Kenny Roby knew from the start there would be a lot to say for his first solo album in seven years, the emotionally and musically expansive The Reservoir. So much had changed in his world and the world at large since his stately 2013 LP, Memories & Birds, an exquisite reflection on the experiences and apprehensions of crossing over 40. Roby was now 48. He had been sober for half his adult life. Both his kids, now in their 20s, had left home. After more than two decades together, he and his wife had decided to try something else. Roby’s iconic alt-country band 6 String Drag had reunited for runs of spirited shows and a barreling, wise rock ’n’ roll record. And then, of course, there was the wider social upheaval of the last decade. That was plenty to process for a dozen songs, right?
Neal Casal thought so. In the Spring of 2019, Roby started sending these latest songs to his old pal, who had emerged as a top-tier guitarist with the likes of Willie Nelson and Chris Robinson. Roby’s new reflections clicked for Casal, especially the way he seemed to stare down age, addiction, and anxiety and push toward something like acceptance. Casal agreed to produce these songs.
Roby returned home after a solo European tour in early 2019 and entered a brief but intense tailspin. His marriage was ending, and a few friends and family members had passed away in short order. He penned “Room 125,” a confession that gazed into an existential abyss and sent out a desperate prayer. Casal heard it and replied by text: “It’s my life.” And then, in late August 2019, Casal was dead—suicide, at the age of 50.
But Casal had not kept quiet about these budding tunes. He had told Dave Schools, the legendary Widespread Panic bassist, about them. Schools and Roby began talking after Casal’s death. At a musical memorial to Casal, they made final plans to convene soon with a dream team of players for a week in Woodstock in mid-October. Roby had culled 25 songs into 16, and the band captured many of them in only a few takes in the same room. They sound like a veteran ensemble on The Reservoir, with each of these numbers settling into a deep groove.