Written by Chad Berndtson
Kevn Kinney’s an easygoing, disarmingly funny kind of guy, but when he gets down to brass tacks — singing and wailing away on guitar, that is — he packs quite a wallop of soul, R&B, power pop, rock, folk, country, blues and more than a little grit.
That’s long been the secret sauce for the music he’s made with Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ and solo: easy to get into, often lighthearted and even funny, but let it get to you, and you realize it’s loaded with heartbreak, wrenching drama and deep soul. The phrase “Drivin’ and Cryin’” — the band itself’s name taken from one of Kinney’s own songs — pretty much covers it. So does Straight to Hell, perhaps Kinney’s best-known song and something of an anthem in southern rock circles.
The band first formed in 1985, and why it never blew up much beyond its southeast U.S. fan stronghold is one of those music industry curiosities that just never made any logical sense. The present lineup, in place more or less since 2001, includes Kinney and co-founding bassist/mandolinist Tim Nielsen, along with drummer/percussionist Dave V. Johnson and guitarist Mac Carter.
This year yielded Drivin’ and Cryin’s first full-length studio album in 12 years,Whatever Happened to The Great American Bubble Factory. It’s a tasty effort, full of gritty soul and fuzzy blues and snappy pop and sweet country and both bootlegs and various tour reports suggest the songs have been well-received live.
Kinney lives in Brooklyn these days and often makes the rounds at his favorite New York country and roots haunts (his wife, Shayni Rae, runs the ongoing Shayni Rae’s Truckstop jam, now on occasional Wednesdays at the Bowery Electric). But this month is momentous for another reason: Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ itself has several gigs coming up that represent the band’s first northeast tour dates in more than a decade. HT checked in with the man to find out, well, what took so long.
HIDDEN TRACK: We don’t get to see Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ in the northeast too often. What gives, man?
KEVN KINNEY: Ha, yeah, Drivin’ hasn’t played up here — no, hasn’t played north of the Mason Dixon since we were on tour with The Who in, I want to say, 1997. I’ve been back and forth for seven or eight years — New York and Georgia — since 2001, and i’ve been up here full time for three years. We’ve been doing Shayni Rae’s Truckstop. It was me and Anton Fier and Catherine Popper and the Madison Square Gardens and others. What a great scene that was.
HT: Right, of course. I know the Truckstop moved on from the [Lower East Side club] National Underground, and is now only occasional. Why did it stop?
KK: We just, well, it was one of those things that was a happening kind of scene, so when you do something like that for so many weeks, you want it to stay happening. You don’t want it to become a five-year thing where you have too much ebb and flow. It’s great to take a break. Now it’s once a month only at Jesse Malin’s club, the Bowery Electric. We do the Truckstop there but with electric bands — we’d run into noise ordinances with the National Underground because it always ran late — and we’ll do more runs. I’ll have to not be making a record and Shayni went back to her old job.
HT: And how is Shayni these days?
KK: Oh, she’s happy, man. She’s awesome.
HT: Can you talk a little about why we haven’t heard much from Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ this decade? You guys never exactly split up or anything, but 12 years is a long time without a studio album.
KK: Here’s what happened. Back in 2001, I made a record called Broken Hearts & Auto Parts and it was me, Tim, Mac and Dave. 9/11 happened so we put this thing on hold — we started it on Sept. 10, really — so all kinds of stuff was happening. Finally, it came out a year later and I did Sun-Tangled Angel Revival after that with Dave. We started doing a few DNC shows then, but at that time, I was starting to lose my voice. It was a little weird, because after two shows I’d have to rest it for three days. Then I’d lose it for like a week, and I couldn’t do anything — one show every few weeks maybe. I just thought I was getting old and worn out.
Shayni, like three years ago — I guess maybe about then, about 2005 — she looked at me and she said you gotta go to a doctor. I hate going to the doctor, and he looked at me, and he said, dude, you’ve got a cyst on your larynx the size of which I’ve never seen before. How do you breathe? I’m all I don’t know, I know I snore. And he says we need to get that out, and I say, I’ve got this one gig Friday so I’ll schedule something and he says, no, no, we need to get this out like, tomorrow, I can’t believe you sleep through the night. So I went in, got it done, and went on back to Greenpoint [Brooklyn] — and it was just when we’d moved, too! I was walking around with this yellow pad — I couldn’t talk for a month — and everyone in my neighborhood thought I had a handicap.
