City Bars and Country Miles
by Jennifer Kelly for Blurt Magazine
February 22, 2012
"Nobody knows who I am in New York," admits Kevn Kinney, the longtime frontman for Atlanta alt-rockers Drivin N Cryin.' "To me, a good country mile is all about selling my songs in a bar on a Monday night on the Lower East Side to people who never heard them before."
Sure, Kinney's band might have signed with Island Records in the mid-1980s, notched a gold record with Fly Me Courageous in 1991, and shared bills with the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young, but in the late ‘00s, he was starting over again. He was working with one-time Drivin N Cryin' producer (and chief Golden Palomino) Anton Fier to reshape old songs in new ways, to rethink beloved covers and to write new material.
The process culminated in a good country mile, Kinney's first solo album in many years and the first CD to bear the Golden Palominos name since 1996. But it began very casually, with two musicians who first hooked up in a race for commercial success, reconnecting over good songs and mutual respect.
Kinney and Fier met first in Atlanta in the late 1980s, when Fier was called in to produce Drivin N Cryin's first major label release, Whisper Tames the Lion. Back then, their partnership was arranged by record executives, a strictly business pairing intended to produce hits. "Kevn was kind of a kid, very raw," Fier remembers, "but I was struck, even then, by the quality of his songwriting. My first impression was that he was an important songwriter, or at least potentially an important songwriter."
On Whisper Tames the Lion, Fier says he worked more like an employee than an equal. "I wasn't allowed to do it the way I wanted to. You know, I'm being hired to help someone else achieve a vision, and everybody's got opinions. Record companies have opinions, other band members have opinions," he says. "But this time, it was more like we're starting something together here from scratch, you know, as equals, out of mutual respect. It was a different relationship."
A quarter century later, Fier and Kinney met again. Fier was playing with Tony Scherr, a downtown fixture best known for his bass work for Bill Frisell and Nora Jones. He didn't even know that Kinney had moved to New York until the songwriter turned up at a gig one night with Aaron Lee Tasjan (who ended up playing on the new album). Kinney had been sidelined for years with a growth on his larynx and had only recently had an operation that allowed him to sing again. He and Fier were both looking for people to play music with. They decided to meet, try out some ideas and see where it went.
The two men got together once a week for about eight weeks, slowly developing material and a way of playing together. They began performing their songs at the Shani Ray Truckstop Series, the two of them plus a bass player - sometimes Andy Hess (at the time, a member of Govt. Mule), other times John Popper from Blues Traveler.
Fier had recorded their sessions from the beginning, and as they developed a sound together, he began thinking about an album. "I would listen back, and after a while, I would say, ‘You know this stuff is good, and it doesn't really sound like anything else.' It seemed like it should be documented," says Fier. "That became the priority. How to get it documented."
The recording started in a drafty armory-turned-studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Kinney and Fier laid down drums, bass and guitar onto two-inch tape. "What I love about how Anton works is that he still records in an old-fashioned way," says Kinney. "Now, with digital technology, you can have an almost infinite number of tracks. You can use hundreds of tracks, whatever. But Anton does it like we used to in the old days, like he would do one really good track, or punch in as he goes, like, it was great up to here, let's pick it up from there. And so there's not a lot of clutter."
Kinney gave Fier near total autonomy over how the record would sound. "Anton has a really fine ear, and he has an engineer that he really loves," says Kinney. "I was like, I'd really like to see what he does. He usually produces things for people or is hired to play on other people's records. I didn't want to make him explain himself. So I wanted this record just to be his record. "
"My goal here was to create
the ultimate Kevn Kinney solo record, according to me," says Fier. "It was my idea of Kevn. Who I thought Kevn Kinney was as an artist. I wanted to create that, that vision."
Fier says that one of his goals was to make Kinney's songs sound timeless, like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield records he had grown up with in the 1960s and 1970s. "I wanted to make a record that wasn't modern sounding, but wasn't retro either," he explains. "I wanted to make a record that sounded like it could have been recorded in the 1960s, the 1970s or yesterday. Or tomorrow. And I believe I did that."
Many of the song titles on a good country mile will be familiar to Kinney fans. There are two Drivin N Cryin' songs and a few more from Kinney's earlier solo albums. Yet the songs on this new record are very different from their original versions, intentionally so. Kinney says he hates the Drivin N Cryin' version of "Wild Dog Blues," here revisited as "Wild Dog Blues Part 2".
"I was listening to too much Aerosmith the week I wrote that song," he says, ruefully. "If you listen to it, you can see...that's me trying to be Steven Tyler." Yet even then, the song had a very pretty coda to it, the only part of the original arrangement that Kinney retained. The rest, a Creedence-ish guitar vamp, came through practice sessions with Fier.
The title track, too, is an older composition, originally written about ten years ago when Kinney's friend Allen Woody, of Gov't Mule, passed away. (Kinney is part of the Mule extended family and a permanent fixture at Mule frontman Warren Haynes' annual Christmas Jam concert.) "Bird," the album's triumphant, multi-guitared centerpiece started life as a simple little folk song, that is, before Fier turned it symphonic.
"I cut one guitar track on there that me and Anton recorded a long time ago. It was the last thing we did back in the cold, cold basement of Martin Bisi's studio," says Kinney. "We started off doing it kind of pretty and Anton got frustrated, and it just came off really aggressive and built from there."
Fier says that the original tune, a modal melody without much harmonic embellishment, reminded him of the Byrds "Eight Miles High." He opened it up by bringing in four different guitar players, and putting on layer on layer of guitar sound. The track mostly developed through jamming, rather than premeditation, he adds. "I did have a vision, but the vision was being further defined at each moment in the process of creating it. The vision changed."
Kinney says that that song, along with "Set In Stone," one of the new ones for this album, are his favorite parts of the new album, but Fier, though he calls "Bird" the instrumental high point, can't single out any favorites. Fier says he loves every moment on the album, and if he hadn't believed in it, he would have had ample opportunity to quit. In fact, he and Kinney took a break
mid-way through when they ran out of money. In the midst of recording a good country mile, they both decamped to Atlanta to make another Drivin N Cryin' record, 2009's highly-regarded (Whatever Happened to the) Great American Bubble Factory. (Dormant since the late 1990s, Drivin N Cryin' had been reactivated; Kinney and his fellow band members are currently working on an EP of new material.) But despite all the interruptions and financial pressures, both of them finally felt that the music was too good to go unheard.
"Everything else that Kevn and myself do in our lives we get paid for, but unfortunately, on this one, it's nearly broken us financially," he says. "But ultimately, we both believe that ...It might be the best record that either one of us ever makes."
"It was made for all the right reasons," Fier says. "Out of
love and respect for each other, and love and respect for music, love and respect for a certain era of music, for our feelings when we were younger about the way that ‘rock music' offered hope and possibility. We wanted to make a record that had an innocence to it and wasn't calculated in any way. We were making a record to please ourselves."
Adds Kinney, "The Drivin N Cryin' experience in the early days, it was kind of like a competition. It was like a sporting event. Who are you opening for? Who's paying attention to you? The hierarchy. The flavor of the month kind of thing. Whereas now we just make records as art, I guess."