By Kevin Broughton
For Generation X-ers in the Southeast, Drivin N Cryin is at once familiar and enigmatic, not unlike the Yin-Yang tension of the band’s very name. But in any case, they’re a constant. They made seven albums in a dozen years – from 1985’s Scarred But Smarter to a self-titled release in 1997 – then went essentially off the grid for the next twelve. The one thing fans could count on throughout that run was the tension summed up in the band’s name: hard, three-chord, guitar-driven punk, balanced by a tender folk sensibility. Patti Smith versus Bob Dylan, as DNC front man Kevn Kinney summed it up in his 1990 album MacDougal Blues. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with this “Southern” “rock” band, do yourselves a favor right now and dial up the documentary – on Amazon Prime – Scarred But Smarter, by Atlanta media fixture Eric Von Haessler. Released in 2012 after three years of shooting and production -- on the heels of the then-new release of What Ever Happened to the Great American Bubble Factory -- the film chronicles the band’s origins, highs, lows and rotating personnel. Kinney and bassist Tim Nielsen are the two constants, both transplants from the upper Midwest to Atlanta. The premise of Von Haessler’s movie was to answer a fair question: Why has a great band like this never been more than a regional success?
The film gets around to answering the question, but the explanations are as complex as the band’s own seemingly existential contradictions. Again, it’s definitely worth the watch.
But 2019 welcomes DNC’s first full-length album in a decade – a few EPs and Kinney solo projects notwithstanding. Live The Love Beautiful, produced by Aaron Lee Tasjan, the new record is a blast of full-spectrum rock & roll, with Kinney singing about the troubled times of modern-day America; the trials and triumphs of an adulthood logged on the road; the benefits of appreciating the small things in life; and even the legacy of the Faces' late keyboardist, Ian McLagan. Together, these 11 songs connect the dots between the sounds that have shaped DNC’s career since the beginning, mixing together the jangle of folk music, the weirdo textures of 1960s psychedelia, the punky slash-and-burn of old-school rock & roll, and the sweep of Kinney's southern ballads.
Live the Love Beautiful also shines a light on the band's revamped roster, with guitar hero Laur Joamets — an Estonian-born instrumentalist who first moved to America to perform with Sturgill Simpson, making his debut on the singer's Grammy-nominated Metamodern Sounds in Country Music — recently joining the ranks of Kinney, Nielsen, and longtime drummer Dave V. Johnson.
While Nashville Scene might have overstated things a tad when it called Live The Love Beautiful “the best Drivin N Cryin album to date,” it’s certainly in the top three or four, in a tier just below Mystery Road and Scarred But Smarter, comfortably snug with Wrapped in Sky and Fly Me Courageous.
And if it’s true that DNC is a regional power, the band is never more potent than when playing Atlanta or the surrounding confines. On an afternoon in late June the van is parked outside MadLife Stage and Studio, a unique venue in Woodstock, Ga., part of the ever-expanding ‘burbs to the northwest of the capital city. Two years ago, the band played the city’s brand-new amphitheater to an estimated crowd of 12,000. The skies opened before the show and dumped three inches of rain in two hours, and no one left. If you’re looking for a vignette for Drivin N Cryin’s legacy in the Southeast, that was it: thousands and thousands of soaked, shivering forty- and fifty-somethings patiently waiting out the storm.
This day, it’s almost sound check time, but Kinney has to attend to a couple things first.
“Let me check on Kevn right quick,” says the road manager. “He’s doing a Reddit.” This is apparently a milestone for the 58-year-old troubadour. Moving toward the green room, one catches a bit of side-eye from the ever-skeptical Nielson in the wings. Best to look away…
“How you doing? I’m Dave, the drummer,” says Johnson, unprompted and with an outstretched hand. “Are you here to interview Kevn? He’s in there doing a Reddit, but I think he’s almost done. You gonna make the show tonight?” Oh, yeah.
The road manager is back. “Okay, he’s almost done with the Reddit, but I have to run out for a bit,” he lets it hang there, expectantly. It’s all good. “Cool. I’ll just see you in a little while. I’m pretty sure he’s almost done.” One really couldn’t ask for a more accommodating road manager and half-a-rhythm-section.
The greenroom door opens. “Hey, are you Kevin? I’m Kevn,” says the front man with a smile. “Come on in.”
How was the Reddit?
