Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Mar 27, 2020

Everyone’s got their own story to tell: A conversation with Jesse Daniel

By Kevin Broughton

I work this room on Tuesday nights
It isn’t much, but it pays alright
From 9 p.m. until last call
Sometimes I’m playing to the wall.

            Jesse Daniel, “Old At Heart.”

On a rainy Tuesday night in Atlanta, Jesse Daniel isn’t “playing to the wall,” but the room at Terminal West has plenty of space, even with Jason Boland and The Stragglers for a headlining act. The Wuhan Virus isn’t really on the radar yet; a week’s worth of monsoon rains are the likely culprit. But as the Stragglers’ diehards continue to filter in during the 27-year-old’s half-hour set, there’s minimal chatter. He’s gotten their attention, and makes the most of this exposure to a new audience.

“I try my best to live with humility and thankfulness,” says Daniel as he posts up at his own merchandise table after his set. “I want to make the most of the opportunities I have.” He engages with every customer he can as the Boland crew and band set up. The lanky, square-jawed Californian is making the most of this chance. His album release date is six weeks out, and one can sense momentum building for this troubadour of the Bakersfield sound.

Halfway through the Stragglers’ set, Daniel will pack up and drive, hoping to make it to “someplace right outside Mobile, I forget the name” in time for a few hours’ sleep before doing it all over.

Rollin’ On, out today wherever you purchase music, is the culmination of Daniel’s remarkable life turnaround and one of the finest country albums of the young, crazy year. (This will be true in December – mark it down.) Poignant lyrics and a first-rate studio band and producer make it a must-have for the serious, intelligent country music fan.

About four years ago he was dope-sick with track marks up and down his arms. Today, he’s on the cusp of greatness, and too grounded to let anything go to his head. No one knows what the next few months will hold in the Age of Quarantine and Social Distancing. Daniel, no doubt, will emulate the title of this magnificent album.

It was a real treat to chat with him about his punk-rock roots, writing songs by candlelight with his best friend and partner, and an unlikely part-time rehab worker who helped him “put down the spoon and pick up the pen.”

You were a punk rocker growing up. It’s fascinating to me that some of the best roots/country acts today were heavily influenced by punk. It seems counterintuitive; what do you think the common thread is, if there is one?

You know, Kevin, I think it’s individual and varies from person to person. But I definitely know a lot of people who were in punk rock bands and in that scene, who later got into country music. I think when you’re talking about a lot of the older country music, there’s a kind of punk ethos to it, a do-it-yourself mentality. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but growing up there was always such a parallel between punk rock and country for me. Just listening to it, it kind of soothes the same part of my soul.

Sticking with influences for a moment: Rollin’ On just oozes that Bakersfield sound. But you’ve mentioned that you found your way to your producer (and steel player,) Tommy Detamore, by listening to the likes of Doug Sahm and Jim Lauderdale. What is it about those two artists that resonate with you?

Yeah, the way I found Tommy was listening to that last album [The Return of Wayne Douglas] he did with Doug before he passed. That album has so many good songs, and the production is so great, and so is the steel.  I was already a huge fan of that record, and also This Changes Everything by Jim Lauderdale, which was also produced by Tommy. He also played steel on it.

So I had been listening to those, and had my eye out for a producer. Tommy’s name kept coming up. There were so many times I’d hear a great song and think, “I wonder who’s playing steel?” And it would turn out to be Tommy on steel, and a lot of times he was the producer, too. So I basically just reached out; cold-emailed him. That’s what set everything in motion, but it started with my being a big fan of those two albums. It couldn’t have ended up any better, and we ended up being great friends.

There are times on this album when your voice reminds me of Gram Parsons. Have you ever heard that comparison? Are you at all influenced by his music?

Man, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that one before, but I really appreciate it. But I love Gram Parsons, and he certainly was a big influence on me, especially early on. I loved his work with the Burrito Brothers, and I listened to that GP album over and over. Just wore it out. So I don’t doubt that some Gram influence got in there somehow.

Did Tommy put the band together for the recording sessions?

Yeah. You know, Tommy is very linked in with all the Austin players, and some of the ones in San Antonio, too. I reached out to him and told him I wanted to have some professional players on the record. Without saying too much – he was very nonchalant about it – he said, “Yeah, I’ll put together a good band for you.” He got Kevin Smith on bass, who plays with Willie Nelson; Tom Lewis from Heybale – he also played on a lot of Jim Lauderdale’s records; Michael Guerra on accordion, who plays with the Mavericks. John Carroll on guitar – he plays with a lot of people, like Corey Morrow. Tommy played steel of course. On fiddle we had Bobby Florres and Hank Singer.

That’s quite a lineup.

Yeah, he sent me that list and said, “These are the guys I have who will be on the record,” and it blew my mind. I was even more excited to get into the studio. They’re all Texas players, but at the same time realized that my sound is steeped in the Bakersfield stuff; that was the sound I was going for. They really met me in the middle. We got that “sheen” production I wanted without losing the Bakersfield grit.

Do you have a touring band?

