“I know I’m not Pete Townshend or Mick Jagger, but it’s fun sometimes to think you are,” rockabilly-roots-rock musician Dex Romweber quips over the phone. It’s no secret musicians often channel inspiration from each other, but they often pay tribute to generations of influential songs and genres. His latest album, named after his hometown, “Carrboro,” was released earlier in 2016 and includes a mix of originals and covers Romweber has been playing for years.
“There’s no heavy meaning behind it other than the experience of the music,” he tells of the album’s 13 tracks. “A lot of those songs I play around here; I just wanted to leave something as an ode to the places I’ve seen around my hometown.”
Romweber nods to the North Carolina city on his album cover, too, posing next to a Carrboro street sign and local train tracks—where he would go with friends as a young man. “Lonesome Train,” originally recorded by Cecilia Batten in Chapel Hill in 1957, was also a fitting addition to the overall homage. However, “Carrboro” also was born from necessity as much as love.
“The weird thing about [‘Carrboro’] is it was recorded when I was in virtual poverty,” Romweber says. “I was earning enough money just to get by, but I’d been living at my mom’s while waiting for my house to sell. I had to move to this very strange place—which was a trailer park in Chatham County—where there were meth addicts and a guy who’d shoot his gun off at all hours. So there’s a little bit of desperateness in this album because of where I was living.”
Nevertheless, the experience left the musician more open to produce “Carrboro” with Bloodshot Records. He will work with them on more projects in 2017, too. Beforehand, however, Romweber will welcome the New Year at the Winter BBQ at Good Hops Brewing in Carolina Beach on Jan. 1, from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m. The event will benefit the Hope Center, which builds relationships with individuals experiencing homelessness and displacement to secure housing, employment and a sense of self-worth. BBQ chicken and black bean burgers will be served, as Rebekah Todd, Holly Rivers and others play before Romweber takes the stage to reveal tracks from his latest album.
Politics notwithstanding Romweber says he’s ready to send off 2016—much like many folks are experiencing currently. For the artist, though, it’s been a hectic year of touring and living in the “low-income straddle of Chapel Hill.” “I woke up last night thinking, I gotta start writing songs again and I want to do it in a slightly different vein than what I’ve ever kind of done,” he tells. “But I’m not sure where to go. . . . I want to move into the modern age but in the right way.”
Romweber cites work by Gene Pitney as he thinks of his own chapters in music history. Pitney recorded hit songs like “Town Without Pity” (1961) and “24 Hours from Tulsa” (1963), “but he’s also kind of great bridge from the ‘50s into the early ‘60s,” Romweber explains. “I’m trying to form a bridge between the old and the new.”
Some might argue Romweber has been constructing that overpass since starting his quarter-century career. Between his time as part of the Dex Romweber Duo (with his sister, Sara Romweber, playing drums), Flat Duo Jets, and as a solo artist, Romweber has often been cited for his influential talents as a guitarist, pianist and post-punk rocker. Jack White praised his work in “Two Headed Cow,” a 2011 documentary based on Romweber’s life and music. The White Stripes front man always has been inspired by Romweber’s genuineness.
“He just wanted to express these songs that were coming out of him,” White said in the film. “It was about energy and attitude and soulfulness—nothing fake about it.” White was joined in his praises by the likes of Neko Case and Chan Marshall (Cat Power), among others who cut their teeth on Romweber’s music.
Romweber’s soul pours out of “Carrboro,” which seems to encompass his broad influences and musical training of classic rock and classical piano. “Years ago I wanted to be a classical pianist,” he divulges. “I’d go to the music hall at UNC and try to become the next Frédéric Chopin. I couldn’t get there but I learned a lot about the piano. . . . But I was thinking of Pete Townshend of the Who when we were cutting ‘Nightide.’”
“Nightide” digs into 1950s dance influences, too. “Carrboro” starts with a contemporary cover of English singer-songwriter Findlay Brown’s “I Had A Dream” (“Love Will Find You,” 2010). Romweber chose to include the song because it was one he could reflect upon differently from the first time he heard it: before entering a relationship and again after it ended.
“After the relationship it made a little bit more sense to me,” he explains. “You get involved with someone, and you have all of these dreams of how it can work out—and how you want it to work out—and it doesn’t work out that way. We have all of these hopes and aspirations in life; then, sometimes, they really don’t come true. I like the melody and even the chords and lyrics. In a way, it’s a modern 1950s song-there’s a little bit of a Roy Orbison feel to it.”
Dex Romweber will play the The Hope Center’s Winter BBQ on New Year’s Day for free. The family friendly event encourages folks to bring a side dish to break bread potluck-style.