Feature: Rock is Dead… Again

Record label owners, music critics and the rockers themselves achieve longevity in an increasingly fickle industry

by John Schacht

At 46, Raleigh’s Kenny Roby has been writing and performing rock and roll songs for three decades. The former punk rocker, solo artist and co-founder of recently re-formed 90s roots rockers 6 String Drag calls himself “a junior aging rocker” who figures he’s really “80 in curmudgeonly years.”

He came up with that number using his own rock and roll metric:

“Your rock and roll age is your age plus how many years you did hard drugs plus how many years you drank plus how many kids you have, how many labels you’ve been on,” he half-jokes during a phone interview, before resuming the list, “…how many marriages, how many musical styles you’ve done, how many times you’ve tried to go back and revive your career…”

For Roby and many other rock and roll musicians — as well as the venue owners, record label personnel, rock critics and others in the genre’s cultural and financial orbit — career survival (let alone revival) appears more and more like a Sisyphean enterprise these days. Digital era pushback threatens most every institutional pillar rock and roll rests on: singles and playlists over LPs; personalized algorithm-streams over radio DJ and rock critic curation; demographic trends towards hip-hop and pop; and a depreciation in the value of live performance.

Rough seas, for sure, with more likely ahead. But for Roby and two other North Carolina music scene fixtures — Avett Brothers manager and record label owner Dolph Ramseur and longtime rock critic Fred Mills — rock and roll is too much a part of their life-fabric to ever give it up based on aging demographics, financial headwinds or changing musical tastes. Of course, they’ve all had to make concessions to these tectonic cultural and business shifts, but to a man they’ve also doubled down on what brought them to rock and roll in the first place — that intoxicating sense of freedom and release, of artistic and cultural rebellion.

Nor have they succumbed to the great leveler, aging, either, instead refining their young man’s exuberance into more wizened avenues of devotion. Roby’s band, for instance, has dropped one of 2018’s most solid rock and roll LPs, Top of the World. It’s their second since re-forming in 2015, and a showcase for Roby’s versatile songwriting skill set. The 11 tracks feature subtle—but stinging—finger-snapping takedowns of white privilege (“Top of the World”), male machismo (“Let’s Fool Around ‘til the End of Time”) and racism in the criminal justice system (“Robert & Lucy”), reminding us that rock and roll can be more than just narcissistic navel-gazing or greatest hits nostalgia.

Fired by a hard-charging veteran band which also includes co-founder Rob Keller, 51, on bass, and spiced with Roby’s acerbic lyrics and occasional early-Elvis Costello snarl, the LP is chock-full of the youthful angst and exuberance that was baked in at rock and roll’s origins, and which, until hip-hop’s 1990s rise, remained its greatest multi-generational draw. But Roby’s narratives are now more character- and story-driven, audio short stories with multiple perspectives. That’s captured best in the raucous “Small Town Punks,” where Roby’s narrator nods to his younger self from a slightly more settled place (Roby quit drinking in 2004), but does it with understanding rather than regret. Over a full-throttle tempo and a Billy Zoom guitar roar, Roby deftly conflates both points of view:

“Suddenly I fear/I’ll never ever ever get away from here/Wastin’ all my time/On runnin’ away from nothin’/But the back of my mind/Nothin’s easy to see/When you’re lookin’ back on it/With a small town punk like me.”

“Bitterness, restlessness, anxiety, angst—whatever you want to call it, that’s going to come out,” Roby says, citing less obvious but related examples. “I hear it in Guy Clark and in Townes Van Zandt’s music — I hear it in Nick Drake. It’s the chronic dissatisfaction with not being able to figure out what the (expletive) your perspective is. At least speaking for myself, I’m just trying to figure out what is going on in my brain and around me, and using art as that thing to try and get there.”

Surrounded by success: Record label owner Dolph Ramseur (center),
manager of the Avett Brothers.

That pretty well describes the founding principle of Ramseur Records, which its namesake established in 2000, just before the musical landscape really began shifting. But if you ask the 49-year-old Ramseur, he’ll tell you those cultural transitions are beyond his purview anyway. Going viral, to him, is a “rocket ship” to quick obscurity; for longevity, he prefers to offer his acts
“balloon rides.”

