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, somehow suddenly in their 20s, had left home. After more than two decades together, he and his wife had decided, rather amicably, to separate and try something else. Roby’s band 6 String Drag—an iconic alt-country unit who were signed to Steve Earle’s record label and helped shape that very term as young North Carolina men in the ’90s—had reunited for runs of spirited shows and a barreling, but wise rock ’n’ roll record, 2018’s Top of the World. And then, of course, there was the wider social upheaval of the last decade, the feeling that all the progress Roby had seen in his lifetime was in sudden peril. That was plenty to process for a dozen songs, right?
Neal Casal thought so. Roby met Casal at a concert in Raleigh a quarter-century ago, and they became fast friends, “swapping music like two kids trading baseball cards,” Roby remembers. They’d toured and recorded together, with 6 String Drag even playing Casal’s wedding in the late ’90s. 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 and a spectacular bandleader in his own right. Roby’s new reflections clicked for Casal, especially the way he seemed to stare down age and addiction and anxiety and push through to the other side, to something like acceptance.
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.” He had already signed on to produce The Reservoir and help build the band that would make Roby’s songs sparkle, but his connection to the material and mindset was intensifying. And then, in late August 2019, Casal was dead—suicide, at the age of 50.
But Casal, a trusted friend and true collaborator to many, had not kept quiet about these budding tunes. He had told Dave Schools, his bandmate in Hard Working Americans and the legendary Widespread Panic bassist, about them. Schools and Roby began talking after Casal’s death, and, at a musical memorial to Casal at the historic Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY late last September, they made final plans to convene soon with a dream team of players. They added drumming ace Tony Leone and multi-instrumental whiz Jesse Aycock to a crew already consisting of bassist Jeff Hill and guitarist-plus John Lee Shannon.
The band met for a week in Woodstock in mid-October for sessions that were swift and natural. Roby had culled 25 songs into 16, and the band captured many of them in only a few takes in the same room, Roby singing live as they played. They sound like a veteran ensemble on The Reservoir, with each of these numbers settling into deep and natural grooves.
These 16 tunes collectively summon the wealth of Roby’s experience, as a human being and as a musician. He revisits the specter of addiction with the fractured gothic gospel of “All Trains Lead to Cocaine” and recognizes that recovery is a constant process during the springy folk-pop charmer, “Just Because.” He questions the roots of faith and recognizes the goodness of the universe in the preternaturally graceful “Watchin’ Over Me” and sets his sights on contentment for the tender “Old Love.”
He digs into primitive Tulsa rock for the lusty “Hey Angelina” but offers himself as the punchline during “Only Clown in Town,” a tune about terminal uniqueness and being trapped onstage, backstage, or somewhere in between. (A month after the sessions were done, Roby left his longtime town of Raleigh for his new home, Woodstock.) He sings all these songs with the wisdom of lived experience, coolly delivering these insights like a gift and tool for you to use.
“Neal dying was tragic and traumatic for many of us, but what he was able to do in bringing people together was remarkable. It’s a kind of soul-networking,” says Roby. “His death brought on other kinds of healing. It brought me deeper into my recovery and into growing up and living for the day and knowing what I want. That’s been a gift.”
The original plan was to call this album History Lesson, lifted from Roby’s whistling-and-mirthful ode to stepping out of the past and into the present, to taking a risk with whatever life you have left. That prospective title still resonates, he says, because this album is about learning something from the terrible and terrific alike and using it to persevere. But we learn history lessons too often from those who are gone already—these lessons are linked, irrevocably, to something we’ve already lost.
But The Reservoir is about all that we have left, about acknowledging that we’ve all got something to give to the world still, even when our despair seems to be the only thing with endless depth. “These blues are tidal and subside with the moon,” Roby croons on the twinkling closer, “I’m Gonna Love Again.” It’s a message of perseverance and hope from someone who has been hopeless but stuck around to remind us that we can get better, too.