HT: That had to have been a setback. I imagine you were itching to play music all the time.
KK: Yeah, and when I finally got my voice back, we did rehearsals, and suddenly, I could sing every song from the DNC catalog. The shows before I had [the cyst] removed, I could scream rock songs but I couldn’t sing anything like the country or the folk, and I couldn’t sing low, or soft, or sweet. I could only scream. This is a long way of telling you that the catalyst for this all happening like this now was that had a voice again, and then DNC started talking, and then this guy in Atlanta heard we were thinking about an album and said ‘I’ll pay for it,’ and we got ourselves a brand new label and got together down there. In Atlanta we’re kind of celebrities, you know, so it was easy to put people together. We all came in with some ideas and I brought my fuzz pedals and my guitar and we just got some paper and started writing — song titles, ideas, whatever.
HT: What was the sound you were going for?
KK: Well, I didn’t want to do it unless I could represent the band. I wanted to be able to listen to the record and go, that sounds like the band. I listen to some of our records and we didn’t even play much behind them…and, they’re good records, but I don’t think we’ve made a record that sounds fully like the band. We got a little too interested in tweaking studio things and not letting the dynamics speak for themselves. The album would up being pretty honest. I understand it’s not a lot of people’s cup of tea, but we’re just being ourselves. It’s an honest representation of what we are. Call us power pop wiseguys, how’s that?
HT: Will there be more touring in the Northeast and other places you don’t often go with DNC?
KK: I think so. We just haven’t done it yet. It’s kind of exciting to us, we’re going to get a van and make it happen and it’s more of an adventure now because we don’t do anything but weekends mostly. Less has been a lot more fun for this band. The band is very healthy, mentally, and we all really get along now. We never argue, ever, and everything is fun and ‘what the hell.’
It was not like that in the early days. In those years, when we got a little bit of fame, everyone got their own agendas and you do so many shows in a row and just get crazy. Tim and I have never had a stronger partnership than we’ve had in these last few years, and we’ve been together in a band for 24 years. Dave and Mac are just incredible musicians.
With touring, we thought, hey, let’s just do NYC, and we’ll do Philly and Boston, too. Let’s not try to do Maine, or Canada, or anywhere else, let’s just run up there and hit those three and come back down. We’ll probably do the same thing in other areas — maybe a Milwaukee, Chicago kind of thing, or a Seattle and Portland and San Francisco thing, or a San Diego and L.A. thing. We’ll do what we can. We made this record as a record for people that like DNC — we’re not trying to grab White Stripes fans or something we’re not familiar with. It happens that the majority of DNC fans are in the south still, so we have no grand plans — yet — to take over America.
HT: I know you’re also going to Asheville again in December to play Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam. Obviously you go back a ways with Warren. Can you talk about your continuing return to the Jam and your bond with good ol’ Mr. Haynes?
KK: I played like the fifth Christmas Jam, something like that. I knew Stefanie [Scamardo, Haynes' wife], and I knew Warren because of Stefanie. She worked for this woman named Holly who was part of, oh, I don’t know what she did at Island, artist development something? Well I met Stefanie and her boyfriend was Warren Haynes, and at the time he’d gone on to the Allmans from [David Allan] Coe, and just released his solo record [1993's Tales of Ordinary Madness]. I met him through that and our guitar player at the time, Buren [Fowler, guitarist and REM touring sideman] was a big fan of Warren’s. I got to know him through there. When DNC was doing real well, I did the Christmas Jam and I’ve kept doing it — I look forward to it every year. Last year with John Paul Jones was pretty amazing. I’m glad to be part of it. I’ll be there and we’re basically going to do a Shayni Rae’s Truckstop at [Asheville club] Jack of the Wood during the day. It’s a great cause, I always have fun, and a real treat for the people in Asheville.