The Unpredictable Journey of Drivin N Cryin's Kevn Kinney February 4, 2019 14:58
Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen
Celebrating their 33rd Anniversary together, Atlanta-based folk rock act, Drivin' N Cryin', have spent most of their career on tour. In October 1985 Drivin' N Cryin' played their first show at Atlanta’s famed 688 Club. The band quickly gained attention for their blistering live shows, and amassed a rabid fanbase in the fertile soil of the late-1980s Southeast music scene. Now, 33 years later, and after releasing four full length albums on Island Records and one on Geffen Records, founding members Kevn Kinney and Tim Nielsen find themselves enjoying a milestone anniversary for the band, having survived the pressures of fame, a shifting musical landscape, multiple lineup changes, and miles of back roads and highways to arrive here.
With a gold record, 10 full-length albums, and a handful of EPs to their credit, the band still refuses to rest. In 2012, a documentary about the band, entitled Scarred but Smarter: Life n Times of Drivin' N’ Cryin’, was produced. In 2015, a collection of 10 choice cuts from the band’s 4-EP “Songs” series, entitled Best of Songs, was released on Nashville’s Plowboy Records. Additionally, the band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame that same year. The following year, Drivin' N Cryin' released a vinyl-only album, entitled Archives Vol One, with a collection of basement recordings from the years 1988 to 1990. With Dave V. Johnson as their drummer, and the band's newest member, Laur Joamets (formerly of Sturgill Simpson's band), now being added to the lineup, Drivin' N Cryin' continues to tour the U.S. to great acclaim.
Montgomery, Alabama is in for a treat on February 21st, as Kevn Kinney comes to town for a rare solo performance at the Capri Theatre. We recently sat down with Kevn to get the full story on how this band came to life, the journey from building sewage plants to touring the country, and details on what the band has planned for the future. See below for the full conversation.
I typically start these interviews off with a general history lesson. Let's hear the story of Kevn Kinney, as well as Drivin N Cryin. You were born and raised in Milwaukee, correct?
Kevn: Yes. I was raised in a hardworking, Irish-Catholic, middle class family. Five children in a 1000 square foot house. Music was everywhere. We had three pianos and several guitars in that little house. All of my sisters played instruments. Piano, guitar, flute, clarinet. My brother played everything. It was a pretty musical household. From an early age, I was surrounded by the blessings of having music in my life. You have a bad day, then you sit down at the piano or with your guitar. You focus on what you're doing and learn how to express yourself. Try to figure out how the world works, and why people are the way that they are. Why people expect certain things.
I was really, really fortunate. I don't know how my Dad raised five children on a refrigeration engineer's salary, but he did it. We're all very good people because of it. We all care for each other, as well as those around us. We all still play, enjoy, and respect music. That's kind of what made me who I am. I can't imagine living in a house where someone says, "Put down that damn guitar!" My dad would say, "Play that guitar!"
I've tried to do the same with my children. My daughter plays piano. I think my son is one of the best drummers in Atlanta. He's a part of the underground, independent rock scene here. One of his first teachers was Col. Bruce Hampton's drummer. So yeah, I grew up in Milwaukee. It was cold, and we were stuck inside a lot. We learned to open our minds through the music opening the landscape of opportunity and a glimpse at the future.
How did you ultimately make it down south? What led you to Atlanta?
Kevn: I did not come down here musically. I was 23 years old, and my brother had recently walked the Appalachian Trail. He wound up in Atlanta. He came home briefly before moving back to Georgia. He encouraged me to move down here and assured me that I could find work. The jobs started at $4.50 an hour, and I was like, "Whoa!" I was making about $2.15 an hour at the time. I could maybe make $3.10 an hour if I had stayed there for a little bit longer. I was never going to get ahead. I decided I would go be a laborer for $4.50 an hour. Then, I learned a trade.
My first job down here was great, because it was really hard. I worked with a whole lot of people from Alabama at this construction company. We built sewage plants. They trained me to be a form carpenter. I did that from 1982 until 1984. In 1985, I quit and moved on to indoor carpentry building cabinets. I was sick of working outside. I think I was making around $9.25 an hour at my last job, which was a ton of money in 1984.
When I quit to travel and ride in a van with a band, I was giving up a pretty steady income. I was happy for the opportunity. Drivin' N Cryin' was pretty popular right away because of the fact that I had some serious players. Our bassist (Tim Nielsen) and drummer (Paul Lenz) were members of probably the most famous band in Atlanta. They were the band that could sell out the 688 Punk Club. They quit that band to join me after seeing me play with this punk rock band from Milwaukee.
This was when, 1985?
Kevn: Correct. 1985. That's where the Drivin' N Cryin' story begins.
Watch Drivin N Cryin perform "Straight to Hell" here:
Tell me about those first few years. Getting started and developing your catalog. Building your reputation in Atlanta and the surrounding markets.
