Alt-country songwriter Kenny Roby dynamites ‘The Reservoir’ of reservations

Kenny Roby

When singer-songwriter Kenny Roby first got sober back in 2004, it was a 12 Step self-help group that put him on a path of personal and artistic renewal.

Two years later, he released the most critically acclaimed album of his solo career, “The Mercy Filter,” a record that detailed his sober journey in cryptic ponderings about faith and God and the search for meaning. He kept the recovery principle of anonymity in mind when discussing the record with the press, out of respect for the program and because it wasn’t a conventional “recovery record” — in many aspects, the songs detailed his artistic process and what he was going through at the time. Then, seven years later, he followed it up with “Memories and Birds,” transitioning from that into the reunion of his old band, 6 String Drag, which rode the mid-1990s wave of Americana to modest success.

The Ties That Bind UsBut somewhere along the way, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he lost focus. And while he’s never gone back to booze or hard drugs, another substance seemed like a good idea at the time.

“Around 2015, I was having some trouble handling some stress and anxiety, and I had plenty of friends outside of recovery who smoked pot, and I just thought, ‘You know what? I never did any shitty deeds because I was just smoking pot. I never lost my mind to where I did anything that had any major repercussions due to it,’” he said. “So I tried the marijuana maintenance program. Maybe in some ways it helped, and in some ways not so much.

“About mid-2019, I lost my shit. A lot of things just hit me at once. Some of what I was dealing with was a delayed reaction to my marriage splitting up five months earlier. There were aspects of that, and also mental health problems I didn’t realize were under the surface, or to what extent. I was just down in a hole, really. The pot wasn’t helping me feel grounded and didn’t help with having a clear mind, so I quit again.

“I’m a recovering addict, and I don’t do things in moderation very well, so I dropped it,” he added. “Ultimately it was my stinkin’ thinkin’, as they say, that led me back into the rooms. There was a lot going on in my life that I was having a hard time dealing with. I wasn’t emotionally sober.”

And so began the resurrection of Kenny Roby, take two: Only this time, he found himself changing everything, from how he coped with life to where he lived it, and on the other side of it, he released a stellar new album: “The Reservoir,” his most intimate collection of songs to date. Putting himself out there, he added, wasn’t just intentional — it was cathartic, and in so doing, he hopes he lifts up a light for others who are stumbling around in darkness, as he once was.

“It’s a very short life, and I’m not going to beat myself up based on what people might think I’m doing in my life,” he said. “What we have to gain by sharing honestly is much more powerful and important than what we have to lose by sharing our experience honestly. Generally, we might save a little face by not sharing honestly, but what I’ve come to understand is that my life, and other people’s lives, can depend on being open in some ways about what you’re going through, so that people can relate, and so that they can maybe have permission to share honestly about what they’re going through.

“‘The Reservoir’ is more direct than ‘The Mercy Filter.’ It’s more raw, and most of the songs put it out on the floor for others to see. I don’t need to share all of the specifics, but it is important that I speak of the struggles in a way that folks can relate to and hear.”

Kenny Roby and the birth of 6 String Drag

While they weren’t the first band to be considered alternative country, Uncle Tupelo’s release of “No Depression” in 1990 opened a floodgate for bands that fused roots music with punk energy and a songwriter’s earnestness. Alt-country would eventually give way to the generic Americana tag, but in the 1990s, it was a refreshing new sound on college rock airwaves, and nowhere did talent seem to spring from the ground more prolifically than in the Carolinas. 6 String Drag got its start as part of a wave that included Whiskeytown and Two Dollar Pistols, among numerous others.

Roby formed 6 String Drag back in 1993 after his punk band broke up; moving back to his hometown of Clemson, S.C., he and old friend Rob Keller formed the group and recorded a self-titled album released on Fundamental Records; at a festival in Atlanta, country-rock maverick Steve Earle, who had just started a Warner Bros. imprint label called E-Squared Records, “discovered” the group and offered them a contract. The guys went in to cut “High Hat,” released in 1997 and considered an often-overlooked gem from the early days of the alt-country movement.

In 1998, 6 String Drag broke up, and Roby made two solo albums. In the meantime, he continued to struggle with different substances, and six years after the band split, Roby found himself ready to get clean. There was no rock bottom flameout that made him the subject of the music industry rumor mill; he simply recognized it was time to do something about his problem, and he sought help in a recovery program.

