ALBUM REVIEW: Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ – Mystery Road reissue (Island Records / Ume) 2017 /1989
It was because of my intense love of the Athens, Ga. band R.E.M. that I first took notice of fellow Georgians, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, as the reviews of their third album, Mystery Road, began getting positive reviews in the spring and summer of 1989, and R.E.M.’s guitarist Peter Buck was noted as being involved in the recording.As it turned out, Buck was a big fan of the four-piece band based in nearby Atlanta. He admired their ability to meld different styles – blues, folk-rock, roots-rock, hard-rock, punk-rock – into a cohesive whole, while writing and recording songs to “drive” by and to “cry” by.Singer/songwriter/guitarist Kevn Kinney – a favorite of me and my college buddies in the early 90’s, particularly with his solo, acoustic MacDougal Blues record (1990) and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s breakthrough smash, Fly Me Courageous (1991), which appealed to the hard rock fans out there.Joining Kinney on this recording were bassist Tim Nielsen, drummer Jeff Sullivan and guitarist/dobro player Buren Fowler who had been R.E.M.’s guitar tech before joining the band. Fowler died in 2014 at the age of 54.So, after 1988’s critically-acclaimed Whisper Tames the Lion, Buck (busy recording Green with R.E.M. at that time) agreed to produce the follow-up, which would become Mystery Road, recording a bunch of demos in Athens, before the record label insisted a more focused producer, Scott MacPherson, needed to be brought on board and get the album out on time.Of course the best song and the best known Mystery Road track is the barroom singalong “Straight to Hell,” which was just covered by former Hootie & The Blowfish singer Darius Rucker, who now has a successful, mainstream country music career. Rucker recorded the song with fellow country stars Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley.The backstory to "Straight to Hell," was noted this summer in The American Songwriter, with writer Jim Beviglia writing that the song's lyrics, about a latchkey kid whose mom is dating again, but in circumstances not approved of by mom ...: "It’s not a pretty story, but it’s strikingly honest about how a messed-up family can sometimes bond its members, for better and worse, even tighter than a happy one. “Straight To Hell” is a classic, certainly more Cryin’ than Drivin’. More than anything else, however, it’s endurin’, and that’s what really counts."It is "endurin'" for sure.Even nearly 30 years later, Mystery Road’s influence is still felt and appreciated (look at younger bands like Old 97’s and Drive-By Truckers, for instance), which makes sense that the reissue happens now, hopefully exposing a new generation to the Southern rock band’s distinctive sound. I mean, just listen to the plaintive country-folk of “Peacemaker,” only to be followed by the hard-rock jam of “You Don’t Know Me.” It’s proof of how talented they were, how they were not willing to be pigeonholed in an entertainment environment that thrived on conformity.And you know the Island Records executives freaked when they heard the first song on side 1 – the uncommercial and fiddle-heavy “Ain’t It Strange,” with Fowler’s Twilight Zone-theme guitar line. I’m glad the band insisted on the number kicking off Mystery Road.And then, with track two, “Toy Never Played With,” listeners unfamiliar with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ were likely floored that this Southern “country” band could do a balls-to-the-wall number bringing to mind AC/DC or Aerosmith rather than Lynyrd Skynryd or the Allman Brothers Band. Again, Fowler shreds here, as Nielsen’s bass lines thud along, propelled by Sullivan’s thundering drums. Thunderstruck, indeed!And Kinney and the boys stuck to their guns after all these years, still touring as always and recording when they can, as I noted in 2010 with my review of The Great American Bubble Factory.And so all these years I’ve had the standard, Island Records CD version of Mystery Road. But, the Buck-produced demos are featured on this expanded edition, a double LP featuring the original and remastered album, with a disc of eight of the Buck-produced demos which the former R.E.M. guitarist (who contributes electric dulcimer to the record) called the songs recorded at that time, in 1988, “loose” with a “great feel.” A year later, Buck and his band would invite Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ to open up for them on certain dates on their Green World Tour.It’s very exciting for me, all these years later, to finally get to hear the material Peter Buck worked with alongside the band, sensing where they were going, as we hear on a song like the Life's Rich Pageant-esque "Honeysuckle Blue," that appears in final form on the original recording, but the earlier, demo version is a more rockin' affair with new lyrics and the trademark Kinney-styled "wa-ho-ho" repeated.And while sides 3 and 4 feature the demos, these are not stripped-down, acoustic versions of the songs the band would ultimately released. For the most part they are fully-fleshed out songs in the hard rock variety. Like "1988," a song that has an almost underground hard rock sensibility.One of those previously unreleased songs in the demo pile is “Mystery Road,” which oddly didn’t make the cut to appear on the album that shares its name. It's a great, rootsy song with an Americana flavor that would have fit well on the original recording, as would have the uptempo folk of "MacDougal Blues," although that one was featured on Kinneys' solo record the following year."Not Afraid to Die" is an example of Kinney's love of acoustic folk ballads. And while he is a native Midwesterner, Kinney's adopted, kudzu-choked homeland of the Deep South channels through him on songs like "Not Afraid to Die," which does ultimately appear on MacDougal Blues, the folk album Island Records promised Kinney he could make if he would leave the "folk shit" off of the next Drivin' N' Cryin' album, which was the smashFly Me Courageous.Ending the demo disc, on side four, is Kinney's Dylan-esque "Mountaintop," with mandolin likely being played by Peter Buck. A fine ending to the demo portion of the Mystery Road reissue.All in all, this new rerelease of a 28-year old album from Drivin' N' Cryin' is refreshing, primarily because we get to hear a band really starting to take off and become the band that refuses to throw in the towel all these years later. And hearing the unreleased demos is a treat for a longtime fan, who finally gets to hear the song "Mystery Road."
Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report