“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music”: With new album Top of the World and a re-release of their Steve Earle-produced masterpiece, High Hat, this seminal Americana band from North Carolina marks another new beginning.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
There’s a certain truth to the saying “timing is everything.” And there’s no more pertinent application to that adage than in the music biz. Being on top of trends, recognizing relevant topics, and tuning in to an audience’s interests and expectations are absolutely essential when it comes to maintaining a viable and prolific career.
Consequently, when North Carolina’s 6 String Drag made their bow and formed in 1993, it seemed an ideal time in terms of fertile possibilities. The boundaries between rock, pop, punk and country were breaking down, and bands like Uncle Tupelo in particular were opening the door in hopes of encouraging that slow but steady transition. 6 String Drag’s archival influences were obvious — Van Morrison, the Replacements, the Stones, the Kinks and George Jones all made the cut — but the rough-hewn sound they crafted was all inclusive, one that could appeal to anyone with a devil- may-care attitude as well as a taste for homegrown sensibilities.
All was well and good, but despite a razor-sharp sound, a contract with Steve Earle’s E-Squared Records, two strong seminal albums (their self-titled 1995 debut and its excellent successor, High Hat, which followed in ’97 and was co-produced by Earle), the band never got the traction they deserved. In late 1998 founders Kenny Roby and Rob Keller went their separate ways in pursuit of their individual careers and the other band members dispersed as well. Roby in particular went on to a prolific solo career, releasing five solo albums — Mercury Blues (1999), Black River Sides (1999), Rather Not Know (2002), The Mercy Filter (2006) and Memories & Birds (2013; reviewed HERE) — but though he garnered his fair share of critical kudos, the absence between albums served to stifle his momentum.
Indeed, timing is the one thing that 6 String Drag always seemed to lack. Although the elements seemed stacked in their favor, their early masterpiece High Hat failed to win them the attention that outside observers reckoned that they had coming.
“I felt like we were changing the world…making Sgt. Pepper,” Keller’s been quoted as saying. “High Hat was not received like Sgt. Pepper. It was critically acclaimed, yet it did not sell as well as was expected.”
Roby has his own reasons for the failure of the band to maintain its forward progress. “I can’t go out and scream ‘give me some love,’” he insists. “There’s no telling what people listen to or why they listen to something, or why things catch hold or don’t catch hold. Or for that matter, what things come together to sell a band. We kind of broke up as we were on the upward mobility slant or whatever you want to call it. By the time 6 String Drag had a gotten a little bit of press recognition and some radio, and the record had come out, we were opening for Son Volt. We were post- the Uncle Tupelo world, but pre- the 2000 Americana explosion, the Avett Brothers and all that. So we were kind of in a bit of a lull.
“Do I wish I could make a little more money doing music? Yeah, probably. And have a quote-unquote career? Yeah, I guess. But you can’t change just one part of your life, ya know.”
Could the fact that the band only put out a pair of albums before breaking up and reforming some 17 years later have had anything to do with it? Maybe, Roby says. “But 6 String Drag at the time wasn’t much of a ‘pop’ band. If you listen to High Hat, it doesn’t sound like total pop music. We could have gotten into a little niche probably. It wasn’t quite as poppy as a Whiskeytown kind of thing, and it wasn’t as super country twangy as a lot of the country bands were at that time. I guess if I had to come up with an answer, I’d have to say that it wasn’t country enough for country and it wasn’t twangy enough for Americana.”
He pauses to reflect on that.
“I thought we were like a Doug Sahm kind of band, although we didn’t sound like Doug Sahm or the Sir Douglas Quintet,” he continues. “We were like a bar band that liked to embrace all kinds of music and the contemporary music of the ‘80s and ‘90s as well. Like a NRBQ or the Band. We have just as much fun playing to an intimate crowd at a corner bar dive with a bunch of people who like our music and sing along as we do on a theater stage. We’d love $30 a head and 2,000 people, but we’re totally comfortable being a bar band, a pub band. That’s when we’re at our best, just being loose and having fun.”
Likewise, he has a hard time coming up with a precise definition of exactly where the band fit in musically at the time. The explanation eludes him even today.
