Kenny Roby’s New Day comes to life

August 24, 2022
Marty Halpern

Like any musician in the business for over a quarter of a century, Kenny Roby has noticeable scars from his journeys. From his early 6 String Drag days through his solo career, he has battled demons. Addiction, friends dying, getting sober, staying sober…the usual list. While many have been derailed by these battles, Roby continues to emerge stronger than ever. His latest self-titled release, “Kenny Roby,” (Royal Potato Family) is a testament to his staying power. 

Like a seasoned veteran, Roby takes the album in numerous directions, channeling legendary vocalists like Elvis Costello, Levon Helm and Bobby Charles throughout. Moving to Woodstock in 2019, the artist used local friends and musicians to put the album together – Daniel Littleton on guitar, Jeff Hill on bass and Tony Leone on drums. While that quartet provided a solid base, the release hit its highest peaks with Amy Helm’s vocals and John Sebastian’s harmonica peppered in throughout.  

We caught up with Roby, who took a deep dive into the making of the album and life as a New Yorker. He began by discussing how recording in Woodstock made creating the album much easier.  

Kenny Roby: There were fewer things to coordinate. Tony is up here. Jeff is in the area. I’m more a part of the area for this record. I had been playing with musicians who were up here. Daniel Littleton lives up the road. It was more like I’m used to. Playing in a band with people from around the area. Just meeting at the studio. When we did the basic tracking, those guys stayed overnight at the studio. We did that in about three or four days. The next week Dan and I came in and did some acoustic stuff and overdubs. It was off the cuff and on the fly. We recorded 17 or 18 songs in nine days. Not just recording the basic tracks – totally done.   

Slide & Banjo: Let’s take a look at the album. It starts with a reworked version of “New Day,” which was originally released on “The Mercy Filter” in 2006. This version is so different. It has a newer and fuller sound. Why did you decide to update this for the album? 

Photo: Gary Waldman
Photo: Gary Waldman

Roby: When we were doing the last album, “The Reservoir,” there was a point nobody was around. I was playing around and made a short acoustic version of “New Day” to post on social media. More folky. I thought it might be cool to re-cut it. It’s not like I didn’t like the original. Sometimes you want to re-cut it because you never liked that version. I didn’t feel that way. It seemed fitting thematically. I wanted to see what it was like when it was changed.  

With “New Day,” Chris, who recorded the record was really into it and loved the groove. I don’t think I sent those guys the original recording of the song. It was cool they were going on what melody I was singing and what chord I was playing. It worked. It’s almost better they didn’t know it.   

S&B: Next up is “Only Once.” This has an obvious vocal similarity to the great Elvis Costello. While you had no intent to mirror anyone with the vocals, the connection to Costello is there and it’s nothing new.  

Roby: I’m sure the influence is in there. I get that sometimes. It’s nothing I do consciously. It’s the timbre of my voice and my delivery. I’m more influenced by Doug Sahm, who I think Elvis sometimes sounds like as well. Doug has that same type of voice. [Chuckles] I can cover a Doug song or an Elvis song with an impersonation if I wanted.  

None of us are singers with a ton of vibrato in our voices. We’re not gonna sing too much falsetto. It’s the timbre of our instrument. Ours is between a baritone and tenor sax. It’s not full-on low. It’s also not too high. It’s rare when I’m performing or coming up with songs, I’m like “oh, that sounds like so and so. I’ll sing like so and so.” It’s more natural, based on what the melody tells me to do and whatever my limitations allow me to do.   

S&B: Let’s move to “Leave It Behind.” It has the lyrics, “Once I cross that Virginia line, I’m gonna leave it behind.” Is this based on your move from North Carolina to New York? Virginia is North Carolina’s neighbor. 

Roby: Of course, after I wrote it, I thought of that. I was like ”oh, that works.” Sometimes if I’m referencing a town or a state, it’s just based on what feels good to sing. So, Virginia just came out. It could mean going from West Virginia to Virginia. Or to Maryland. It happens to be I lived in North Carolina before, but I didn’t consciously write it that way. I think. 

S&B: I would be remiss to overlook the amazing vocal contributions Amy Helm adds to the record. Her vocals on this song and others are a new approach for you. To me, it elevates the record tremendously. How did your collaboration come to be? 

Roby: She’s obviously fantastic. “Memories and Birds” was a record where I experimented more with having a chorus of female vocals. I also sang falsetto with Amy on the Neal Casal tribute album. Doubling some of her parts and stuff to have a different voice in there, which was funny – me trying to sing in that range. She liked it and it worked. I can sing falsetto within reason. 

