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“This has been a hell of a year,” Rhett Miller says. “I turned 48 in September and I’m still surprising myself.”
After more than two decades as founding member of the venerable Old 97’s and acclaimed singer–songwriter in his own right, Rhett Miller has crafted a trio of new projects that see him pushing his creative energies in hitherto untraveled directions. Among them are two utterly unique new albums – one solo, the other as part of Old 97’s – as well as his first ever book, a collection of subversive kids’ poems.
THE MESSENGER, Miller’s eighth solo album, is perhaps his most unflinchingly personal collection of songs to date. Recorded over five spring days at The Isokon in Woodstock, NY with producer/musician Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker), THE MESSENGER sees Miller playing it faster and looser than perhaps any other time in his quarter century career, instilling songs like the first single, “Total Disaster,” with a groovy limberness that belies the reflective darkness within. Backed by a white hot backing combo comprised of Cohen (Electric & Acoustic Guitars, Pedal Steel Guitar, Keys), Brian Betancourt (Bass), and Ray Rizzo (Drums), Miller worked quickly and with purpose, fast-tracking four or five “keepers” each day.
“I wanted this record to be less safe,” he says. “I wanted to put myself in the hands of a producer who was going to do things that I didn’t expect; I wanted to perform with people I didn’t know and be surprised by what they came up with. And all of that really came to pass.
“That’s what you’re getting with this record. You’re getting a locked-in rhythm section with a crazy, psychedelic guitar maestro playing along with me as I dig deep into these songs about depression and insecurity and modern life and somehow wanting to live despite all of it,” Miller chuckles.
While that might sound somewhat flip, Miller is in some ways more serious than ever before. THE MESSENGER sees the veteran songsmith diving deep into his own youthful encounters with suicide and depression, placing “a long distance phone call to myself as a 14-year-old” on surprisingly buoyant new songs like “Permanent Damage” and “I Used To Write In Notebooks.”
“For a lot of years I tried to keep self-reference out of my work,” he says, “and I believe there’s a lot to be said for that. There’s enough about what I do that’s masturbatory without me reading from my diary. But at a certain point, when you want to dig into personal issues and maybe explore things from your own past, you have to let yourself go there.”
Miller hadn’t publicly addressed his adolescent suicide attempt until a 2008 interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. “She asked me about my suicide attempt and I found myself telling her the story. I was surprised at how people responded. I ended up doing a little work on behalf of the National Suicide Prevention Network and that kind of blossomed to where I’ve made a point of recognizing my own history and doing whatever I can to try and bring it out of the shadows and make it something people are okay talking about. But even then, I’d never really recognized it in my own work.”
And while THE MESSENGER addresses this darkness head-on many times, the album also visits the brighter corners. Songs like “You Were A Stranger” and “Wheels” speak to the joy that comes with having survived. Towards the end of “Wheels,” when Miller sings “I’m broken, we’re all broken, we just keep on trying,” it’s clearly a rallying cry rather than a lament.
After delving inward to create THE MESSENGER, Miller rejoined his mates in the Old 97’s – Murry Hammond (Bass, Vocals), Ken Bethea (Electric Guitar), and Philip Peeples (Drums & Percussion) – to make a red-and-green gift for the world. Produced, mixed & engineered by John Pedigo in the band’s home state of Texas, LOVE THE HOLIDAYS presents a stocking stuffed with rockin’ new Yuletide favorites, capped off inevitably by the Old 97’s take on the New Year’s Eve staple, “Auld Lang Syne.” Among the album’s many highlights are the title track, co-written with Kevin Russell (The Gourds, Shinyribs), “Gotta Love Being A Kid (Merry Christmas)” and “Snow Angels,” both co-written with acclaimed prose writer Ben Greenman, and the continuing saga of everyone’s favorite reindeer, “Rudolph Is Blue,” co-written by Miller and Dan Bern.
“I’ve thought about making a Christmas record for years and years,” Miller says. “My goal was to make a record that could stand up alongside the classics, a record that would offer some new songs to this frustratingly finite list of holiday tunes that we all have to listen to on a loop between Halloween and New Year’s Day. We all get sick of the old ones, so why not try and come up with some new options for people to listen to when they’re wrapping their gifts and snuggling in front of the fire?”
Speaking of gifts, Miller has teamed with Caldecott Medalist and bestselling artist Dan Santat for NO MORE POEMS!, a hilarious collection of irreverent poems for modern families, to be published March 5th, 2019 by Little/Brown Books For Young Readers. Written in the tradition of Shel Silverstein and Edward Gorey, Miller’s poems bring a fresh new twist to the classic dilemmas of childhood as well as a perceptive eye to the foibles of modern family life. Full of clever wordplay and bright visual gags – with toilet humor to spare – these clever verses will have the whole family cackling.
“I was missing my kids so bad while out on tour,” Miller says. “So I had to come up with a trick to get them to spend time on the phone with me. The trick was, ‘Hey, I wrote a poem, and I need you kids to critique it for me.’ I gave them carte blanche to criticize me, to tell me that what I did was stupid. They let me have it, which was so great. It kept them on the phone way longer than if it was just me moping about how lonely I was in Peoria, Illinois or whatever.”
Miller – who left Sarah Lawrence with a full scholarship for creative writing to pursue a career in music – has long worked a side game as a writer, publishing a number of essays, short stories, and criticism over the past 20 years. Though NO MORE POEMS! is his first proper book to be published, he firmly avows it will not be his last.