“I’m really not even in the music business—I’m in the David Childers business, I’m in the Avett Brothers business,” Ramseur says of some of his roster in a familiar refrain. “They’ve got fan bases and we just try to put out great records and be good to the fans. We’re trying to win over new fans, but I’m just so outside the norms I don’t even know what’s fashionable or hip.”

Ramseur’s real-time mythologizing may read like boilerplate, but he’s a true believer with a track record. Major label recording guru Rick Rubin may now be in his phone contacts (the Avetts regularly record with him), but Ramseur built his label/management company by diligently championing home-brewed talent like Concord’s The Avetts, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Mount Holly’s Childers. (For his ongoing regional advocacy, Ramseur will be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October.) His roster now traverses genres to include bluegrass Grammy winners Steep Canyon Rangers and new signees like Brooklyn-based roots rockers The National Reserve and the more pop rock-oriented Ruen Brothers (actually Henry and Rupert Stansall, who hail from Scunthorpe, an old steel town in Northern England).

Yet when we speak in early April, Ramseur is readying a June radio station promotional blitz for the Ruens and offering his two cents on the band’s latest video. There’s even talk of a “crossover” hit for the band’s catchy single, “All My Shades of Blue,” which bottles Avetts-style emotionalism in a souped-up blend of brothers Everly
and Righteous.

Taken out of context, it all sounds very old school; rock and roll circa 1955-1995. That’s by design, in part, and helps make Ramseur more immune to the vicissitudes of the digital age and the out-of-date expectations of a “rock star” system that, over the last 20 years, favors hip-hop and pop rather than rock. But it’s also an outlier for Ramseur, a “cart before the horse” scenario because, at least in the States, the Ruens skipped the one-fan-at-a-time method Ramseur espouses: They recorded with Ruben in 2013, signed to his American Records label, and hoped for viral lightning to strike. It didn’t.

“They didn’t have fans for a career, really, they just had the talent and the songs,” Ramseur says. “So we’re trying to re-engineer it to get them out there where they win over one fan at a time. It might take us five, six, seven years, but that’s how you build a long-lasting fan base.”

Just a few years ago, the rock critic would’ve probably played an essential role in that process. Features on the Ruen Brothers and reviews for Top of the World would’ve populated influential rock and roll magazines and alternative weeklies, pushing CD sales and live audience gates, maybe even providing bank for full-band national tours. If an act were truly fortunate, playing rock and roll could be a full-time job and not the expensive hobby it is for most today.

But in a remarkably short five-year stretch, says Mills, 60, the clout of the critic — never a beloved mediator to begin with — has largely vanished. Now that “every monkey with a typewriter has a music blog,” he says, and broadband streaming allows for instant audio gratification, music critics have been rendered largely “irrelevant.”

Mills began writing about rock and roll in 1977 and at one point counted 15 go-to publications in his freelancing-for-a-living quiver. But since 2015 he’s had a full-time, non-music journalism job in order to make up for the fact that most of his writing outlets have gone the way of the dodo and Blockbuster Video. Now, in his spare time, Mills still runs the website Blurtonline.com — which traces its name to iconic 70s rock critic Lester Bangs and its publication back to the much-loved indie rock magazine, Harp, in the early 2000s.

But he’s under no illusion that critics drive the narrative anymore. Bringing up a similar point touched on by Roby and Ramseur, that’s now up to the musicians and their Instagram/Twitter/Facebook accounts. In a way, Mills finds himself back where he began in the late-70s, when he penned Xeroxed love notes to his favorite rock and roll bands for little or no money while hoping a few readers trusted his voice and put a few dollars in the artist’s pocket.

“I think the critic’s job, in 2018, is to try to sift through the white noise, and then use the bully pulpit (such that it is…) to offer an honest, straightforward opinion in order to acknowledge the artists who he or she thinks are unique, important, and contributing to our culture,” he says. “If it helps move the needle of public opinion in some small way, fine, and if it in turn helps a label shift an extra unit or two (or helps a P.R. agent score a bonus), that’s okay, too. But from my point of view, my job is to simply tip my hat in the direction of the bands that I think are cool. Same as it ever was.”