I met Amy through Jeff Hill. Tony played with Amy in a band years ago. He still plays at the farm some with her. Jeff sent her “The Reservoir” before it was released. She sent me a message and said it was great. Then she sent me a copy of her record before it was out. So, we had a mutual admiration and both liked each other’s voices and thought we could sing well together.

I asked her if she would sing on “Too Much to Ask” for the Neal Casal tribute record. She agreed, came in and it was a lot of fun. Our voices blend well – she has a raspier voice, too. So do I and the quality of our voices work well. I asked if she wanted to sing a couple of songs on the new record. She came in and knocked it out. Just like we did on the Neal album.  

Photo: Marty Halpern

S&B: You mention the “Memories and Birds” album. The way you used the female vocals in that mix seems completely different from this one. With you and Amy, I kept getting the Eric Clapton 70s sound with Marcy Levy on background vocals.

Roby: Amy’s got a gospel/Southern feel to her stuff….Mavis Staples-oriented. It works well. She has a country tinge to her. A gospel and soul feel to her singing. Which lends itself well to this stuff. 

S&B: You slam on the brakes with both feet for “I Call Everybody Buddy.” It’s definitely the slowest song on the album. It’s got an old school country, vocal-based ballad vibe to it. How did this throwback come to be? 

Roby: That was one of the first of the new batch of songs. “Married To a Train” is another. I had some of that lyric and melody for the last record. “Buddy” was the closest to a full song written between “The Reservoir” and this record. The whole idea for it, I was riding in the car coming back from NYC. The lyrics and melody came together at the same time. I sang it in the car for a bit. When I got home, I sat down and worked with it. I figured out some of the chords. Left it alone to incubate for a little while. I’d pick it back up every once in a while. It took about a year before it was fully written except for a few lines.  

Speaking of influences, another person I really like is Rusty Kershaw. I’ve been listening to him a lot of the last couple of years. He’s got that rusty, for lack of a better term, voice. Middle range, gravely, but smooth at the same time. I imagined this song is Rusty Kershaw-meets-Willie Nelson vibe. I had been listening to a lot of Chet Baker at the time too. It has that Willie Nelson-meets-Chet Baker soul vibe to it as well.  

S&B: The album moves to the aforementioned “Married to a Train.” It’s as unique a sound to the album as “Buddy.” It has a Robert Rodriguez-Tex-Mex movie soundtrack vibe. A step in a new direction for sure.  

Roby: The verse had a vibe, and it was just sitting there in the back of my head. I referenced some really old folk songs in it. That kicked me forward and propelled me to finish the song. I was stuck and looking for some tricks to give me some prompts to finish it. 

It came together quickly when I went down that road. It has an ancient folk American feel to it. You can do it anyway you want. You can do it like Jonny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tejano style, Ry Cooder, Tom Waits. It can have a New Orleans beat, or spaghetti western feel. It’s old and very cinematic. It could go really well in a dark western.   

S&B: Let’s take a quick sidebar here. The recorded version has such a profound full Tex-Mex beat. The amazing thing is it doesn’t lose anything stripped down, when it’s just you. This is the same for numerous songs throughout the album.  How do you downsize these full band sounds into just an acoustic guitar when playing live? 

Roby: It’s the intent. Not the guitar solo. That’s where it starts. The melodies have to be strong and memorable. The groove and feel of the way you deliver the lyrics have to be there. If that’s not number one as a songwriter, you have it backwards. If the groove is the most important thing in the song, it’s dance music. Which is fine. But overall, it has to hold its own on its own. That’s how the blues is. It’s not a good song if it’s not a good vocal delivery. If it’s not presented in the right spirit, nothing else really matters. When we’re making the record, we’re serving the song. Doing what’s best to lift up the song. To change a perspective. It has to be a strong song first or you’re serving yourself. The song is the most important thing.   

S&B: Next up is “Sailor’s Request,” which is one of the finest, if not the finest song in your career. This is another reworked song. You and Neal Casal released a faster live version on “Black River Sides” in 1999. This time you slow it way down and deliver a vocal performance for the ages. It’s a wonderfully haunting tale of life at sea. Something you have first knowledge of. 

Roby: My dad was in the Navy for 21 years. I wrote that when my dad was still alive, with him in mind. Back in about 1997. Neal and I recorded that and did a demo for 6 String Drag. I hadn’t done a real studio version for a release. I thought this would be cool for this record.

I’d been listening to Steve Young’s “Rock Salt and Nails.” Neal was also a big fan of his. Embracing the deeper Fred Neal type of thing. A deep powerful voice that pushes it on certain notes and phrases. If you listen to the Steve Young record, he does that a lot. You just belt it out. It’s an outlier on the record. The style of the song and vocal delivery.