Oh, man, pretty good I think. It was my first one. Hang on. [Types one last answer on iPhone before beginning the interview proper.]
As someone who’s followed the band since 1985, I’m curious about what affect the Scarred But Smarter documentary had, if any. It filled in some gaps in the band’s timeline for me; did you get any kind of bump in exposure or coverage when it came out?
I don’t think so; I think it was mostly – for the fans – a look backstage. It was a chance for people to see how snarky I am, or how funny I am. You know, I’m a very private person; I don’t do a lot of interviews except for when a new album comes out. I prefer to just leave an enigma thing out there. But director Eric…I love Eric. We just hit it off. I don’t know if it’s because we both grew up in Northern industrial towns, but Eric…it was like he didn’t get it, then he got it, and he just wanted to express it.
Now, if it were me – and one day in the future I would like to do this – I would do it as a puppet show with marionettes. That’s the thing about documentaries: Anybody can do one. But if I did one it would be part Claymation and lots of dream sequences.
After the movie though, here’s the reaction I got: Hang in there, Kev!
We love you! Don’t die.
Just about anybody who went to college in the South in the 80s and 90s saw and heard and knew Drivin N Cryin. You’re almost 35 years in as a band now. Have y’all gotten any second-generation fans? Are those former college kids bringing their kids to shows now?
Yeah, I think so, yeah. Like the thing in Woodstock you were talking about earlier, a lot of parents bring their kids to shows to let them see what it was like. And we are seeing a lot of younger fans at shows but I don’t know if that’s a generational thing. Because it’s a universal message that we have: to be yourself, to be proud of who you are. It’s a working-class message. Nobody said it would be fair, so don’t quit. I think a 20-year-old can listen to “Scarred But Smarter” and get it.
Since the release of Bubble Factory ten years ago, y’all did four EPs, then last year there was a re-release of the 1997 self-titled album, as Too Late To Turn Back Now. Was the re-release a deal where you got to capture some old publishing rights? Why that record at that time?
The guy who owned New West Records? It was stuck in the CD player of his car.
Yep. He said, “I love this record. We should put this one back out.” I wanted to call it The Kosmo Vinyl Sessions, because I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate producers’ names onto album covers. But that was a very special time for us as a band. We had no label. We had gone back to being a three-piece…we were paying for it ourselves. And Kosmo really was a very important part of it, but he said (mimicking British accent), “Well, it’s really not about me!” (Laughs)
But I really didn’t want to call (the reissue) Drivin N Cryin, because when I called it that [in 1997] I made the cover look like Scarred But Smarter – where we were sleeping in the back of the car. Because I was thinking at the time that it might be my last record. I thought, “Maybe this is the arc of my career; maybe this is it.” Then we toured with The Who for that record. And I really didn’t make another Drivin N Cryin record until Bubble Factory (2009.) At the time I thought it was our last record, and it never came out on vinyl.
And when it turned out it wasn’t our last album, I decided to call it Too Late To Turn Back Now!
Well, that makes sense because when I heard the name I thought, Wait. That’s actually the first line of the first song, “Keepin’ It Close To My Heart.”
Yeah. I wanted it to be the first vocal line that you hear.
Live The Love Beautiful has a peace about it, an air of contentment. It also seems – to me, anyway – a close cousin to Wrapped In Sky. Somebody in the documentary – it might have been Peter Buck – described Wrapped in Sky as “a return to hopefulness.” Does this record remind you of any other album you’ve done in the last 30 years?
I would say it’s probably closest to Wrapped In Sky, which was also a very hard record to make, and it never came out on vinyl. And it was quickly cut out and disappeared until it came out on iTunes. It was just gone. We were dropped [by Geffen Records] the week it came out.
That’s messed up.
Well, in all fairness, Geffen signed us when I was having a temper tantrum in Memphis when I did three songs and destroyed all my gear. And they were like, “You’re amazing!” (Laughs) Yeah, I was having a mental breakdown. But by the time we got to L.A., I was over it, and on to more of a healing life, you know?
And this album has a healing life to it, too. There’s a back-and-forth between confrontational life and healing life. And all of my songs, I’m singing to myself. I’m letting you watch and listen to me talk to myself. I don’t do a lot of preaching.
