Two years ago, Robby Hale was living in his truck. He'd spent a year in Sarasota, Fla., but his situation there fell apart. So the often-homeless musician returned to his natural state: rambling. After three months, he landed in Atlanta, played two shows there and blew through his money. But he wasn't far from the Queen City, where he'd lived before Sarasota. Hale headed north on I-85.
"I had no money," he says. "I knew I was only four hours away from Charlotte and I knew I could at least stay here for a month, get some kind of odd job and make $300 and keep on keeping on." But within his first week in town Hale met his girlfriend — and he was done wandering.
"I wasn't going anywhere," he says. "The whole entire point of the road trip was to find happiness, and I found happiness."
If the autobiographical lyrics in Hale's latest project, Scowl Brow, are any indication, he's rarely, if ever, had it this good. The songs in question are intensely personal — Hale's most intimate losses are his source material. Sometimes he's tender and wounded; sometimes he lashes out, defensively slinging shit. His mix of outlaw-country storytelling and gritty, grown-up punk rock is a perfect vehicle for heavy-hearted howls such as, "I'm no good/ I'm no good/ I'm a good-for-nothing."
In Scowl Brow, Hale has found two reliable bandmates — brothers, he calls them — and, for all his hard luck, he's glad to be back in this city. It's the first place in years, Hale says, he's been able to call home.
"I've got a bad-ass girl, I've got amazing friends around here," he says. "It's cool to go to every single bar and everybody knows you and they all have your back and they all love you."
The 26-year-old got an early start with both music and hard living. He was raised by musicians in Cocoa, Fla.: everyone in his family except his younger sister plays, and some professionally. Though Hale started on guitar at 13, he can't put a date on when he began playing his first instrument, the drums. Earlier than he can remember, he's been told, he would set up cookware-and-plates percussion kits in his grandmother's kitchen.
By the time he was 6 or 7, Hale was sitting in on family jam sessions, using cushions from his room as a makeshift drum set. "The carpet was my snare and the pillow was my bass drum," he says. At 12, he was on his first tour, in England, filling in for "some stupid punk band" whose drummer had gotten sick. "We played in a jail and we played in a courtyard one time," he says. "We just found little places you could play for free."
The next year, he taught himself to play guitar and started writing songs. His formal education ended in the 8th grade, and just a few years after that, he left his parents' house and took to the road. He would busk on streets or work odd jobs, living behind the wheel of his truck or squatting as often as he held down any kind of fixed address.
"I'm a goddamn rambler and I like to get on. I love just getting in the goddamn truck and just driving for days," Hale says. He's done that plenty of times — his three road-bound months between Sarasota and Charlotte were just the latest instance of a lifestyle he's maintained since his teen years.
"I used to literally see my gas gauge going on E, I would pull to the next exit, to whatever town it was," he recalls, nostalgically. "I would play a show on the fucking street, get $70, put it into gas, and just keep going."
The often-nomadic Hale lives hard with no plans or expectations for the future. From the shit luck that set him on a two-month bender near the end of his last stint in Charlotte — broke, single, depressed and living in a squat house — to the recent deaths of several people close to him, he's well aware that there may be no tomorrow. So he lives fast — not out of love for life, he says, but of the awareness that it doesn't last.
"I do everything I fucking can in every day," he says. "You've only got one [life], man. Ain't no fucking heaven and hell, there ain't shit. You're in the ground, you're dead, you're done. So I don't plan, man."
He pauses. The conversation could easily go much darker from here. Then he speaks again.
"On the other hand, I've got no reason to leave Charlotte, which is really cool."
For the first time in a long time, Hale says he feels established — like he can call Charlotte home. Part of the reason is his band — bassist Patrick Boyd and drummer Joshua Taddeo — whom he says he can count on more than he's been able to do with past bandmates. And the girlfriend he met his first week back, whom he's still with, accepts him for who he is. He was homeless when they met. She didn't care.
"We're walking to my truck and she asked me where I live, and I fucking pointed at the truck," he says, and laughs. "But that's when you know you have a good girl — when she'll stay in the truck with a scumfuck for two months. And it was snowing at the time. It was not comfortable."
While Hale's life hasn't necessarily become more comfortable — he still doesn't have a job — it means a lot to him to finally belong somewhere. With his band starting a month-long residency at Snug Harbor, where they'll play every Wednesday in August, it looks as though the love from the Charlotte music community has, to some degree, been reciprocal.
At least for now, that's enough to keep this self-described rambler here for one more day.
Scowl Brow. Free. Every Wednesday in August. 9 p.m. Snug Harbor. www.snugrock.com.