Kenny Roby is philosophical when considering his place in the musical food chain. His big break in the ’90s came when his rootsy Americana band Six String Drag joined Steve Earle’s newly formed E-Squared label, but SSD released just one album with Earle before dissolving.
Roby’s subsequent solo career has been littered with brilliance (1999’s Mercury’s Blues, 2002’s Rather Not Know, 2006’s The Mercy Filter) and recognized by critics and diehard fans, but largely ignored commercially. With the release of Memories & Birds, his first new album in almost seven years, Roby is trying to shape set lists that will hopefully assimilate his broad creative range.
“One day I’ll put on the Broadway show of Memories & Birds, or the one-man play, because I want to torture myself and make even less money in the business,” Roby jokes from his North Carolina home. “After that, I’m going into poetry, because I need to make some real money.”
Roby went on musical hiatus after The Mercy Filter to concentrate on family, taking a 9-to-5 job with an insurance company and working his way from mailroom to desk job.
“That’s pretty bad when you’ve got to move up to get a cubicle,” Roby says with a laugh. “It was time with headphones, just really listening to stuff, and not just music but also audiobooks, because I had all day.”
As it turned out, Roby’s muse would not be denied. The gifted songwriter began writing for personal satisfaction, but the songs insistently asserted their dominance. Roby ultimately joined forces with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Merritt to realize the themes he was envisioning.
Utilizing a sonic ethic that nods toward Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, Mark Linkous and Elvis Costello, Roby has invested Memories & Birds with a delicate power, transcending his rootsy past and approaching the realm of American originals. Merging his estimable songwriting acumen with touches of Jazz, Tin Pan Alley and a wide spectrum of Pop, Memories & Birds is Roby’s best work yet and seems likely to stand as one of this year’s best albums overall.
Given his history, some recalibration may be in order
“When songs are meant to be produced, they’re produced,” Roby says. “The characters on this are more American, down home and more real than most stuff I hear. That’s the irony, but that was the point. The irony is that in (the song) ‘Colorado,’ it’s kind of pretty, and like Colorado or Florida or the hills of the Carolinas, where there’s a lot of natural beauty, some really dark, twisted, cracked people live there. The music is an homage to movies that we relate some of these pictures to; ‘Colorado’ is like John Ford movie music and that’s where the Randy Newman influence comes in, because his uncles were score writers. Like (on) ‘The Craziest Kid Around,’ the kid likes cowboy music, so I made it the movie version of cowboy music. It’s easier to show the cracks when something’s pretty.”
Roby appreciates and understands the Elvis Costello references Memories & Birds has elicited, although he feels that influence was something more pronounced on his earlier albums.
“I do like (Costello), but he’s a little bit dramatic. His subtlety is louder and more in your face,” Roby says. “It’s the Punk Rock thing. It’s something I can’t escape, as well — maybe that’s the most common thread. It’s that background that, even when you’re being subtle, there’s still an intensity there that has Joe Strummer running through your system and you can’t get away from it.”
The lyrical darkness on Memories & Birds is less about Roby’s personal circumstance and more about musical influences like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt, plus the bleak literary pull of William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Cormac McCarthy. Roby found himself creating characters and situations and inhabiting them from their perspective as narrators of their own stories, informed by his own experiences and viewpoints.
“I had never read East of Eden, so I listened to it on audiobook, doing my work,” Roby says. “And some contemporary saga stuff and then murder mysteries, Cormac McCarthy books. I think things like East of Eden and Cormac McCarthy seeped their way onto the record.”
In that context, Roby approached the songs on Memories & Birds as both songwriter and short story author.
“I actually approached them like a snapshot of a short story and maybe not even consciously,” he says. “Maybe it’s a snapshot of a page of a short story, or a couple of pages. These are finite moments in these people’s lives. In ‘A Short Mile,’ that could be five minutes of his thoughts, and you can get pretty detailed in a real time song and you can get dark and emotional pretty quick. A lot of times, those snapshots of these people are in some of their really dark moments … it is almost like prose to me.”
The mystery and tension that Roby created lyrically extends to the musical accompaniment that he and Merritt — along with a group of talented session players, including Two Dollar Pistol/Tift Merritt guitarist Scott McCall — shaped for each song. Because of that due diligence, Memories & Birds demands repeated listening to catch every nuance.
“It’s a real headphone record and the stupidest thing I could do with my career,” Roby says. “I’m getting a lot of that, that people really have to listen to it, but they are. It’s not helping me at radio at all. It’s a longevity thing. It’s a record that hopefully sticks, it might take some time but the people who like it really seem to like it, in some ways more than my other records.”
The lilting delicacy that defines Memories & Birds is slightly masked by Roby’s scowling countenance on the cover, a dichotomy that has been pointed out to him repeatedly.
“We get, ‘It’s such a pretty record, why do you look so angry on the cover?,’ ” Roby says. “Nobody ever said that about Clint Eastwood. It’s like The Good, The Bad and The Curly. I didn’t think about that.”
KENNY ROBY performs Friday at Newport's Southgate House Revival with guest Mark Utley.