“There was a feeling back then of promise and that you might actually make a living at music someday. I’m not sure if 6 String Drag ever expected to play any stadiums, but we thought me might make a living in an NRBQ kind of way.” — Kenny Roby, frontman for the band.
When 6 String Drag first appeared on the scene in 1993, the Americana scene was still in its infancy. As one of the earliest alt-country bands of the era — a point in time at which Uncle Tupelo was winding down, Whiskeytown hadn’t yet formed, and scene bible No Depression was still a couple of years away from launching — the quartet, headed up by vocalist/songwriter/guitarist Roby and bassist Rob Keller, played a major role in eventually making the term “Americana” part of the musical lexicon. Now, with the impending arrival of a new album titled Top of the World, 6 String Drag broadens its collective purview, incorporating classic British Invasion pop, tough-as-nails ’70s rock and punk, and more. The album, due out March 9, 2018, will be available on digital, CD and vinyl
Roby and Keller, along with guitarist/multi-
That they consistently did for Top of the World, crafting 11 gems that are both unique in their own right and uniquely 6 String Drag, from pumping opener “Never Turn My Back on You Again” and the pub-rocking, rebels-kinda-with-a-cause “Small Town Punks,” which finds Roby vividly recalling his younger self (“Ya see, there was no formal plan/ We would fall out of the van/ Into the street/ High as a kite/ Fly up I-85/ Learnin’ cool from other scenes/ And pollutin’ other dreams/ For somethin’ new…” and “The path of least to be/ With the freaks of the scene/ And the small town punks like me”); to the raucous, handclaps-and-Hammond-
“It isn’t quite the almost live and somewhat frantic approach, like 1997’s High Hat,” says Roby, of the sessions for Top of the World. “And Roots Rock ’N’ Roll was really intentionally recorded like a ’50s and ’60s record. This record isn’t super layered but it isn’t always just a raw 4 piece approach. It just depended on the song — we just took it song by song in what we felt the song needed or wanted.”
“I think some of the songs lean towards influences of certain artists, but not as an overall approach to a whole album. We have always listened to classic bands like the Kinks, Stones, Beatles, Themand Van Morrison, The Band, etc. And there’s the whole punk rock and
70s rock thing that always comes into play. The whole band had actually been getting into Rockpile, Thin Lizzy and Mott the Hoople when we were in the process of making the record, so that probably seeped in on this record a little.”
The album also features guests John Ginty on keys/organs and Matt Douglas on horns. Ginty has been a member of or played in the studio with Robert Randolph, Whiskeytown (Stranger’s Almanac), Neal Casal, Citizen Cope, Jewel, Allman Brothers, Government Mule/Warren Haynes and currently the Dixie Chicks. Matt Douglas is a touring and recording member of Hiss Golden Messenger and Mountain Goats and also played on 6SD’s Root Rock ‘n’ Roll and on Roby’s Memories & Birds.
Preceding Top of the World is a 20th anniversary edition of the aforementioned High Hat, outJanuary 11. Originally released in 1997 on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label, it was produced by the Twangtrust, a.k.a. the studio team of Earle and Ray Kennedy. Roby explains that E-Squared had generously returned the master tapes and publishing rights to its bands: “It was really cool of them to set it up that way. They didn’t have to do that.” In addition to the reissue on CD and first time on most digital formats, this will be the first time High Hat has been made available on vinyl — a numbered, limited-edition white vinyl edition no less. “Fans have been asking us about putting High Hat out on vinyl for years,” continues Roby. “We have wanted to reissue it on vinyl, and Schoolkids Recordswanted to help. There was some work to get that all together, but not a ton. We figured it would be fun to get both a reissue out 20 years later and then also give folks a brand new record to absorb shortly after.”
By the time 6 String Drag was ready to record High Hat in late ’96, the alt-country scene was raging, with No Depression-championed artists like Wilco, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, and the Old 97’s all having released key records. 6 String Drag, which Roby and Keller originally formed in Clemson, South Carolina, and was named after Stanley Brothers song “5 String Drag,” already had an eponymous album under its belt and was prepared to step up its game for Earle and Kennedy. Along with drummer Ray Duffey and guitarist Scotty Miller, Roby and Keller served up a set showcasing an already-impressive range of songwriting and arranging skills.
High Hat has clearly stood the test of time, with highlights then and now including straight-up alt-country rock (“Bottle of the Blues,” “Ghost”), Bakersfield-meets-gospel rock (“Top of the Mountain”), twangy melodic anthemism that wouldn’t be out of place on an Earle or Springsteen album (“Elaine,” Cold Steel Brace”), even modified Dixieland (“Over and Over”). There’s also a bonus track not on the original album, a high ’n’ lonesome cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Lorene.”
At the time, reviews were enthusiastic across the board, but by 1998 the members had decided to part amicably, each musician heading off to his own project and new family commitments. Roby and Keller, though, still kept in touch over the years. In 2013, a year or so after Roby’s solo albumMemories & Birds was released, Roby invited Keller to guest on bass for a festival date, and they wound up playing a number of 6 String Drag songs. “We had a blast!” remembers Roby. Early the following year the pair also reunited with High Hat era guitarist Scott Miller to play a reunion show in Raleigh ultimately leading to a reunion in the studio along with drummer Ray Duffey to cut new material that would become Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll, released in early 2015. (Prior to that album, in 2014 they put out The Jag Sessions, an archival collection of unreleased tracks from ’96 and ’98.)
Of the current lineup, Roby has nothing but good things to say about Rodriguez and Davis, who came into the fold in 2014 and 2016, respectively. “Luis and Dan keep the band fresh and injected with a youthful attitude,” he says. “And Rob and I have the foundation and history with the band. That was a great balance on this record. They are both monster players in my book.
As noted above, heading in to the Top of the World sessions producer Merritt already had a history with 6 String Drag. Says Roby, “Jason has kind of been like a member of the band on these records as far as input. He gets a voice like everyone else in the band. Jason is very easy to work with as a producer and engineer — he’s super-fast and decisive as an engineer, which is exactly what you want.
“Everyone was fired up to make the record and all during the process. We were learning the songs and having a new and fresh studio experience as a band together. It is the most fun I have had making a record by far. The chemistry has been really good and we are still learning each other and how to put our grooves close to the right spot — which is great! It’s new enough to have room to grow.”
Looking back upon the nascent Americana scene that spawned 6 String Drag, Roby admits he’s not altogether certain where his band fits in now — and he’s not particularly worried about it, either.
“I never knew a ton about the music business compared to a lot of folks in it. I know what I need to know — enough to not jump off a roof from knowing too much! We had a lot of damn fun back then. We still do. But I don’t know much about a lot of current twangy or Americana acts — or whatever that even means. I never really did. I always thought us and other bands were just roots-leaning rock ’n’ roll bands that dipped our feet into some traditional music — in the way that the classic American and British rock bands always did.
“I know it is kind of a cliché to say, but I think we are just a traditional rock band overall. Hopefully a few people will say or think, ‘Man, those are some good songs and that’s a good band there.’ If not — back to the studio!”