“I became part of a recovery fellowship and worked a program for a few years, but then I sort of did it on my own,” he said. “My kids were coming of age, and I wanted to be a lot more involved as a father with school and clubs and sports. I was able to get in touch with my mind and take different spiritual roads, and also put my energy into the family stuff, which was great, but I became a little untethered from aspects of the programs and recovery as time went on, and I got away from being regularly involved.

“Everybody has their own path, but if I look at it in hindsight, I may not have made some of the missteps or gone over those bumps as fast if I had more recovery in my pocket or been more connected with a fellowship to share what I was going through and keep myself in check.”

On “The Mercy Filter,” Roby married the chiming guitar work that gave 6 String Drag such a distinctive sheen with the ruminations of a man seeing the world through fresh eyes. His voice has always born a striking resemblance to Elvis Costello’s, but Roby’s range on “The Mercy Filter” steers from the enthusiasm of rock ‘n’ roll to the lovely croon of deep introspection, all of it cloaked in broader themes rather than specific ones.

“With ‘The Mercy Filter,’ my kids were younger, and with them going to elementary school and church, I thought, ‘This stuff is going to be in the paper, so I should be more careful about how I say things in the press to protect theirs and my anonymity about my specific struggles,’” he said.

Kenny Roby: The man comes around

Kenny RobyAstute listeners picked up on those themes anyway: In a review in the alt-country magazine No Depression, the writer points out that “passing through these thirteen songs are despair and disease countered by relief and recovery, along with searches for identity and strength, and maybe even some form of salvation.”

The thing about salvation, however … at least when it takes the form of recovery from a drug and alcohol problem … is that it’s conditional. Emotional and spiritual maintenance are necessary, and when it came time to put together songs for “The Reservoir,” Roby found himself revisiting many of those old themes. This time around, the wisdom of age and dedication to craft made for a different sort of experience, he said.

“It’s all about some of the same things on both of those records: all of the self-centered obsessiveness, the fear-based thinking, all of that stuff, and everybody should get something from that,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to be exactly 17 years without drinking then gone back and smoked pot and have my same story to relate. It’s about not isolating, and I think a lot of people can identify with that — the dangers of living in that kind of mind and soul.”

It all came to a head, the second time around, after his divorce, he said. He found himself staying with his mother in South Carolina, providing support she needed with some health concerns, but the emotional walls kept closing in. The weed and trying to handle his emotional sobriety alone wasn’t working anymore, and at one point, he told his mother he thought he might be having a nervous breakdown.

“I told her, ‘You’re going to have to send me to pre-hab, a mental health facility or something else, so I don’t go out and do harder stuff or look for a permanent solution,” he said. “I had thoughts of suicide, which I had only toyed with in my mind a handful of times in my life. I just couldn’t handle my mind, but then I sort of had an epiphany: ‘Ya know, I used to go to these meetings in the basement of churches, and maybe that would be something to try.’ So I went to a meeting, and I just laid it all out in the floor, laid it out in the light, and I just cried in the middle of the meeting. I told my story in about 5 minutes and let everybody know a little bit of what I was going through.”

As is par for the course in those meetings, others in recovery circled the wagons and gave him their phone numbers. He went back, eventually switching 12 Step fellowships, and what he found was that the meetings helped him do more than become abstinent.

“I just quit smoking pot, and that was pretty quick. It was no big deal, and I didn’t miss it that much,” he said. “I wanted to get my mind straight, to work on spiritual principles, to work on my emotional sobriety. I went for my thinking, to put my stuff on the floor and get a network. And so I got involved with the fellowship, I got a sponsor, and I started working Steps again.”

Building 'The Reservoir'

Recovery is about recognizing patterns — beneficial ones, of course, but also the ones that lead those with predilections toward substance abuse into self-destructive zones. By throwing in his lot with others who work to move out of those zones, he found a camaraderie that helped to alleviate his emotional distress, he said.

“Everybody struggles, everybody suffers, and recovery is just sort of a specific branch or sect of that suffering,” he said, “The human condition is relatable to all: We all have defects of character, but people in recovery help each other with some of the extremes, Our normal human shortcomings become defects of character when our actions don’t line up with our values, and my friends in recovery help me keep things in line.

“That’s why reaching over and helping another person, either another person in recovery or just another human being, are actions on which you can stand. Giving a speech gives you nothing.”

In receiving the message carried to him by others trudging the same road, he began to see that relaying that message lit up the spiritual switchboard in his mind that made him feel more truly connected to the world around him. As a result, he was able to craft his own message in a way that found resonance with others — through the songs he had started writing that would eventually become part of “The Reservoir.”

