Phillip Roebuck is known as a one-man band with a banjo in his hands and a drum strapped to his back, but he prefers to identify as a songwriter and plays every show like it's his last. (Nicki DeMarco and Jay Westcott/The Washington Post)

For the past year I’ve been documenting musician Phillip Roebuck. He performs as a one-man band. Roebuck was in an alternative rock band in the ’90s with his cousin Shea Roebuck. The two put out an album on their own in the mid-’90s, but those efforts failed to get traction. In 2000, Roebuck started experimenting in the New York subways with a banjo in his hands and a drum rig on his back, which consists of a bass drum, a tambourine and levers to operate both with straps that go down to his feet.

These days, Roebuck, 43, is back in his home town of Norfolk, Va. — still making music and still trying to “make it.” His wife, Phoenix, works as his manager and merchandiser. On stage, he is a rollicking storm of punk rock, folk, rock, blues and bluegrass. But his unique style of performing can be its own kind of trap. “I want to make it as a songwriter,” says Roebuck, “not as a one-man band.” The current approach to performing “developed out of necessity for me,” but that’s not what he wants to be known for. In that way, his vision has stayed the same: “It’s all about the songs.”


Phillip Roebuck



Phillip Roebuck practices with Morgan O’Kane and his band before a performance at The Jewish Mother.



Roebuck sets up his equipment and places his set list before a sound check at the Paramount Theater.



Roebuck performs to a packed house at The Taphouse on Thursday in Hampton, Va.



Straps attached to his boots activate the drum rig on his back while Roebuck performs at The American Theater in Portsmouth, Va.



Phoenix Roebuck, left, and Phillip Roebuck, right, try on hats while back stage at The Taphouse in Hampton, Va. The owner of the venue bought the hats at an estate sale and thought that the various musicians that play the there would enjoy them.



Working on a song in his Virginia Beach, Va. studio.



Getting the lyrics just right.



Roebuck and Phoenix unload instruments into yet another venue. This time, the Paramount in Charlottsville, Va.



Phillip Roebuck performs during is Album release party at The Jewish Mother on in Virginia Beach, Va.



Back in their hotel room, Roebuck checks his email on his smartphone, while Phoenix enjoys a microwaved gas station burrito after a performance at The Chameleon Club in the early hours of Friday.



Spit flies as Phillip Roebuck belts out a song at The Riff House on a Thursday night in Chesapeake, Va. The venue is known for having hard rock and heavy metal acts, but is hosting an “Americana Night” this evening.



Phillip Roebuck, left, is comforted by Phoenix after performing at a benefit concert at the Paramount Theater on Sunday, March 23, 2014 in Charlottesville, Va. after something he ate made him sick.



Phillip Roebuck in Washington, D.C.