My dad was a baritone so it’s interesting I went there for this version. It’s in a much higher key on the original version. I also changed the melody so it’s more in line with that Fred Neal and Steve Young vibe. I didn’t change any of the lyrics. Just a little bit of the melody. 

I wasn’t writing it about my dad as much as being the son of a sailor. When he heard it, he said you really got it down. He loved that song. I actually sang it at his funeral in 2001 when they were lowering him in the ground. He died pretty young at 61, so the song means something to me. I didn’t play it for a long time. I think I liked the old version but felt I didn’t have a version I wanted to play all the time. This one is a little closer to that. I guess you could say it’s one of the better songs on the record. It just depends on what day it is. 

S&B: Let’s discuss a couple of more songs. “I Don’t Believe It’s Magic” is another standout. It has a Bobby Charles feel, mixed with some outstanding harmonica work by John Sebastian. What was the connection to Sebastian? His contributions are as notable as Amy Helm’s vocals.  

Roby: John lives in Woodstock and I know a lot of people who know him. When we were working in the studio and recording the basic tracks, Dan brought up he knows Jon and it would be great to get him in to do some harmonica on this one or that one. I said give him a call and ask him. He came in and laid down a few songs we knew we wanted him to play on. 

He was like ”is there anything else?” Dan was like ”we’ve got Jon Sebastian in the studio,” so we had him try a few things. We played “Buddy” for him. He sat there and closed his eyes and really listened to it. He said, “Man, I wouldn’t touch that.” He said ”I could do something, but I don’t think you need to mess with that.”

“Married to a Train” wasn’t one of the ones we planned. Originally, we were only going to use him for “New Day” and “Magic.” We did those two first. What he did on “Magic” is so classic. Sounds like the stuff he’s done on so many records. When he plays harmonica, it sounds like those records we grew up listening to. He just has that thing.   

Photo Marty Halpern

S&B: Like “Sailor’s Request,” you have a couple of more outstanding ballads on the album. “God Sized Hole” has a mystic vibe with some heartfelt lyrics. This song was born in a very unique place. 

Roby: I took a trip with my girlfriend to Cape Cod last year. We stayed next to a graveyard – a huge cemetery. I was sitting there messing around, thinking and writing stuff. Generally, I’ll write the lyrics and melody at the same time. This was different. I probably had most of the melody in my head. It gave me a form to work with. I just started writing the song.

In 30 minutes, I had written almost the entire thing. I didn’t know what to do with a couple of verses. I had written on the side of the paper ”God-sized hole.” I sat there and hummed the melody and played through it one time. My girlfriend and I were both basically almost crying. We were shaken up. It was pretty powerful. I was like this is pretty intense. So, I went for a walk in the graveyard. I wrote two other songs I didn’t end up using. In a couple of hours, I had written one great song and two throwaways.   

S&B: “Suzanne” is the third ballad that really evokes the pain of the main character. Begging “Will you call me back. Won’t you call me back Suzanne?” Where does the pain in these ballads come from? 

Roby: Some of those lines were written from reading old folk books. There’s an old song that has the line “she’s a deep-water ship and its deep-water crew.” That’s all I use from it. Those few lines as that prompt. The melody and chords were a straight rock thing…Tom Petty-meets-Bob Dylan.

Sometimes I go back and listen to iPhone demos I’ve messed with. I found this and thought that’s a cool melody. I was playing around watching TV and changed it to a waltz. That prompted me to finish writing it.

Sometimes you have to find the key to get you into the right room and explore. The key to the next door was reading the lines from the folk book. Once I started, this is another I finished in a day. Sometimes the greatest songs are born this way.   

S&B: Finally, this album has a couple of recurring themes. We’ve touched on the ocean-themed songs. You also use the topic of “ghosts” numerous times in the album. You mentioned you vacationed next to a graveyard. How did you find your way down this road? 

Roby: The whole record has ghosts throughout. I’ve had several people die in my life in the last few years…Neal and a couple of others friends died. There was the ghost of my own past. I have friends who are dealing with that and living a different life than they chose to.

I talk more about sobriety in “The Reservoir.” The original “New Day” that was on the first record, I wrote when I got clean in 2004. If “The Reservoir” was the darkness, this is the recovery record from that darkness. It’s in the trenches of what I was dealing with and working on. This record is the other end of that. The new day. I have a new way to live. It’s more detached from that past. It’s a new world.  

I don’t look at the darkness over a graveyard. I look at it as a place to meditate on life.  That’s what this record is about. It reflects on the past and brings up some old stuff. I don’t think it’s a dark record. It’s reflective. It’s about change while reflecting on the past and stuff that I’ve been through. 

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