It hasn't been easy for Kenny Roby to get where he is now. The Raleigh, N.C., singer/songwriter first established himself in the 1990s as the frontman and principal songwriter for the alt-country band Six String Drag. The group—much like Knoxville's V-Roys, with whom they frequently toured—caught the attention of Steve Earle and his fledgling E-Squared label, but couldn't capitalize on their potential; Six String Drag broke up just after releasing its second album, High Hat, in 1997. What was supposed to be a breakthrough was instead a curtain call.
Roby stayed active for a few years after, releasing four solo albums, but quietly faded from public after The Mercy Filter in 2006. Now, seven years later, he's back, with a new album and an entirely different approach to music. Memories and Birds, set for release on April 2, is unlike any of Roby's previous music—quiet, ruminative, and carefully arranged with horns and strings. It's the least country of any music he's ever released, and a distinct creative reinvention.
"This record is kind of like my first record again," he says. "I had six years to write it. That first album, you have your whole life to write it, then you have no time to write the next one. So it's like my second freshman album, and I have the luxury to pull in whatever I want."
There's no big story behind Roby's withdrawal from music after 2006. He has two teenage sons and, for a while, a full-time job besides being a musician; and he took some evening classes a few years ago that interfered with performing. He says his reputation for disappearing is overstated.
"You know, I just take a long time between records," he says. "I have other stuff going on. I mean, this last time was a pretty good while between records, but before that it was two or three years. That's kind of a Guy Clark period. This one was kind of a double Guy Clark period. Those guys, Townes Van Zandt and Guy and those guys, they weren't making a record every six months. They were just waiting until they had the record to put out."
Roby kept writing songs, and when he finally decided he was ready to start work on Memories and Birds, it didn't take long to compile a batch of new songs and reworked versions of tunes he's passed over before.
"Some of the songs on the record are pretty new—I wrote them within six months to a year before they ended up on the record," he says. "Then some of them were songs that were from in between The Mercy Filter and this record that I just pulled in and they fit. Or maybe they had a melody and words that I didn't love so much and I changed the words—‘The Monster' is an old song that didn't make The Mercy Filter in its old version, so I rewrote the words and some of the melody to it."
He knew right away that Memories and Birds would be a reflective album. Roby points to Randy Newman's early records, Gillian Welch's Time (The Revelator), and Van Zandt's Our Mother the Mountain, from 1969, as touchstones for both the dark mood and elegant arrangements on the new disc, which recall Vic Chesnutt and Lambchop more than Six String Drag.
"As far as the arrangements, I let them go where they went," Roby says. "And a lot of time they started leaning toward '40s- and '50s- and '60s-style arrangements. Not exactly like that, but there was a lot of that stuff in there. Sometimes I thought, what kind of music would this character be into? What's the vibe of what music would have been going on in their heads, or were they listening to or influenced by?
"A good example is ‘The Craziest Kid Around': I had an arrangement that was kind of like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows' Beatles meet Tinariwen, African blues stuff with electric guitars. It was cool, but the further we got into it, I was like, no, this doesn't really fit the record. This kid is probably a kid in the '40s or '50s. It doesn't really fit his vibe. So I messed around and thought, he'd probably like stuff like cowboy music and campfire songs, maybe if it was in the '50s, Buddy Holly. I started to pick around on it like it was ‘Everyday,' by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. It was kind of cowboy—well, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison are cowboy-influenced, so we added strings and background vocals. It just kind of became what it is, and I was like, okay, he would have liked that."
CORRECTION: The release date for Roby's new album was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. It will be released on April 2.