to do some 6 String Drag songs and a couple covers and some of my songs that fit, the rootsier kind of thing, compared to my last record," says Roby. "It was all new guys in the group for that show, so there wasn't a lot of pressure. We had a blast doing that, so we said, 'We gotta work this out.' My obsessive/compulsive nature took over, and I started burning on it."

Roby assumed that original drummer Ray Duffey, now teaching and practicing furniture design in Indiana, would be unavailable so he started canvassing other beat keepers. Next, he provisionally held some studio time and contacted producer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Merritt, his co-producer on "Memories & Birds," about working on the upcoming recordings.

"We wanted to keep it mostly live; we were going to have to, with how limited Rob was in getting up here," says Roby. "I talked to Dave Wright, who was in 6 String Drag at one point - he played some keys and trombone on and off in the past - and Rob Farris, who had played in my solo band at different times. He said, 'Who you gonna get to play guitar?' And I said, 'I'm not sure yet.' And he goes, 'Well, Keller's gonna be there, and (former 6SD guitarist) Scotty (Miller) lives in town. We should get Scott.'"

Although Roby insists there was "no baggage" between he and Miller, the two hadn't spoken for many years, largely due to conflicting schedules and work commitments. Getting past his reservations, Roby called Miller, who immediately and enthusiastically agreed to being involved.

"As soon as he was into it, he goes, 'Well, you know if me and you and Rob are there, we have to get Duffey,'" says Roby. "So I talked to him, and he said, 'I haven't really been playing a lot of drums with anybody, but I'll practice.' So he agreed to it."

At that point, neither Roby nor anyone else was referring to what was shaping up to be an actual 6 String Drag reunion.

"We didn't want anybody to feel like we were doing a 6 String Drag record," says Roby. "We were just making a record of songs I wrote, with old friends who used to play together. It kind of had to be that way. There had to be less pressure. It was like, 'I don't give a shit what we call this, let's just go make some music together.' So we got a couple extra guys and the main four from the last version of 6 String Drag, and when we did it, it was like, 'That's 6 String Drag.' It didn't matter until it was done."

Two weeks before recording "Roots Rock 'N' Roll," most of the album's participants - except Duffey, who was unavailable - came to Raleigh for an afternoon pre-production session, which was a prelude to a show that evening.

"Until that day, we'd never played the songs together," says Roby. "We only went through three or four of the new songs before the show. Two weeks later, I pick Duffey up at the airport on the way to Kernersville, N.C. Rob comes up from Athens. We meet with Jason at the studio. We come in about 9, and we recorded 'Sylvia' at 10:30...the version you hear. We recorded 'Sylvia' and 'The Kingdom of Gettin' It Wrong' that night. We weren't driving race cars or flying planes for the first time, but musically, it was pretty high risk."

To a certain extent, the album's unplanned nature - from not viewing the project as a 6SD reunion proper to allowing for instrumental flexibility among the players - is the very quality that gives "Roots Rock 'N' Roll" its diversity and edge. And the album's energy clearly comes from the fact that, save for minor overdubs, it was recorded live on the studio floor.

"Rob is standing three feet from Ray's drum kit," says Roby. "That's why everything sounds like it's in the same place. It literally is. It was a total experiment."

Roby notes one somewhat major change on "Roots Rock 'N' Roll" from the earlier 6SD sound. On the new album, he plays acoustic guitar exclusively while Miller handles the electric duties, eliminating the interplay between electric guitars that characterized a number of the band's songs.

"On certain songs, not everything," says Roby. "Hell, I had some songs where he played acoustic or banjo, and I did the lead. Or the main electric guitar; I don't know if you'd call it a lead."

Perhaps 6 String Drag's most definable element was the exquisite harmonies that Roby and Keller produced together. According to Roby, that dynamic changed during the pair's decade-and-a-half hiatus.

"It was better," says Roby. "Rob was a lead singer in different rock bands at times, and he was also singing more tenor and harmony stuff, higher vocals, with 6 String Drag, and he was in a bluegrass band back in the day called The Drovers, and he was the harmony singer and upright bass player in that band."

"Now, he has a bluegrass band of his own, so he's just become a better all-around singer, and a better lead country-ish singer, and I know more about harmonies now. He's a better lead singer now and I'm a better harmony. Songs like 'The Kingdom of Gettin' It Wrong' are way better than would have been back in the day; his harmony vocals are more like an Everly Brothers thing, like he's trying to sing like me. And back then we had more distinct voices, and I think they meld better now. We were surprised that it was better."