No sign of taking the foot off the gas for Atlanta Georgia rockers Drivin N Cryin. Over three decades on the road and they’re still raising hell! Their recent release Live The Love Beautiful is their 19th studio recording and it’s a gem! Front man Kevin Kinney has also released nine solo albums throughout his career and remains as committed and enthusiastic to his art as ever. Drivin N Cryin play a number of showcases at AmericanaFest in Nashville next month and we caught up with the passionate Kinney for a whistle stop journey across an accomplished and continuing career for him and his band.
It’s incredible to think it’s 33 years since Drivin N Cryin first performed, yet you’re still going as strong as ever. How does the industry weigh up today for you by comparison to your early career?
I prefer it in a lot of ways. I love the one or two-hit wonders. I love the sixties bubblegum era. There are so many fantastic options out there right now.
The caliber of musicians is out of sight!!I liked having a record company behind us, and I thought if we ever lost that, it would be over. Island Records was a dream come true for me. They helped us develop our music by paying for all those early recording sessions where we spent a week getting drum sounds! But I think not having a company behind us for the last 25 years has made us strong and independent.
I don’t really love paying for our recordings, but I love not having to ask somebody about what they think about our art.
Like so many artists, you often name-check The Ramones as being hugely influential in your chosen career. Was it their simplicity and rawness that drew you to them?
Well, growing up in Milwaukee in the seventies was tough. The Ramones were a breath of fresh air and inspiration for me. There was no way I was ever going to play like Jimmy Page. On July 3, 1977, I saw The Ramones live at Summerfest in Milwaukee. I had their records, and I think Leave Homejust came out.
Their simplicity was so beautiful, especially in juxtaposition to all the guitar solo bands on the bill. They walked on stage and were fucking terrifying!!
1-2-3-4!!Nobody but bikers and hoodlums wore leather jackets back then.
Just amazing!A few years later, I became friends with Arturo Vega and Johnny. We traded baseball cards, and I would always drive him around looking for movie posters and cards. I didn’t have a band. I was just a construction worker, but I got a great insight watching them. I learned a lot about merchandising, lighting, and graphic design from Arturo. I learned a lot about fans and discipline from Johnny. I remember one night, I was standing on Johnny’s side of the stage, and he came over to me between songs and kind of scolded me. “Shows out there! “He liked it when I would give him a review of the sound, the people, and how the setlist was going. I miss them all.
MC5 also appears to have had an impact on you?
The MC5 was from just one state away from where I grew up. The late ’60s and early ’70s were very political in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit. In 1978, I was a roadie for a band called The Haskels.They were a working-class, socialist-leaning band.
They turned me on to a whole new library of music: New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople, Buddy Holly, and definitely MC5.Milwaukee was a socialist city from the ’40s to '60s.
So, the MC5 combined my interest in social discovery and rock ‘n’ roll, which was very much a blueprint for what we are now.
When you moved to Atlanta you were personally toiling by day at a sewage treatment and playing folk clubs at night. Was it an easy decision to kick the day job and follow your dream?
It was. I was really into Dylan at the time, specifically “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” I kind of gave up trying to be a professional artist, but then, something happened. Tim ( Nielsen) quit his popular Atlanta band along with his drummer, and we started this thing. Rock ‘n’ roll with words about how I saw the world.After the first show he handed me $300!!!It was easy to quit my job after that!!!
The underground music scene in Atlanta appears to have been vibrant when you guys were cutting your teeth as a young band. Did you consider yourselves part of a ‘movement’ at that time, even though your sound distanced itself somewhat from the alt-rock and grunge scene at that time?
We had a lot of friends in the Atlanta scene, but there weren’t really any that got signed back then. Athens was really a bigger deal.Atlanta was never really accepted in a lot of scenes in the mid-eighties. It wasn’t really until the late ’80s, early ‘90s that The Black Crowes, Collective Soul, and others brought more attention to the city.
We were fortunate enough to kind of create our own treehouse of sorts.We got a lot of help from the REM office and band about how to maintain your independence and still cooperate with a company.
You swiftly developed a large local following in Atlanta. Was it record company pressure your personal ambition to break out and seek national recognition?
It was our own pressure to break out, but the tour support really helped! We all have that wanderlust in our bones. We’ve known where every great coffee shop and book store is since 1987! We know we are different. Nobody said it would be fair. They warned you before you went out there. There’s always a chance to get restarted to a new world; a new life, scarred but smarter. It’s special. You’re not just singing about some sort of “getting drunk” situation. You’re trying to enlighten yourself, and someone else getting inspired is a byproduct of that.
Fly Me Courageous, released on Island Records, was a commercial success and a huge seller back in 1991. In hindsight, were you comfortable signing to a major label and did they influence your musical direction at that time?
MTV, MTV, MTV. I guess the video really helped with that one and the gulf war timing as well. It was a perfect storm of sorts. But I think the effect on us musically wasn’t what I wanted; there were too many cooks for me. I don’t love being in the studio. I had no clue as to how things were working, so I just said yes, a lot! I was from a working-class neighborhood and family, so I did what the boss wanted mostly. The last 25 years have been much more like I wish the first ten could have been. It was rare to have a record deal, let alone a major, so I felt an obligation to all the musicians that would not have had that opportunity. I should have been more honest with myself. Everything is so much easier now that I’m not worried about other people taking my place in line. There is no line. There is no place. There’s just art.
Throughout your career, you’ve always been involved in side projects, whether it be solo albums or diversions such as Sun Tan Angel Revival. Were these both vehicles to allow you to create music outside the Drivin n Cryin signature sound?
