In the late 1990’s, I spent much of my time and limited disposable college income frequenting cramped music venues like The Brewery, Humble Pie, and Local 506. North Carolina’s Triangle region was hopping with roots rock and several local acts were poised and ready to strike the big time and bring attention to the area’s plentifully talented and creative musical gems. The most recognizable name of this bunch, both then and certainly now, was Ryan Adams, who at the time was branching out from Whiskeytown into the solo landscape, and often shared the bill and stage with other like-minded artists such as Chip Robinson, Tanya Lamm, and a tough looking fellow named Kenny Roby, whose day job was spent fronting jangly alt-country trio 6 String Drag, a terrific sounding band whose stellar albums were on constant shuffle in my CD player, during those technologically sparse, pre-download days.
Looking back now, we know that the era’s “alt-country”/No Depression movement never quite made it out of the modest club environment in which it was nurtured. And while Mr. Adams has elevated himself to fame and fortune in the ensuing years, many from that period have been quietly plugging away at their craft while holding down day jobs or other less glamorous means to ends in order to get by and pay the bills. And that’s where Roby has been hiding out for much of the last decade. He’s still been recording albums and hopping out for the occasional touring jaunt, but the majority of his time is spent like the rest of us: more Everyman than The Man. Fortunately, though, Roby hasn’t let life’s commitments keep him from writing and pursuing the craft. He’s resurfaced this year with Memories & Birds, an eight song narrative that serves both as his first release in seven years and a needed reminder of what an incredibly gifted songwriter and musician he is.
There’s a permeating sense of the Southern Gothic throughout this album, as Roby examines hard-luck drifters, figures of shadowy intentions, and lost souls struggling to pick up the pieces of their damaged lives. As a South Carolina native, writing from this genre perspective makes sense and allows Roby the authentic voice to lend his characters. Also, somewhat intentionally, according to Roby in the album’s promotional notes, these songs were written from a timeless perspective, one where their universal themes could most ring true: “(L)yrically many of these characters could be from any period. There is rarely a lyric that dates them.” After all, these are songs where young kids discover cruel realities, hardened adults rationalize their sinister intentions, and resigned couples cope with fleeting and lost romance. These are all classic Southern Gothic archetypes, for sure, yet standard enough emotions to resonate with any audience.
While the song cycle is thematically crafted like a novella, the music on Memories & Birds is more lush and leisurely paced than much of Roby’s previous output. The album’s first 30 seconds herald in this mood, as a slowly cascading blend of piano, clarinet, cello, and viola usher in Roby’s opening verse, gently crooned over the developing orchestration. It’s a painstaking and well-constructed arrangement that involves not only multiple instrumentalists, but surely also much thought and attention to detail. It’s a formula that repeats over the course of the album, as songs take their time to develop, often blooming from plaintive, acoustic ballads to sweeping orchestrations over the course of several minutes time. It’s a pattern that commands attention and multiple listens as the stories are given somewhat of a cinematic quality that is heightened with repeated examinations. It’s not all grand statements, though. Roby is also a soulful purveyor and knows how to get the fingers and toes tapping. He’s always been good with a hook, and this album still possesses a few, most notably the chorus on “The Monster”, which will prove a tough dismissal from your internal earworm after a listen or two. Like the songs’ characters who often build suspense and intrigue with their words and actions, so to do the musical arrangements. The combination of the two adds up to an album full of intrigue and mystery.
2013 may not be finding Roby as wealthy or as famous as his old pal, Adams, but it has found him back on his feet as a musician. These quiet years away from the musical grind have allowed him to painstakingly craft an album borne out of his vision and outlook, and the results sound pretty sweet. It’s a triumph for the spirit of the artist, and hopefully a sign of more good things to come.