“When I dropped out I thought, I’ll do rock ‘n’ roll when I’m young and then when I’m middle aged, I can segue into writing with decades of experience under my belt,” he says. “So now, that plan is coming to fruition. If I have my druthers, I’m going to keep writing books of different stripes for years and years to come. “
From THE MESSENGER to LOVE THE HOLIDAYS to NO MORE POEMS!, Miller’s current crop of original output is testament to those aforementioned decades of experience, each distinct project marked by his ever-increasing skill set and multi-faceted approach to art and artistry. Having long ago committed himself to the artist’s life, he has kept his nose to the grindstone, determined each and every day to create something of quality, meaning, and purpose.
“I’ve always believed that making art gives meaning to life,” says Rhett Miller. “So far it’s worked out pretty well.”
"The world's a better place with 6 String Drag in it." - Steve Earle
"'Memories & Birds' by North Carolina songwriter Kenny Roby floored me" - Citizen Cope in American Songwriter
"So thrilled to have 6 String Drag back again. They're as great as ever. Like reconnecting with a long lost friend." - Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers)
"6 String Drag are one of the best American bands of the last 20 years" - Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood/Circles Around The Sun)
Not many bands can pick up where they left off after 17 years and make an album that stands with their best work. Fewer still can reconvene three years after that and do it again, but 6 String Drag scored a winning comeback effort with 2015's Roots Rock 'N' Roll, and they've made lightning strike twice with 2018's Top of the World. Kenny Roby's vocals are passionate and full-bodied, with his smoky twang showing enough flexibility to embrace the country, R&B, and rock influences that power these songs. And Roby's songwriting doesn't miss a trick, documenting youthful misbehavior and the difficulties of adult relationships with equal intelligence; he still sounds utterly awestruck by the beautiful woman in "Every Time She Walks on By" just as he's trying to figure out how to win her over in "Let's Fool Around Til the End of the World." - ALL MUSIC
“A pair of deeply satisfying albums – including Top of the World, released earlier in March on Schoolkids Records – that sound as though the band never went anywhere.” — ROLLING STONE COUNTRY
Roby’s new material is filled with kaleidoscopic memories of younger, more daring days, but there are also songs streaked with troubled and failed relationships, and the wear of an adult’s daily grind. Much of the discord is camouflaged behind poetic lyrics and melodies that belie the personal gravity. As with the band’s original incarnation, the musical influences cast a wide net. There are Brill Building flourishes of backbeat and baritone guitar, vocal hooks that suggest Dwight Twilley and Tom Petty, pop punk, pub rock, and psych flavors in both the somnambulistic title track and the faded “Waste of Time.” - NO DEPRESSION
Roby is a genius and his work with 6 String Drag is the stuff of legends. Although they perform together every now and then, this album serves as a reason why they should be more consistent in staying together and playing such brilliant music. - SPILL MAGAZINE
Roots rock/Alt-country/Americana pioneer Kenny Roby, a 32 year veteran of the music business and scene has been making records and performing on stages since his days as a youth growing up in South Carolina. During his teen years as the frontman for upstate South Carolina punk/hard rock band The Lubricators, Roby opened for the likes of rock and punk legends Circles Jerks, 7 Seconds, Danzig, Jane's Addiction and Suicidal Tendencies, where he refined his chops as an energetic and charismatic performer and frontman. In late 1992, shortly after a relocating to Raleigh, NC The Lubricators disbanded and Kenny soon after formed the more roots rock/alt-country band 6 String Drag. In high school Roby was as much of a fan of Buck Owens, Neil Young, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan as as he was into Black Flag, The Clash and Bad Brains, so the transition wasn't much of a jump for him.
After a critically acclaimed self-titled first album, 6 String Drag signed with alt-country godfather and outlaw country music legend Steve Earle's E-Squared Records (Warner Brothers imprint) The band's second record HIGH HAT was produced by Earle as well. 6 String Drag went on to open for and tour with acts such as Earle, The Jayhawks, Buddy Miller, Whiskeytown, Blue Mountain, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, label-mates The V-Roys and many more. But a little more than a year after HIGH HAT was released and just as the band started to gain wider recognition and beginning to grow their fanbase within the burgeoning 90's alt-country/roots rock scene as well as in national press and radio, the band split up.
Soon after the break-up Kenny Roby went on to record and release his first solo outing MERCURY'S BLUES in Europe in 1999 and in the US in early 2000. Between 1999 and 2013 Roby went on to record and release 4 solo records. Eventually 6 String Drag reformed in early 2014 and released their new album ROOTS ROCK 'N' ROLL in early 2015. In March of 2018 the band released TOP OF THE WORLD to more radio play on NPR, Sirius XM's Outlaw Country and press coverage in Rolling Stone, All Music, No Depression et al and reissued a 20th anniversary release of HIGH HAT.
Roby is a songwriter's songwriter. He has been championed worldwide in the press, radio and by other songwriters such as Steve Earle, Neal Casal, Citizen Cope, Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers) and even had his songs covered by roots music legend Michael Hurley who was an integral part of the Holy Model Rounders and was signed to Moses Asch to Folkways Records in the 1960s. Roby has signed multiple publishing deals as a songwriter including a stint with Warner-Chapel Music.
In September of 2019, Schoolkids Records/Redeye Worldwide Distribution will be releasing TIRED OF FEELIN' GUILTY: 25 YEARS OF KENNY ROBY AND 6 STRING DRAG which will be released and distributed throughout Europe and the USA.
Kenny Roby will be making a new solo record in mid October 2019 in Woodstock, NY with Dave Schools of Widespread Panic and Hard Working Americans producing. The album with feature Jeff Hill on bass (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Amy Helm Band, Rufus Wainwright), Tony Leone on drums (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Amy Helm Band, Levon Helm Band), Jesse Aycock on guitar (Hard Working Americans) and John Lee Shannon on guitar (Zephaniah OHora band).
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