Some of them made their way to his old friend and fellow musician, Neal Casal. A veteran of Rickey Medlocke’s Blackfoot, Ryan Adams’ backing band The Cardinals, Hard Working Americans and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Casal received Roby’s rough demo of “Room 125” and was floored, and for good reason: The lyrics are the portrait of a man stripped to the bone, back against a veritable mountain of pain and misty darkness shrouding all routes of escape:

“What do you do when loneliness surrounds you? Holds you in its grip all through the night? The daytime brings you no relief and no one’s there to listen, and you hold your tongue when something don’t seem right …”

“I shared that with him, and he was like, ‘Fuck, man, that’s my life,’” Roby said. “The stuff I was writing, he was relating to so much. I didn’t know he was going back deep in the hole of his own personal struggles. I knew vaguely, through him and friends, but not the extent of what was going on or the things he was struggling with, and maybe that should have been a red flag. At the time, I looked at it as, ‘Great, Neal’s getting something out of this.’”

Less than six weeks after Roby went back to the rooms of recovery, Casal committed suicide. It was, Roby said, a tragedy that rocked him to his core.

“I was just coming out of the woods, feeling better, getting my feet under me and feeling stronger and more supported and more stable — in my recovery, in my thinking, in my spirituality,” he said. “I was getting grounded again, and that obviously knocked me on my ass. If it weren’t for recovery, I’m not sure I would have made it to that point. I might have been first.”

Laying it all on the line

Kenny RobyBefore he checked out, Casal left a note to a lot of people that was both heartbreaking and hopeful, Roby said. It reaffirmed that there was little he could have done, and it gave him better insight into his own emotional specters that had long haunted the edges of his vision.

“The more I read about this stuff, the stuff that goes on between the ages of 3 and 8, the more I realize it’s so powerful,” he said. “A lot of these struggles and trauma are just programmed into us, and it’s very hard to break free of it.”

More than anything else, the words he wrote to Roby gave the latter the impetus he needed to finish “The Reservoir.” He had originally planned to record it in California with Casal, but when Dave Schools — Casal’s Hard Working Americans bandmate and a founding member of Widespread Panic — stepped in to take over production, they opted to cut the album in Woodstock, N.Y.

There, in the New England woods, he found the bucolic atmosphere he wanted to temper the songs, and he also found the meetings he needed to keep him grounded during the process.

“Making the record, I was literally less than a mile from a meeting that was at 6:45 in the morning,” he said. “Every morning, I was getting up at 6, taking a quick shower while everybody was sleeping and making a meeting every morning before making the record.”

That was in October 2019, and he stayed in Woodstock for the winter, overseeing the album and taking care of neglected  mental health issues and continuing to work on his spiritual ones as well. What he’s found since the release of “The Reservoir” is that, among other things, if it’s the last album he ever makes, he’s fine with that.

“If I don’t make another record, I don’t make another record. I don’t know that it matters that much,” he said. “I love music. I’ve always been into it, and I think it has healing properties. If I have something to say, I’ll do it. But who knows? In six months, I might be living on a monastery on a mountain. That sounds crazy for someone who talks as much as me, but Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama wouldn’t shut up, either.”

He laughs, and it’s a good sound — a healthy sound, one of a man with enough self-awareness to know he still has work to do, but not so overwrought by it all that it robs him of the newfound joy he embraces since coming out of the darkness a couple of years ago.

“I’ve made, as we all have, a lot of mistakes in my life, and over time, I’ve finetuned them and softened them and gotten better at some things,” he said. “And then with some, I’m still a babe in the woods. I know more than I ever did, and I’m more lost than ever in some ways. And maybe that’s because I’ve gone deeper.”

With “The Reservoir,” he’s dived deeper beneath the surface than he ever has before, and while it wasn’t always easy, it’s proven to be worth it. He can’t change the past — but through recovery, he’s at least learned to make peace with it. And when it comes calling on his present, he understands what he needs to do to find relief.

“When the fear of not sharing becomes greater than the fear of sharing, then you’ve got to share,” he said. “I’ve heard people say it in recovery — and I’ve also heard people say it about artists and writers — if you’re afraid to do it, you should probably do it. If you’re afraid to share in recovery, in meetings, in therapy or in art, and you’re afraid of showing that vulnerability, you should probably find a way to share it or create that art in some way, and then to put it out there.

“and if you’re at a meeting and you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, man, this is awesome! I have something really profound to share! Check this out!’ Then you should probably shut the fuck up and just listen. It’s probably your ego talking.”