by Ryan Meehan
After 16 years in hibernation, 6 String Drag is back to remind us a few things about real rock ‘n’ roll. In the late ‘90s, the Carolina quartet stood out as pioneers of the nascent alt-country movement. Their Steve Earle-produced LP, High Hat remains an undisputed classic of its era. (the band was also on Earle’s E-Squared Records) Now battle-scarred and road-wizened, today’s 6 String Drag is the sound of four kindred souls reunited, letting their own histories as human beings mingle freely around their shared love of classic, bygone sounds. Their exhilarating new recording, Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll, welds Kenny Roby and Rob Keller’s trademark harmonies to surging rhythms. Cut mostly live to tape, the effort is equal parts slap-back swagger and openhearted honesty – a triumphant return that celebrates rock’s first golden age by virtue of the grace, wit and insight found in Roby’s songwriting. “I was banging out these rock ‘n’ roll songs about being teenagers, about hanging out and passing time in small towns,” says Roby. “When it was time to record, we showed up on Thursday and left on Monday. I didn’t know if we’d be able to cut four songs in four days, let alone capture the 11 tracks that became the album.” That knife’s edge intensity is matched by a wooly, woody sound: Instruments bleed into vocal mics, bonding the sonority. Imperfection is celebrated, rather than painstakingly avoided. Ray Duffey’s swinging drums and Keller’s upright bass are the foundation, embroidered by Roby’s rhythm guitar and guitarist Scott Miller’s pointed leads—then thickened by an old-school horn section. The immediacy translates beautifully to record, elevating everything from the plaintive desperation of “Hard Times, High Times” to the self-effacing word play rave-up “Kingdom of Gettin’ It Wrong” to the rousing slide guitar snarl of “Sylvia.” “I’ve played with so many different people over the last 16 years,” Roby says. “But being back with these guys sure felt like being home again. Back in the day, Rob, Scott, Ray, and I were never at a loss for ideas, and it was deeply satisfying to find that’s still the same. When we undertook this record, we all hoped there would be chemistry. It turned out that there was way more than any of us expected.” Kenny Roby of 6 String Drag is my guest today in 7 questions.
RM: For those who aren’t familiar with the band’s history, what was the cause of the hiatus that lasted over a decade and a half? What made you finally decide to re-group and record what would eventually become “Roots Rock N’ Roll?”
KR: It wasn’t one particular reason. I think part of it was having young families shortly after our 2nd record came out. We were touring a decent amount and not making too much money. Not enough to not have regular jobs and still help out much with the family finances. Along with that there is the time and energy involved with trying to snowball a music career and also be there for our spouses and kids. Personally and from what I understand about others in the band, there wasn’t an unreasonable amount of direct pressure from spouses about becoming more “grounded” with family life. It was probably more self-imposed. A little bit of doing “the thing you are supposed to do” from a parental standpoint. From what I recall, I also personally felt that if we weren’t going to do the band full time then I didn’t want to put my energy into solo records and also a “part-time” band. In hindsight that was that was pretty bullheaded. We probably could have just said let’s play in our region on some weekends and make a record every few years. There are others factors too but none of them had much to do with the usual band breakup stuff. It wasn’t really musical differences and it wasn’t because we didn’t like each other.
RM: Why do you think that Scott’s guitar playing style seems to compliment what you do so well?
KR: I don’t know if I can put a finger on it. Scott is a pretty versatile player and has a ton of tricks and tools in his toolbox. He is either coming up with interesting melodies based on the songs or he is ripping off the right licks. He is rarely at a loss for ideas. He seems to know where the songs are coming from and does a great job helping them go further. And he works very fast. I love that. I like working fast as well. Trying not to overthink it.
RM: Your main guitar is a Fender Telecaster…What model is it; and why do you prefer that style of Tele? What does your amplification setup consist of, and do you use any outboard pedals and/or effects?
KR: My Tele is a 1967 neck with some kind of ’80s 2-piece ash body with parts from different years. It is literally glued and screwed together in places it shouldn’t be. It has a pretty different tone than a lot of Teles. Also, it is wired like an Esquire and only has the bridge pickup. Right now live I use a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It sounds decent and is a good reliable and cheap road warrior. Up until a year ago I played a ’90s Fender Vibroverb that I kick myself daily for selling. As far as pedals I usually use a TC Electronics Flashback Delay for a little slap or tape delay on a few songs and a Boss Tremolo pedal that I honestly don’t like very much. But those amps don’t have vibrato so until I get another Vibroverb….
RM: How much of the recording technology that was not available in 1997 when you released the previous album “High Hat” did you take advantage of while compiling the new album?
KR: We recorded a good bit of this record to tape like we did back in the day, but this time were able to dump things to Protools and do edits of live tracks that would have been much harder with tape. But we could have done most everything we did with tape, but the computers made some of those things easier. Also, we were able to get much better reverbs and effects that could be pretty bad back in 1997.
RM: What is the biggest difference between the material that appears on “Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll” and the music which comprised your last release?
KR: There were more loud rockers on other 6 String Drag records. There was a little more influence of the ROLL in rock ‘n’ roll on this record. We also kept the arrangements simple on this record. Very straightforward. We tried to keep the energy up and perform the songs the best we could in a mostly live setting. The material seemed to lend itself to hanging out in the studio and just having fun playing with old friends. Very low pressure.
RM: Why do you think you guys were able to get in and out of there in four days as opposed to being stuck there for a month or longer? Was there even a brief period at any point during that short stay where things weren’t rolling along and moving better than you had initially expected?
KR: I think part of it was that fact that we hadn’t really played much together at all leading up to the recording of the record so we were excited when it started to click. We were chomping at the bit for the next song. If we needed to overdub an additional instrument we did it right then and moved on. We didn’t have much time or even much of a desire to second guess what we were doing. When you get together with old friends/bandmates and know you only have a few days to hang out, you try to fit as much in as you can. We just did it musically instead of taking a road trip together or whatever people do when they do that kind of thing.
RM: How would you best describe the band’s writing process from inception of an idea all the way through to mastering? What percentage of the song would you say is written when you arrive at rehearsal or a recording session with a hook or any other general idea you might have for a song?
KR: For this record I had the melodies and lyrics and the basic chords for the songs when I came in. Then we might change keys or try different rhythms or grooves for the songs. Rob and I might work on the harmonies some. We will run through it til we get the right feel then pick a take to use. Basically we just play music and take out what we don’t like or that isn’t needed and keep what we like and what we think is needed. I had given demos of some of these songs to the fellas and some of them they had never heard. OOOEEOOOEEOO for example; I had literally finished writing it a few days before the sessions and showed it to the band when while we had headphones on to record another songs. We played it through a few times and that was it. A guitar overdub right away and horn parts added later and that’s that.
RM: What’s up next for 6 String Drag in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
KR: We’ll be playing mostly in the Southeast with a few little runs up to the Northeast and the Midwest. Hopefully we will jump on a few late summer and fall festivals as well. Meanwhile I am working on new songs for the band. No rest for the restless.
Official Website: http://www.6stringdrag.com/
6 String Drag on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/6stringdrag
6 String Drag on Twitter: http://twitter.com/6stringdrag
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