Saturday, February 7, 2015

Album Review: 6 String Drag Embraces Its Roots

During a recording life that dates back to 1994 — with a 17-year hiatus right in the middle — 6 String Drag now has produced a four-album body of work that’s as good as it is slim. The latest addition to the 6 String Drag catalogue is the aptly titled Roots Rock ’N’ Roll on the exclusive and prestigious Royal Potato Family label, available in stores in both vinyl and CD formats on Feb. 10, or through the band’s website,

Built around the musical vision and literary songwriting of lead singer Kenny Roby, 6 String Drag burst on the scene as sort of a punk/ outfit in the early 1990s, in Clemson, S.C. The band quickly established a well-deserved reputation for its electrifying live performances, and in 1994 released its first album, the raw but highly energetic and entertaining Six String Drag. Three years later, having relocated to Raleigh, N.C., the Dragsters released a more accomplished and polished, but ultimately frustrating, album, the critically acclaimed High Hat, produced by Steve Earle for his E-Squared label. High Hat features a loose, almost messy sound that rocks and rolls and is lots of fun, but isn’t the sound the band had in mind for its major-label debut. To paraphrase Mark Twain, High Hat is better than it sounds. The problem, though, is that High Hat doesn’t really sound all that much like 6 String Drag.

Roby began to set the record straight in 2014. First, the band reunited for a spellbinding live show Jan. 4 at Raleigh’s Pour House. Over the following weeks, 6 String Drag convened at Fidelitorium in Kernersville, N.C., and recorded a new album, which at the time was scheduled to be released this past fall. With the new album completed and in the can, Roby visited the band’s vaults last summer and released The Jag Sessions, a superb collection of previously unreleased studio work from 1996-98. The Jag Sessions definitely sounds more like 6 String Drag than High Hat and was a big first step in establishing a signature 6 String Drag sound on record.

In the meantime, the new album was pushed back until this month, and it was well worth the wait. Recorded by a much more mature and disciplined group of musicians than any of 6 String Drag’s previous recordings, Roots Rock ’N’ Roll is easily the group’s best record to date. While not intended as a song cycle as such, Roots Rock 'N' Roll does evoke images of rock ’n' roll’s small-town and rural roots, and those roots are far-reaching. There are shades of the early rock ’n' roll of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Ditto for the Muscle Shoals R&B of Stax and Atlantic Records circa the 1960s. Go west along the Gulf Coast and you’ll find more 6 String Drag roots in the Texas and New Orleans music of Roy Orbison, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Fats Domino and Huey Piano Smith. And that’s just a sampling. Roots Rock ’N’ Roll embraces its many influences openly and proudly.

The album jumps starts with the bouncy cruising anthem "Drive Around Town.” The joyous New Orleans gumbo of “OOOEEOOOEEOOO” is up next, and we’re off to the races. From that rousing, double-shot kick in the keister of an intro, Roots Rock 'N' Roll careens merrily through its 11-song course. There’s the subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) humor of "The Kingdom Of Gettin' It Wrong" and "Me And My Disease.” At the other end of the emotional spectrum, we have troubled relationships in "Precious Things” and "High Times, Hard Times.” A pair of 6 String Drag holdovers from the 1990s — “Choppin’ Block” and “Sylvia” — provide bluesy swing and sway. The former showcases the underrated and raucous 6 String Horns while the latter provides an excellent vehicle for the tastefully understated slide guitar work of Scotty Miller.

Roots Rock ’N’ Roll was recorded live in the studio direct to analogue tape. The musicians were in close quarters in the crowded studio, and instruments and voices frequently bled from channel to channel in the mix, adding to the old-school vibe. The arrangements often were done on the fly in the studio, and creative ideas were exchanged freely. In other words, the musicians were loose, but the music was tight. The recording techniques reinforce the album’s title/mission statement, and the final result is a vintage rock ’n' roll sound that is all too absent in today’s popular music. Combine the record’s sonic qualities with precision performances and well-crafted material, and you have a genuinely satisfying album that sounds the way rock ’n' roll was intended, the way 6 String Drag intended.

6 String Drag is currently on a mini-tour of the Carolinas and adjacent states to promote the new album, and it’s highly likely they’re recording the shows. After the release of Roots Rock ’N’ Roll, about the only thing missing from the slender 6 String Canon is a live album, maybe something from the current tour and/or that incredible Jan. 4 blast-off from the Pour House. Just in case no live record is forthcoming, however, go see them yourself, and in the meantime, check out Roots Rock ’N’ Roll. In reality, it was 17 years in the making. Few records can live up to that. This one does.