I write a lot, and sometimes I just run out of space on Drivin records. But I am Drivin N Cryin. Drivin N Cryin is me. I think it’s funny when it gets so separated, at least as far as the LP’s go, but live shows are different. If Tim is not playing bass, it’s not Drivin N Cryin. But, I need the solo ventures I do to enhance the effect on the band. I have tried out a lot of arrangements in my solo bands and tours, and these arrangements are now staple parts of our show.
Given the current resurgence in folk music, have you any ambitions to record a stripped back solo album in the future?
Maybe in a couple of years, but right now, I’m just doing the band. There’s always plenty of time for me to strip down, but right now, this line up with Tim, Dave, and Laur is making me really happy. I WANT to play, and it wasn’t always like that.
I have a couple of unreleased solo projects I might release in the upcoming future. One of them is an EP from the EP series called Mac Dougal Blues Revisited, which is a record produced by Scott McCaughey. The series features new versions of songs from MacDougal blues. I love it. I’ll try to bring you a copy.
Tell me about the rationale in recording your three EP’s/Mini Albums between 2012 and 2014. Was it your objective to frame three individually themed albums?
It was a deconstruction thesis. I wanted to offer the fans an opportunity to create their own playlists from the four different eras we showcase - all of our roots. Psychedelic, punk, folk, Zeppelin, Stones, Archie’s, Dylan. I just loved recording five songs at a time. It’s much easier to complete a short story arc that way.Live The Love Beautifulis more of a movie, whereas the EPS were more of a series of short films with different directors and cities. Ardent in Memphis was my favorite studio!
You’ve rightfully earned a reputation as a killer live band. You’ve never lost that enthusiasm, whether performing in arenas or smaller clubs. Do you still get the same buzz playing live?
Every show is my last first and every show is my last ...so that keeps me thinking
Your recent release Live The Love Beautiful is business as usual for Drivin n Cryin. It comes across as a recording by a bunch of happy people! Were all the songs written since the EP recordings or were some rescued from your archives?
Just a couple of the songs were from the original demo recorded on 9/10 the day before 9/11 - one of the songs is this song called “Spies.’’ I think it’s a great garage type of song, but I did not want to release it in the climate of America and shelved it. To this day, I’m a little trepidatious about it. America is a very strange place right now; it’s a place I never thought it would be. I can’t wait to write new songs when this hurricane has passed. It’s hard to write songs and not add in topical situations. The reference to those situations may not exist in 20 years. Like I’m glad I didn’t write about Ronald Reagan because people don’t really care about him anymore. Overall, I am very happy and satisfied. I think we’ve got a good thing going, and I’m glad that it sounds like you can hear that.
Springsteen and Mellencamp are references that often feature in describing your writing. I’ve no doubt this must be personally satisfying, but do you ever think a ’’Kinney on Broadway’’ run would be more welcomed - and a nice pension pot - than all the accolades?
I thought about that years ago, but I think I would be more inclined to have a Kinney and Broadway puppet show. The music will be live, the stories will be live, but there will be puppeteers acting out the improv. I think that would be fun and relative. I loved the “Springsteen on Broadway,” but I think my Broadway stay might only last one weekend!!!!
You’re hitting the road once more for months of touring the album. That life energy seems to be in your veins. It is a case of touring because you want to or touring because you have to at this stage?
If I don’t want to play, I won’t play. I want the audience to know that I’m there because I want to be. I really love this version of the band, but I’m trying to warn audiences that I love to play the new songs. I will play a few songs that you know, of course, because I’m not here to test people, but I love the fact that I can do new songs that are as good as the first tour we ever did. That’s what I love about SXSW.I only play the new songs. If people hate the eight songs that I play, so be it. That’s what brand new bands that go there have to deal with. We are no better than anyone else. We are all artists trying to share.
Bands like yourselves got great exposure across local and college radio stations when you were kicking off your career. How difficult is in today's market to get radio exposure and survive with ever reducing physical album sales?
We have an advantage that people know us from those days, and they come to see us. Unlike the old days, when people had to witness the show and then venture to a record store (because it was unheard of to sell your own records at your show), it’s kind of a relief that we are not only the record company, but we are also the record store. It was a relief when iTunes came around and rescued a lot of, not only mine but also my friends’ early recordings that, when they were cut out on vinyl, were very difficult to find. You actually had to spend gas money, travel around, and hope that some record show would have one of my albums from 1987.I love the world as it is now for recordings.
For me, if one word best describes Kevin Kinney, it is ‘integrity’. Any regrets looking over your shoulder?
In all honesty, not really. I think I’ve been very honest with myself, kept my expectations reasonable. I’m very proud of who we are and what I am. I look forward to 10 more years of recording and singing and sharing live music when possible. I’m also satisfied when I sit in my chair, put up all of my albums on top of the fireplace, and look at all of them!!!Good lord, that’s a lot of miles and shows!!!What was I thinking!!???
Live The Love Beautiful
What’s Wrong With Being Happy
Free is Not Free
Love is Not Free
But Freedom is Love
I don’t know who said it first, but, if you love something, you could set it free. I like it that I’m not holding onto this, hoping that this rock ‘n’ roll life will save me from anything. It’s entertainment. I’m singing to myself, and if you want, you can listen.
I don’t want to be your favorite band necessarily, just one of the 30 bands you might see in a year would be fine with me. Just give us a chance if you will. We’re different. If you want to make a difference, you got to be different. That’s the deal.
Interview by Declan Culliton