“We were like a lot of bands around that time, bands that took their cues from the Replacements and the Stones and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, kind of on the rootsier side of rock,” he suggests. “A lot of us grew up listening to punk rock and then getting into country rock. It was very similar to bands like Uncle Tupelo. That’s the kind of thing that appealed to us. I go back and listen to it now and of course I still like it. It’s like that slogan ‘three chords and the truth,’ which helped define punk rock. It’s like three chords and the truth for country, or three chords and the truth for blues…although sometimes there’s four. Maybe that was it. It was all the same to us. I never got into the super sophistication of bluegrass. I was never into progressive rock. I was into the Clash and Black Flag and the Bad Brains and Buck Owens and George Jones. It was always pretty simple, but it was also easy enough for me to do. I didn’t know enough about guitars or songwriting to play more complicated music than that. We didn’t think we were doing anything groundbreaking. It’s just these different waves of whatever’s popular. In the 2000s, they came up with this Americana thing. I thought Americana was a description for furniture.”
“We listen to a lot of different kinds of music and of course that rubs off on us,” Keller notes. “We get on this wavelength where we will get into things all at the same time. Recently, it’s been on the pop rockier side, from ‘60s Kinks to ‘70s glam rock, to ‘80s punk, and power pop. We probably would’ve made more records had we stuck together all these years because we’ve always been into this type of music.”
The sound he’s describing comes full circle on the band’s new album, Top of the World, due for release this March on Schoolkids Records. (Full disclosure: Schoolkids is BLURT’s sister business.) It’s their first undertaking since their initial post-breakup reunion, releasing the Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll album in 2015 (reviewed HERE). It also finds Roby and Heller still at the helm, with recent recruits — guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Luis Rodriguez, drummer Dan Davis, and producer Jason Merritt — offering able assistance. The album, clearly the band’s most effusive and assertive offering in terms of a genuinely accessible sound, follows the label’s vinyl (limited edition white vinyl at that) recent re-release of High Hat.
Roby, for one, is clearly excited about the new record’s direction.
“We recorded a lot of it at the same studio where we recorded the last one,” he explains. “But it’s more of a rock and pop record than the last one was. Real quick, real simple, ‘50s and ‘60s style songs. We tracked the record in four days. There were very few overdubs. For the most part the record was done by the time we walked out of the studio, except for the horns and the live vocals. Oddly enough, that’s the way we recorded High Hat, but High Hat was more of a rock record. We did basic tracks just like a basic rock band in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we spread out the recording a little longer back then to give us time to absorb the songs. Some of it is done the same way, but some things were done differently. It’s got elements of all of our records, but also the contributions that the new guys bring. I can’t always put my finger on what that is, as far as stylistically, but it does sound a little more layered. It’s a little more mature, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing for rock ‘n’ roll or Americana.”
As far as the re-release of High Hat is concerned, Keller sees that as a valuable additive that helps underscore the band’s re-emergence. “High Hat has been out of print, so we really needed it in our present catalog,” he says. “Also, it being 20 years makes it a good time to celebrate it. We always want to look forward in creating, so we just coincidentally have this new record at the same time.”
As Keller tells it, he and Roby have always kept in touch over the years, and have even occasionally played some shows together. Still, Roby suggests that the extent of the band’s ongoing efforts has a lot to do with practicality, saying, “We’ll play weekends. We’ve been playing on weekends for the last two years since the last record came out… actually, before the last record came out. We’ve even been doing some weeklong stints. Luis has been with us since we laid down the last album and Danny has been with us for the last year. So we’ve played a good amount of shows. We’ll start playing here and there and get out of the immediate area. But I don’t know how we could go out on the road all the time. With guys in their 40s… I don’t know.
Likewise, Roby is realistic when it comes to measuring the band’s prospects for success this time around. “We still have a lot of fun doing it and the carrot is just to get better at it,” he maintains. “As far as recognition is concerned, you just have to do the best you can as far as making records. You can only do so much. You can work your ass off and nothing will happen. Or you can do nothing, and something will happen. I don’t know what that ‘something’ is.” (Below, “something” happening for the band a couple of months ago.)
Ultimately, Roby remains pragmatic. “Hopefully you have good records,” he muses. “When someone turns around to look at you, hopefully you did your best and you have some good work for them to notice. With us, we haven’t sold a ton of records, so a lot of this resurgence is about looking back and maybe checking out one of the earlier albums or a record from my solo career or whatever. You always want to have good work, because you don’t want people to say, ‘What’s all that bullshit hype about?’
“All you can do is bust your ass to make good music. I’d rather make good music than have more fans. It would be nice to have more fans, but the carrot is still to make the next record the best you can make.”
Read our 2013 interview with Kenny Roby: “Rock, Roll & the Art of Discipline”