If it sometimes comes out that way, it’s because I’m preaching to myself. I’m just here to sing to myself. Like in “Step By Step,” I’m writing about a time in my life when I wasn’t sure who was in control of me. And I don’t think we all have that; some people are lucky enough not to have that. They should embrace that. I have not been that lucky.
Aaron Lee produced this album, but he’s also the guy who was your lead guitarist between Sadler Vaden and Laur. How did that dynamic work out?
Well, he was also my guitarist on my solo album Sun Tangled Angel Revival, and we’ve done a lot of solo tours together. He was part of the Golden Palomino album I did with Anton [Feir.] Aaron’s just been my go-to guy for so long. He knows every song I’ve ever recorded; he just knows what to do. And like with Sadler or anybody who plays with us…you know Col. Bruce [Hampton] and I were very close friends. And part of our philosophy was, “let your musicians shine.” And if they move on to bigger or different opportunities, let’s encourage that. Bruce would never be like, “That dang Derek Trucks!” (Laughs) You know, Derek moved on.
Because they’re helping me out. I’m not helping anybody out, except to keep my songs simple so they can express themselves within the songs.
A couple of years ago, Tim made the observation that DNC is a Southern Rock band with two guys from Milwaukee and Minneapolis leading it. The Replacements, Husker Du and the Violent Femmes are all over y’all’s music. The fusion of folk and punk is obvious; how did the Southern element work its way into the mix? Just by being here?
Yeah, you know we were both drawn to the kudzu. I always say the greatest Southern rock band I know is R.E.M. The Southern rock bands I knew were Let’s Active, R.E.M., Pylon. One of the first things I remember after coming to Atlanta was going to Stone Mountain to see the laser light show, and saw an exit sign for Athens. And I thought, “Whoa! B-52s!”
But I’ve never owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd record. I like Lynyrd Skynyrd; they’re good people, and Leon [Wilkinson] and I were friends. But that was never one of my goals – being a “Southern Rock” band. But when you come from some place like the Midwest you can see the softer edges, the patience and the inherent beauty and the gracefulness that I fell in love with when I came here for the first time. And I never left. Right after I got down here I was trying to get my car fixed, and I overheard the guy say over the phone, “Some Yankee wants his car fixed.” (Laughs) I was still kinda pushy back then. It’s a tricky world in the South, but I fell in love with it here. And Tim went to high school here, so I’m the carpetbagger.
Well, as carpetbaggers go, you’re one of the good ones.
I worked as a carpenter on a big sewer treatment construction project. So I got quickly immersed into Southern culture from an Alabama-based construction company.
Thirty-five years on, how many dates a year do y’all do? And as a follow-up, what percentage of the gigs are within a couple hundred miles from home?
I have no idea. I think we play every other weekend, so we probably do about 50 or 60 shows a year, maybe? I don’t really know. I don’t want to do Tuesdays anymore.
Tuesday sucks! Wherever you are! I ain’t doin’ it! I’m done doing Wednesdays in Wichita and Mondays in Omaha. I’d rather go camping, and play Thursday-Friday-Saturday. That’s kinda how we are. We don’t just tour for the sake of touring.
Some of these songs have been floating around on YouTube from live shows for a year or more. How long had you been writing and working on this batch of 11 songs?
Ah, it wasn’t that long. A bunch of them we just came up with in Aaron’s living room. Tim wanted to make a record. And I said, “Okay we can do a record.” Then it came down to actually wanting to do it and I was “Oh, wow, I don’t know what to do.” So I just started going through my voice recorder. [Picks up iPhone] I’ll just pick one out randomly here…[strumming in 4/4 time comes from phone] I have no idea what that is.
Kind of has a Dixieland feel. So you just play into your phone when an idea comes to you?
Everything that’s on the record you’ll find on this phone! (Laughs) Yeah, we’ll record sound checks and things like that. A couple of the songs are from a session we recorded on Sept. 10, 2001. “Spies” is one of them. And “Someday.” Those are songs that had never seen the light of day, because…well, we recorded them on Sept. 10 and woke up on 9/11 and said, Oooh. I don’t think the country is ready for the line “I’m a spy for the underground in America.” I think we’ll put that one on the back burner! Then when we got together in Tim’s basement to do Bubble Factory a lot of the songs from those sessions finally came out. Does that answer the question? What was the question?
How long have you been working on these songs?
