Six String Drag comes together again, sort of

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJanuary 2, 2014 

While it’s unclear whether this represents an actual “reunion,” the great Raleigh alternative-country band Six String Drag is getting back together to play and record.

COURTESY OF RANDY ADA

  • Details

    Who: Six String Drag (Boneslinger opens)

    When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: The Pour House, 224 S. Blount St., Raleigh

    Cost: $10 online, $15 door

    Details: 919-821-1120 or thepourhousemusichall.com

Look up the show schedule for Raleigh’s Pour House Music Hall, and you’ll see Saturday’s listing as Six String Drag. And yes, Kenny Roby, Rob Keller and friends will be onstage harmonizing together as Six String Drag – one of the great underrated bands in local music history – for the first time since 2005.

As to the nature of what happens beyond Saturday night, or whether this really qualifies as a “reunion” at all, that’s all a bit murkier. There’s actually a record in the works, which Roby and company will begin recording in two weeks at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium. But for now, they’re not spending much time or energy worrying about what it will be called.

“We are not making, per se, a planned ‘Six String Drag album,’ ” Roby explains. “But I do have a bunch of new songs that, through some weird mind-bending and manipulation, turned out to be the kind of songs the Six String Drag guys are perfect for. Keller and I were talking about recording together, kicking ideas around, and it all just sort of came together. So we’re gonna run in and do it. Just get together, arrange everything real fast and then play. Which is not a way anybody makes records anymore.”

Roby says he has about two dozen new songs ready to go, “written very fast, in about as much time as they take to play.” Whatever winds up happening, it’s been a long time coming. During Raleigh’s mid-’90s alternative-country heyday, Six String Drag was one of the best live bands in town – which is to say one of the best bands in the country, especially the shows with a horn section.

‘High Hat’ a high mark

On-record, Six String Drag also made one of the great long lost classics of that era, 1997’s “High Hat.” Co-produced by Steve Earle and released on his E Squared Records, “High Hat” was a genius blend of twangy pop sense, bar-band fire and high lonesome vocal harmonies from Keller and Roby, who sounded like the Louvin Brothers backed up by a heavy-metal soul band.

Alas, “High Hat” didn’t break through and Six String Drag dissolved in the late 1990s with little fanfare. The breakup was as amicable as breakups ever are, with all the principles frequently turning up on each other’s records. They’ve also done one-off reunions twice, for benefit shows in 2003 and 2005.

While they’ve all had some fine individual moments (especially Roby’s 2003 solo album “Rather Not Know,” and Keller’s current band Welfare Liners), none of them have approached the heights of “High Hat.” Strange to say, however, that Roby is not among that album’s bigger fans.

“As much as people love that record, we sang those songs a lot better live than what’s on the record,” Roby says. “It’s not my imagination, I’ve heard recordings. But (the producers) were really adamant about first takes and not fixing or overdubbing anything, almost like it was a matter of principle. It was warts and all, which I think kind of backfired.”

Roby pauses to laugh.

“Yeah, everybody hates their own records, looking in the mirror,” he sighs. “I could write a book about it, but I’d sound bitter and some good things came out of it. My disappointment in ‘High Hat’ was that it would’ve been so much better if we’d just taken a little more time to focus the energy on how well Rob and I could sing together. Make everything else real live, but get the best vocal performance without being told ‘move on.’ 

‘Like kids again’

One reason Roby is of a mind to rock again is “Memories & Birds,” his 2013 solo album. It’s quite fine, but also hushed, measured and restrained almost to a fault. Getting every sound just so was an arduous process. After a long stretch of laborious detail work, Roby is ready to let the feedback fly.

“It just seems like a good time to get together with old friends and play,” Roby says. “There were no big issues when we broke up, just different directions in everybody’s lives. Rob and I are still the best friends in the world, Ray (Duffey) is one of my best buddies. And I got together with Scott (Miller) the other day and it was so fun – none of the (expletive) from touring, just playing music. Playing with those guys is like riding a bike and I was almost giddy, laughing at how easy it was. The muscle memory’s all there. It was jaded and innocent at the same time. Wiser, I guess, a little childlike. Maybe we’re getting so old and feeble that we’re like kids again.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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