When Kenny Roby, of the band 6 String Drag, called Americana Highways we couldn’t hear one another at first because he was driving and we were in a high wind storm at the office. 6 String Drag has put out two albums recently: Top of the World, produced by Jason Merritt (Tift Merritt, Bloodshot Records’ 20 Year tribute); and their 1997 High Hat, produced by Steve Earle, was rereleased in January.
When the winds died down, I asked him if we could chat about how the band came to be named 6 String Drag! “It was named after the Stanley Brothers’ instrumental “5 String Drag,”” Roby said. “Ron Keller, the band’s co-founder, and I were inspired to play music by the Stanley Brothers. We are huge bluegrass fans; we’d play old Stanley Brothers tunes together for hours and that we learned to sing together by singing a lot of that old stuff. My oldest son’s middle name is Carter after Carter Stanley. We thought we’d call ourselves 6 String Drag as a little spoof on the fact that we’re guitar players, rather than banjo players. We used to cover “Gonna Paint This Town” and “How Mountain Gals Can Love” by the Stanley Brothers.” Americana Highways unearthed a couple videos, here:
“We’d do rockin’ honky tonk versions of those back in the 90s. We would also jam on those songs. Rob plays upright bass and has played in bluegrass bands for years and sings tenor so it works really well.”
You’re based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What would you say is special about the North Carolina sound? “There’s a lot of variety and a lot of music emphasis here. Raleigh has a little bit more of a punk rock leaning background; Chapel Hill has always been a little bit more on the indie side of things. There’s a lot more country folk that have moved in on the outskirts here in Chapel Hill. Asheville has more of the mountain hippie culture; the East coast is a little bit more hard rock, surf rock.”
How do you think music is situated within the larger American culture? “I grew up in a small town in South Carolina; all the musicians hung around together. In small towns, musicians weren’t considered to be cool so we stuck together regardless of our specific leanings. Small towns are a little rough, everybody tries to make sure nobody stands out as different, it’s like you’re putting on airs if you try to do anything different. That’s what I struggled against growing up: the idea that as a musician I was a little bit of an outsider. There’s pressure not to “go against the grain” of the simple way things are supposed to be. What’s funny is you start out rebelling against that but then you come to wear it as a badge; it kind of perpetuates the whole thing. You end up isolating. Part of joining a band when I was 15 was the idea of getting away from other people and trying to control my own identity as a kid.”
How do you relate those ideas, about growing up musically inclined — and needing to rebel — to what Americana music represents today? “What people seem to call Americana these days doesn’t have a lot of punk rock in it, it doesn’t have a lot of edge. It’s not very dangerous. When you’re playing listening rooms for all ages, and there are little kids in there, those people have maybe forgotten they used to like the Rolling Stones. It doesn’t seem to be set up for experimentation, or being loud, or trying different things. I grew up spitting on the stage, man, it’s weird for me to play listening rooms. It’s cool but it taps back in to that rebelliousness, and that need to express frustration, it’ll always have that edge and that angst. And that’s not always embraced when somebody’s idea of what should be played at a venue is more in the James Taylor vein, I can’t really relate to that. It’s generally more safe acoustic music, sometimes I think the point is missed that guys like Townes Van Zandt were real rebels. Those people had an edge, they were dangerous people.”
“I saw Billy Joe Shaver one time, and he just said “If y’all want to buy any of our stuff, buy whatever you want” and he threw the merch box out into the crowd. Nowadays, if you did that on one of the demure stages they would never have you back. It’s gotten very civilized. It’s in danger of being cliquish. We were maybe better off with the “alt-country” or “twangy rock ‘n roll” label. That’s what Neil Young and the Stones were to me and even the Kinks, they were influenced by twangy blues and hillbilly music. Musicians used to be more rebellious and the music was too.”
“We get thrown in with Americana but there are still things out there with an edge and some real characters, and like the Drive-By Truckers. Are they Americana? That’s just “deep man’s thinkin’ rebel music” to me.”
“Somebody the other night said “Y’all are like the Ramones meet the Texas Tornadoes.” We’ll take that.” (laughs)
Jason Merritt produced the Top of the World album. What’s it like working with him? I worked with Jason on my last solo record “Memories of Birds; ” he has great ideas. After awhile of making music, you start having more and more definite ideas, as Jason said: “the older you get the more you become unproducible.” Same way with life, right, you develop your style? You need to really respect someone if you’re going to listen to them. Like Tom Petty using Jeff Lynne. But besides that you really need a good partner, and Jason is that and a good engineer too. We recorded at Fidelitorium at Mitch Easter’s studio there, which is a great place. This was also [guitarplayer] Luis [Rodriguez]’s first time in the studio and we went in on blind faith, and Luis took to it like a duck to water; he just wanted to try everything and it all came together.”
You rereleased your album High Hat, in January, and your new album Top of the World in March. How would you compare the two? “Our recent album Roots Rock ‘N Roll was fun and simple. But when we went to do Top of the World – we made something more rocking out and a bit more complex. It has the same energy as High Hat, but with years of experience added on. So I’d say the difference is more than 25 years of growth. High Hat captured raw youthful energy; Top of the World reflects the same kind of energy but it’s more honed.“
“It’s funny but listening to old records we made is kind of the opposite of looking at old pictures. When you look at old pictures you think how young and good you looked, when you listen to your old albums you hear all the mistakes you made.” (laughs)
“We still have a little something to prove, we are constantly improving and growing. I always think I should be a better writer, I’m always striving to be better.”
What’s coming up this spring for the band? “We’re touring as much as we can over the summer. We’re also working on some live videos. And we’re ready to start a new record already soon!”
Check out 6 String Drag’s tour schedule, and a grab a couple of their records, here.