Oh, yeah! (Laughs) “If I’m Not There I’ll Be Here,” that song’s probably 20 years old. I’ve tried to put that one on every record, but it’s never made the cut. Either it wasn’t finished or didn’t have the right vibe. That one – I had been listening to Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand” [mimics intro from that song] and said, “Yeah, let’s put that song on this record.”
Ian McLagan…I can think of a couple of more high-profile members of Faces, but I never really thought about that band’s being a big influence of yours. Then there’s the line, that he “kept doing what keeps him alive,” with a change of verb tense in the same phrase. What made him the subject of a song?
Well, I never met him. I wanted to meet him, because he was in Faces, one of my favorite bands as a kid. Want I wanted to do was tell a story about a guy who could have done one thing. I just told you that I built sewage plants. I’ve been telling people that story for 30 f*cking years. I built three sewage plants, and I loved being a carpenter. But I’m not functioning, now, as a carpenter even though I was really proud of what I did. And I could sit in bars and tell stories about being a carpenter.
Ian McLagan is a catchall. It could be Peter Buck. He could say, “Yeah, I wrote ‘Radio Free Europe’ on that first record and haven’t done anything since,” and I would be impressed. But some people do one thing and talk about it all their lives. And some people keep “doing,” and that’s what keeps you alive.
Again, I’m singing to myself. “Kevn, why are you doing this? Well, it’s kind of keeping you alive. You idiot.” (Laughs) Ian McLagan was a guy who could have said, “I wrote ‘Itchycoo Park.’” And if you saw him at the coffee shop you’d say, “Itchycoo Park! That’s amazing!” But in Austin, where I have a lot of friends, Ian played with everybody. And I really did see him – after he played a set with Peter Buck – carrying his keyboard in one hand and his amp in another. He kept doing it. I love artists who love to be artists and want to keep doing it.
“Sometimes I Wish I didn’t Care…” I swear I hear the same female voice as on “Good Night Rhyme,” a song buried on MacDougal Blues. Am I right?
No, that was my sister.
Yeah, I know. It was beautiful. Who’s on this one?
“Sometimes I Wish I Didn’t Care?” That’s Elizabeth Cook.
Oh! She’s dreamy!
I love her radio show.
“Apron Strings!” Love it. One of the best radio shows ever. She’s one of my best friends. We met at Todd Snider’s house. And I was unaware of how many albums she had made. I mean I knew she was great, I knew she was funny; I’d seen her on Letterman. But when I started researching her I saw that she’s got like nine albums out! And they’re all awesome. She her next album, produced by Butch Walker – I don’t know if I’m telling stories out of school – it’s fantastic. It’s a power pop, great rockin’ record. She makes great records, and I really wanted her on this one.
Man, thanks for the time. Go do your sound check.
Thank you. Gotta go learn a couple of these songs. We’re making a live album tonight.
But it makes perfect sense, of course. The venue’s name says it all: “MadLife Stage and Studio.” Part restaurant, part live music venue, with an actual recording studio attached to the room. And what Kinney and Nielson have planned also makes perfect sense: On the night before the new album’s official drop date, you make a live record for future release. “Yep,” says Kinney. “Live The Live Beautiful Live.”
What’s more, the execution is brilliant. The audience is made up of hard core fans from the band’s mailing list and about 100 of them have paid anywhere from $75-$125 apiece to be part of this intimate gathering of kindred spirits. The doors open two hours before show time, but there’s no opening act. No way. There’s an hour-long meet-and-greet, followed by a huge group photograph, then a rock show.
At photo time, Shay Meaders asks if she can squeeze in to get her own shot from the mezzanine level. She and her husband, Eric (who serves in the Coast Guard), have driven from Fairfax, Va. “This is my husband’s favorite band,” she says. “When we heard about it, we left the 20-year-old and 17-year-old at home. We weren’t gonna miss this show.”
And it wasn’t a show to be missed. Upon taking the stage, Kinney re-explained what the helpful road manager had told the crowd earlier: it’s a live recording of the new album, track-by-track. “Bear with us,” he says, “if we have to do a couple of them over.”
But the band is on, man. Tighter than a tick; only one do-over out of the 11 tracks on Live The Love Beautiful. Kinney stays on top of things between songs by donning his reading glasses and scanning the back of the vinyl album cover he’s perched on a Marshall amp: Oh, yeah, this one’s next. It’s a joyous affair for him, the band and ready-made crowd, eager to capture a moment in time.
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