When you close your eyes and listen to Kenny Roby’s self-titled album, you can imagine an alternate world where Roby channels Leonard Cohen. Only in that dimension, Cohen is moonlighting as a southern culinarian where his deft touch knows just how much vinegar is needed to keep things from getting too sweet. He keeps the ingredients simple and lets them simmer precisely as long and slow as needed.
In more literal terms, Kenny Roby has become quite adept at finding the quiet space between beauty and sadness in a song. From Roby’s earliest days as a musician fronting 6 String Drag, he was labeled an “old soul.” Someone who had lived countless lives and regaled listeners with stories of those adventures. Or in another reality, Roby is the troubadour version of Hermes in Greek mythology (or Mercury in Roman tales), carrying souls to their final resting place, but learning some of their secrets along the journey and carrying their tales in his songs.
Whatever the metaphors used to describe his artistry, there is no denying that Kenny Roby is an under-appreciated American treasure. This latest record finds him taking his craft to a new level. He is a singer/songwriter with an abundance of gifts. Not the least of which is his ability to draw listeners into his world with disarming ease. There’s a shared intimacy throughout the collection, like gentle breeze rattling the screen window or the arm of a phonograph rhythmically clicking at the end of an old Bobby Charles’ record. You can feel the air hanging thick as it tends to do when Summer comes into focus, and you can hear Roby’s finely-hewned, weathered voice, bend that air to his will.
Written and recorded in Woodstock, NY where Kenny Roby relocated from Raleigh, NC in 2019, he embraces the spirits of songwriters like Fred Neil, Van Morrison, Tim Hardin, Karen Dalton, Bobby Charles, Levon Helm and, of course, Bob Dylan who once inhabited the very same hills. While he’s a fairly recent resident to the Catskill Mountains, Roby speaks of the area with the reverence of a long-timer. He’s acutely aware of his surroundings and he knows there are things he can’t explain, which is okay with him. He’d rather spend his time feeling it.
While 2020’s The Reservoir was a confluence of ghosts thrust into a world of uncertainty, Kenny Roby emerged with a renewed sense of self. With the loss of longtime friend and collaborator, Neal Casal it would have been easy to tailspin and retreat to unhealthy habits. Instead, Roby once again found the beauty in sadness. He approached his sobriety with a new intensity and treasured the things Casal left behind. Even now, Casal’s spiritual connections continue to draw people into Roby’s orbit which informs a new appreciation for the late musician’s legacy.
The self-titled new album represents a fresh start for Kenny Roby. He knows he’s lucky to be here, coming through the other side and playing the cards he was dealt. There are waves of relief and liberation in his delivery. Like a prisoner exiting the yard for the final time, knowing he won’t be coming back. Over the album’s dozen tracks, Roby—supported by a cast including Daniel Littleton (guitars), Jeff Hill (bass), Tony Leone (drums) and superb guest vocals from Amy Helm and the legendary John Sebastian on harmonica—takes us on a sprawling walk through the neighborhood of his mind. Along the way he introduces us to the characters who inhabit this space. They’re damaged and they know it. But not broken. The talk flows easy and Roby never overstays his welcome. In Roby they find a kindred spirit. Someone who has given a voice of hope to their despair and fractured lives.
Kenny Roby likes this place he’s built and he has grown to love the characters that live here with him. While he doesn’t know what the future will bring, he appreciates today and knows there will be a new one tomorrow, come what may.
Royal Potato Family