Kevn: I'll tell you what we did then, and I think what it would help to do now. We did a very early version of modern day advertising. Let's rewind just a little bit here. I was also working part-time at a futon store. My boss got a nice deal buying these weekly ads. Drivin' N Cryin' decided to do the same thing. We had a little tiny ad with our logo, and we would list our shows underneath. The initial dates would be predominantly Atlanta, but we were eventually able to show our progress with dates in Chattanooga, Athens, Chapel Hill, even New York City. People may not of known who we were, but they could see our progress in this ad each week. It made us look organized. I feel like that really helped bring crowds in. Letting people know who you are and where you're going.
I write a lot of melodies, and then I fill them in with words. Whatever I'm thinking about at the time. I would call my answering machine in the old days. That allowed me to remember what it was and turn it into a song. Songs like "Straight to Hell" started just like that with a simple melody. You find yourself singing it in traffic and think it's just a passing thing. Songs like "Malfunction Junction" and "Honeysuckle Blues" came to life in the same way. I decided that I wanted to have rock music, and I didn't want to sing about bars and girls the whole time. I wanted to capture America changing.
Back in the 80s, it was about how much America was being homogenized. It turned out to be true. If you drove me around for 9.5 hours, in a circle or a straight line, and you pulled me into a truck stop and asked where I was...I wouldn't be able to tell you. There would be a Subway and a Chester's there though. It could be Wyoming, Missouri, or Alabama. Everything was the same. I miss that element of America where things were special. You had to get off the highway to go find the hamburger joint. We try to use the Yelp app as much as we can. We like finding the local diner, meat and three, or BBQ joint. Something besides a chain restaurant.
That's a great practice. You're selling yourself short if you don't. So, there were some special things happening in and around Atlanta music at this time. How vital was this towards the early days for the band?
Kevn: We had a great family of bands surrounding us at the time. There was a really nice community, and we all shared stories and experiences. Discussing our first road trips and things like that. We all played together constantly. We'd go to each other's practices to see how other bands did things. Uncle Green was this band that had their own house. They were this fantastic band that moved down from New Jersey. I think they ended up making a record with Brendan O'Brien.
Community is important. If you have a band in Montgomery, Alabama, hopefully you are friends with the other eight bands in Montgomery, Alabama. If you're not, you should be. You have to create a coalition and encourage each other, have each other's backs. We'd get together and play on the street. Help each other through breakups and makeups. Network with one another. Sit around and listen to music. Smoking pot. Drinking Mad Dog. Whatever it was that got us through the day. Good coffee was hard to get back then. Expressos were impossible.
I don't remember too many details of what made what go where, but I remember the overall cloud of friendship and community. I've never really focused on the details of yesterday. I like to focus on what I'm here to do, and how crazy it is that people pay me to do it. Being honest with yourself. When I talk to kids about songwriting, they ask how I wrote certain songs. My answer is always, "Just tell your story." Don't think about the crossroads. You will obviously want to imitate your heroes, whether its The Rolling Stones or Foo Fighters.
Eventually, you have to find the discipline to let that go and tell your story. That's the only thing that's going to make you special. If you grew up in a suburban house, right off the highway, with shag carpet and an avocado colored refrigerator, books and magazines stacked up in your mom's tupperware collection...tell me that story. That's special only to you and no one else. I'm interested in that story. I prefer the non-fiction story.
Watch Drivin N Cryin perform "Let's Go Dancing" here:
How would you describe the more recent years for the band? How do you guys go about balancing your time at home versus out on the road?
Kevn: We're seeing that a lot of our fans now have grown children. They don't need a babysitter anymore, and they can actually come to the shows again. Their children are grown, so they're coming to the shows as well. They've been hearing Mom and Dad talk about us all these years. We're starting to notice a younger crowd, as far as our popularity goes. I think we're doing pretty well there. We have a new guitarist named Laur Joamets (formerly of Sturgill Simpson's band). I'm actually trying to get him to come to the Montgomery show with me.
I'm still writing songs. We just cut a new record. It might be one of the top two or three records that I ever make. We're super excited about it. Really great circumstances. We recorded it in Nashville. There is an entire generation of folks that remember us from their childhood. They're curious as to who we were and where we're going now. The good news is that we still have a lot of people who don't know who we are. I really think that's a good thing. We have a lot of people that we can still reach.
One of the newer friends I've made is Jamey Johnson. I fell in love with his music, voice, and discipline. I saw him play and knew I'd love to play with him one day. Warren Haynes introduced us at the Christmas Jam, and we've played "Honeysuckle Blue" and "Straight to Hell" a couple of times now. I'm overwhelmed when I look over and see him singing those songs on stage. Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed that I forget the words (laughs). He has to remember them for me. I made it down to his charity golf tournament at Cottonwood Golf Course last year. Hopefully, Drivin' N Cryin' will play it one of these years.
I feel like I'm in a good place. I'm still writing songs. I'm still being honest. I think they're good songs. We're looking for a label for this amazing record we just made. We're all feeling really positive about things. We haven't had a record deal before we've cut the record in over 20 years. We make them all ourselves and find someone to distribute them. We're pretty proud that we can still make a great record for a few thousand dollars. I'll be playing a few of those new songs, as well as the older ones, at the Montgomery show.