Alt-country veterans 6 String Drag move beyond reunion momentum
with the exciting and excellent new album Top of the World.
By Bryan C. Reed
Twenty years ago, Raleigh’s 6 String Drag seemed poised for a breakout. The alt-country quartet had already cut their teeth as local peers like Whiskeytown were just forming. By 1996, the band was readying its landmark sophomore album, High Hat, for release on Steve Earle’s E-Squared imprint. (Earle produced the album too.)
2018 feels similarly promising for the band. In addition to giving High Hat a deluxe vinyl re-issue in January, the quartet of singer/guitarist Kenny Roby, bassist Rob Keller, guitarist Luis Rodriguez, and drummer Dan Davis will release its fourth studio album, Top of the World, with a headlining show at The Pour House on March 9th.
And, indeed, Top of the World finds the band in fine form, reinvigorated by new members and polished with veteran finesse. “In our 40s, we get to be in a band that feels exciting and fresh,” says frontman Kenny Roby. Exciting, fresh, and—quite possibly—as great as they’ve ever been.
Comparing Top of the World to High Hat, it’s clear that 6 String Drag’s restless creativity and broad span of influences hasn’t waned. Where the ‘90s iteration of the band gleefully added shots of classic rockabilly, Dixieland jazz, and vintage punk into their rootsy bar-rock brew, the current incarnation offers a smoother, but no less dynamic, approach. “Small Time Punks” roars with class of ‘77 vigor, while Roby reminisces vividly about the early days of his rock ‘n’ roll career. But on “Every Time She Walks on By,” the band buoys a power-pop riff with swells of soulful organ, and with the title track, Roby gives his croon a weary creak for a plaintive ballad reminiscent of his gorgeous 2013 solo album, Memories & Birds. Front to back, Top of the World showcases a band not only capable of synthesizing influences, but also of bringing nuance and personality to rock ‘n’ roll’s well-trod territories. It’s not retro or vintage, it’s timeless.
But the machinations of the music industry don’t offer the same promise they once did. To wit, the trip to Kernersville’s Fidelitorium Recordings and assistance from producer Jason Merritt—both vital to Top of the World’s rich sound—were subsidized by fan support via a PledgeMusic campaign. The imprint associated with Raleigh’s stalwart vinyl shop Schoolkids Records adds support in distribution and promotion. “For most bands, that’s the best-case scenario,” Roby says. “They can just hand a record off that they’ve paid for and the label will take over.”
Having weathered the tumultuous record business for decades, Roby has earned perspective. “Your commercial goals have to take a backseat to the artistic goals,” he says. “So I put a lot more focus on that.”
And with Top of the World as evidence, that focus has paid off.
Besides, 6 String Drag is more than a creative outlet; it’s a family. Upon releasing 2015’s Roots Rock ‘N’ Roll—a snappy throwback to 6 String Drag’s classic soul-country-rockabilly simplicity, which briefly brought original drummer Ray Duffey and guitarist Scotty Miller back into the fold—Roby noted, “Being back with these guys sure felt like home again.”
After Duffey and Miller departed again, 6 String Drag soldiered on with Rodriguez and Davis, who joined the band in 2014 and 2016, respectively. But the band’s principal duo, Roby and Keller, have helmed the band from the beginning, debuting as 6 String Drag in 1993. Their partnership has been the band’s constant.
In their 20s, Roby and Keller were roommates and co-workers at the Clemson, South Carolina record store Keller’s parents owned. They’d play records by Little Feat or the Louvin Brothers in the shop all day, then try to cover the songs together at night. “It was so formative,” Roby says. “It’s so much of the basis for my music, whatever I do. So to have Rob back around is like a long-lost brother. It’s comfortable.”
Carried by lifelong friendship, a balance of veteran chemistry, fresh inspiration, and the simple goal of making bar-rock good enough to warrant playing on a stereo, 6 String Drag persists. Alt-country legacy or not, major record deal or not, the band is a treasure.