Kenny Roby's most recent release, 2006's The Mercy Filter, found despair, disease and decay passing through its 13 songs, countered by relief, recovery and rebirth. There were breakups and breakdowns and searches for identity, strength and maybe even some form of salvation. In other words, the record could pass for the soundtrack of living a life.
To create the music for that soundtrack, Roby worked with members of the Two Dollar Pistols and Charlotte's Houston Brothers—two bands no longer with us—and tickled the standard rock 'n' roll five-piece with drum loops, glockenspiels, creative percussion and synthesizers. The results took a modern-pop zig when the roots rock that he's been associated with for the past decade might have zagged.
Near the end of The Mercy Filter is the song "Foot Soldier," a snapshot of anguish in the form of a hospital-bed-ridden man who's suffering from pain both physical ("I'm tired of these white sheets painted red") and mental ("I just can't be comforted when I'm down"). It's fitting, then, that the country-soul guitar of Scott McCall shows genuine ache before it gives way to a melody that feels designed to soothe the soul when the mind's in torment.
We tormented Roby into sharing some insight into the song and songwriting.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: One of the themes of The Mercy Filter is recovery and even redemption. How does "Foot Soldier" fit into that theme?
KENNY ROBY: "Foot Soldier" is a song based on a character that has been wounded in battle. He is in the hospital having a conversation with himself and the audience about the uncertainty of his recovery from his wounds, as well the recovery of his relationship with his spouse in his absence from the relationship during battle. The battle wounds can obviously be seen as "life wounds" from addictions, relationships, behavioral patterns, other situations, growing up, etc. They could also be seen as actual battle wounds from the relationship with the spouse character in the song.
This song shows the dangers of, through no fault of the protagonist, having too much time to think. When you write a song that's so much through the eyes and the mind of a character, how do you get into that character's head?
That is easy. They are all me. Well, to some degree. They are all part of me: My vision of the character's thoughts and my feelings into and from the character's feelings. Even if the character is historical, you learn what you can about the person's life "facts" and then imagine the part of you that could relate to what you perceive that person to be. Of course, this is all imagination, whether it is a real person or fictitious. I actually do this every day whether I know it or not. I imagine that people do this even if they aren't writers or poets. I think that we create what others might be thinking. We don't know what they are thinking. We only catch some of what they say sometimes. We all create who people are through little stories we write about them in our heads and with conversations with others about that person or brief dealings with that person. I just turn those little character portraits into songs. I have created myself many times in my head, too. Some of those portraits become songs, too. All true. All lies, too.
The chorus/mantra of the song is "Even if I get better/She might not come back." But then the song ends with a twist on that line. What's going to happen here?
Who knows? It is left open to your imagination. Maybe it is a threat? "Even if I get better, I might not go back." Maybe he is working on his courage. Maybe he is lying to himself just to be able to cope. I really had nothing in mind except it is something someone might get to the point of saying in this kind of situation.
A key line in the song, and the one that gives it its title, is "Foot soldiers shouldn't wander boys...." That line can work on multiple levels here, can't it?
Yes, it can. Maybe one who cannot lead should follow. One who is prone to wandering maybe shouldn't. One who had it good should have stayed the path. I don't necessarily believe these things. Bottom line is that he did what he did and he is trying to understand and cope with it and get to a point where he can move forward again with it and other situations. The line is also a way to establish the character as common—or in a common situation for someone with his tendencies.
It sounds like the melody on "Foot Soldier" might have its roots in gospel music.
I was listening to a good bit of Soul Stirrers music, the version of the band with Sam Cooke on lead vocal, at the time the song was written. Some of the melody in "Foot Soldier" is based on a few of those songs. I am a thief. I am not original. The artists I like usually are not. Whether I see the link with other music initially or after the song is written, it is always there. Whether I see the link in music I like, to other music that those artists like or liked, it is still there. There is always a connection. No one would care about these things if there was no money in it. Think about a time before A.P. Carter started to copyright and publish versions of traditional public domain tunes. You might have 50 songs that had roughly the same melody with close to the same vocal meter and modified lyrics to fit that person's situation or geography, etc. History repeats itself. You just want to get on its good side musically.
Do you have a standard writing process, or do different songs come about in different ways? How did the writing of "Foot Soldier" fit into this process (or lack thereof)?
I really have no standard process. With "Foot Soldier," I woke up at 4 a.m. one morning and couldn't get back to sleep. Back when I wrote it, I smoked a lot of cigarettes. Within five cigarettes and an hour or so, it was done, and a few hours later I had written "Not For You" as well. I also wrote three verses to "Cat Bus," which didn't end up on the album, to finish it. By 9 a.m., I had written two and three-quarters songs. It was a productive morning to say the least. I wrote them all in the bathroom by the way. No kidding. Less than a pack for almost three songs. The best songs really do just come to you. You just sit back and watch them happen. Get out of the way, ya know?
On a somewhat related note, The Mercy Filter was a bit of a change of pace for you musically. Did that change in sound and style affect your approach to songwriting?
The biggest change between the other recordings and The Mercy Filter was the fact that for many of the songs I had a melody written in my head and lyrics written, but no actual chord structure or arrangement worked out. I came to the studio much more open to the possibilities. I would sing the melody to Scott McCall, Mark O'Brien, Justin Faircloth, and David Kim out on the porch of the studio, and they would just bang out ideas for chords and arrangements with me. That really freed the songs from my guarded perception of them. Some of them really did blossom well that way. It was a great experience and very good practice in trust.
OK, two singers are going to cover "Foot Soldier." One is going to cover it just the way you recorded it, and the other is going to come up with his or her own arrangement. Who would you like those two artists to be and why?
Neil Young would do a cool version with the Stray Gators pretty much as it is. Or even Dylan or Willie Nelson with a Daniel Lanois-type production. Maybe Clarence Carter would do a good soul version of it. But old style Clarence Carter. Very early Atlantic Records-era, kind of like the first few Atlantic recordings via Muscle Shoals. Or maybe Solomon Burke. Or Prince. He can do any of those songs. There is a Prince bite in most of The Mercy Filter songs anyway. It was almost mandatory. You might not hear them, but they are there at least to those involved. You know when you get stuck with arrangements you try to think 'What Would Prince Do'? It really does help.
Kenny Roby and Louis Ledford will be at Sadlack's on Sunday, May 24, with the music starting at 5 p.m. Admission is free.