Nearly two decades have passed since Steve Earle's E-Squared imprint issued High Hat, the second LP from 6 String Drag. It arrived near the apex of the region's mid-'90s alt-country boom; along with Whiskeytown and The Backsliders, 6 String Drag seemed destined for bigger stages. That was the album many thought might push the Raleigh band toward the masses. But a year later, 6 String Drag faded away. With the new Roots Rock 'N' Roll, they become the second act of that lauded alt-country triumvirate to reunite.
6 String Drag always deserved the "alternative" label. They were fluent in the genre's preferred mix of punk-aided raucousness and barroom shuffles, sure, but the outfit also enlisted horns that suggested a Stax lineage and flaunted inspirations that stretched as far as Dixieland jazz. Frontman Kenny Roby balanced his husky twang with a gentle soulfulness. Bassist Rob Keller matched him with high harmonies.
Roots Rock 'N' Roll finds 6 String Drag again taking unexpected chances. The classic quartet doesn't revisit its prime so much as find fresh ways to unlock youthful energy and explore their individual growth as musicians since 6 String Drag first broke. Largely recorded live in the studio during a four-day session, many of the 11 tracks are retro in approach and feel, evoking Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. The gambit of "Drive Around Town" and "OOOEEOOOEEOOO" chases reverbed riffs and All-American lyricism (the big game! fogging up windows!) with horn-punctuated boogie, a bit like American Bandstand gone wild.
"Happier Times" seems picked up from the floor of Sun Studio, with Roby doing his best Elvis Presley. Handclaps augment Ray Duffey's train beat. "Choppin' Block" is all sweltering blues, from Scotty Miller's searing slide to big Hammond organ runs.
That's the young and fun side of the reconstituted 6 String Drag, though. Tracks like "Give Up the Night" show this is more than a trek back to rock's golden age. In 2013, after a seven-year break, Roby resurfaced with Memories and Birds. That album's labored, delicate arrangements used a plethora of instruments to light up his late-night introspection. During "Give Up the Night," Spanish-inspired guitar enables a distant wistfulness. Darker lines like "Marry me, I'll throw away the drink" fit a 40-something Roby much more than the youthful dalliances that arrive earlier.
During the slow-burning "Precious Things," Roby is convincing as an impassioned soul singer. "Me & My Disease" delivers an ode to Sadlack's Heroes, from the lines "They're gonna tear down/the stompin' grounds" to instrumentation that includes tea kettles, toy pianos and whistles. Those sounds feel like references to the oddball denizens of that bygone haunt, where Roby held residencies in 2005 and 2012.
That, of course, is the past; Roots Rock 'N' Roll finally looks toward the future during its last three tracks. The record becomes less like a round of influence recognition and more of a complete incorporation of 6 String Drag's assembled Southern styles. "Hard Times, High Times" is a show-stopping soul ballad; slide guitar and piano commingle with Roby's fiery portrayal of the tough protagonist during the shuffle, "Sylvia."
When Roby sings "I wish that Saturday nights were the way they used to be," on the nostalgic closing number "I Miss The Drive-In," he's referring to childhood evenings at the movie theater, not rowdy time spent on stages while his band's star was on the rise. Still, it's enough to make you wonder: Where could 6 String Drag—or any of that era's alt-country greats, really—have gone if they, as bands, would have gone together for the last decade-plus?
Label: Royal Potato Family