Yeah, I do. The band I’m touring with is kind of evolving, but I have the same core group of guys (rhythm section and what not) that I stick with. They’re great. They really bring it, and we’re about to hit the road with Jason Boland after the record comes out for some full-band stuff.  

Are you on a label?

Yeah, it’s called Die True Records. Jodi Lyford – she’s my manager and partner – she started it. We put the last album out on it, too.

You’re touring with Jason Boland & The Stragglers, giants of the Red Dirt scene. What’s that been like, and what kind of exposure have you gained, being exposed to new audiences?

I joined up with them in Virginia Beach, then we did New York City, Sellersville, Pennsylvania, Richmond, and now Atlanta. I was joking around with them and said I’m calling this the “Chasin’ Jason” tour, because I’m following their tour bus in my car.

But yeah, their fans are really dedicated and devoted, and I’ve gotten to share that following with them. When bands like Jason’s tell their fans something is good, the fans tend to listen. So I’ve been very fortunate. Red Dirt is really not my sound or a demographic I’ve played for, but ultimately they’re country music fans. Any doubt I had that they would be picking up what I was putting down went away pretty quickly. It’s been a blast so far.

You won an Ameripolitan Award a couple years back, for “Best Honky Tonk Male Performer.” They have four sub-genres, I guess, honky tonk, western swing, rockabilly and outlaw. I guess you could put them all together, and you’d have something like, I dunno, “Country Music.”

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!

If you had to slap a label on what you do, what would it be?

Ah, I really just tell people “country music.” I really respect what Dale [Watson] is trying to do with the Ameripolitan Awards, by bringing a new term and trying to generate new interest; you know, bringing some new eyes to a lot of music that might be overlooked by radio. So that’s really great. But I tell people “country music” because that’s what I play and that’s what I love. Music fans are intelligent. They’re able to tell the difference between pop country and more authentic stuff. 

The album exudes resiliency and hope, yet makes references to some of the darker times in your life. You’ve been sober for three years and have made no secret of your past troubles with addiction, and you even did some time. If you don’t mind, can you point to one event or set of circumstances that led to your getting clean?

Yeah, man, absolutely. The last record was really more about some of those things, and this one has a more “forward” feel to it, a little more hopeful.

One of the biggest events that really sticks out in my mind…there was a gentleman who was working at a rehabilitation facility that I went to. He worked there part time and he would come in and play guitar as part of the group exercises we’d do. I was a heroin addict, de-toxing off of it, and I was very sick. Finally after about a week when I was able to get out of bed and start functioning again, I went into the room where he was playing old Hank Williams songs. He also played some Billy Joe Shaver and Emmylou Harris – a lot of great country covers, and even some artists I wasn’t familiar with. So I would ask him and he would tell me all about them.
He was a really good guy. After a while I started playing some songs, and we’d go back and forth. At some point I said, “I really wish I could play country music and do what you do.” And he looked at me like I was stupid or something and said, “Why don’t you?” That shook me to my core. And I thought, “Yeah. That’s true.”

And this is the craziest story, man, that happened just the other day. The rehab facility was in Oakland, California. And I was sitting down with Jodi for some lunch in Austin, Texas, and I see this guy walking down the street who looks just like him. So I chased him down to see if he was the guy, and he was!

Oh, wow.

And I almost broke down right there. I said, “You changed my life. You’re the reason I’m doing this today. You were that pivotal moment for me.” We’ve been in contact since, and he’s actually a rippin’ harmonica player, and so I hope we’re gonna play some together.

Wow. What a blessing.

Exactly, a tremendous blessing, and it was one of those moments that was so confirming for me. It’s certainly one of the biggest events that sticks out in my memory.

This is not a slight to your songwriting or vocals – because they’re stellar – but one of my favorite cuts, and one I’ve been playing over and over, is the instrumental “Chickadee.” How did that one come about?

You know, I love the tradition of instrumentals in country music. One of the guys I really love, Marty Stuart, does a lot of them. Buck Owens had a whole lot of instrumentals – The Buckaroos had at least one on every record, I think. Instrumentals are very cinematic, I think; they tell a story without words.

But I had this one riff that was kind of a Don Rich/Bakersfield sound-type of thing that I was messing around with. And one day in the studio we just worked it out with the band, and it just came to life within 20-30 minutes.

It’s amazing you say “cinematic,” because I kept thinking to myself, “That sounds like it belongs on a movie soundtrack.”

Ha. Thanks man, that was really what I was going for. I wanted to capture that Bakersfield sound, and incorporate all those instruments. It also gets to showcase all the other players who are on the record. They all get a moment to shine.

A question about your partner/manager, Jodi. Do y’all write songs together? Give us some detail about that relationship, if you don’t mind.

We sure do. We wrote a good portion, probably half the songs on the new record, together. It’s great. Our relationship started out – about four years ago – as a friendship. She was a tattoo artist and I would go to her shop and we’d just play music. She had a lot of songs that she’d written and she’d play them for me, and vice-versa. Then we started writing together just for fun.

And when I got more serious about music, we kind of got together. We lived way up in the mountains, and sometimes the power would go out for a week at a time. At night there was nothing to do; we just had candles. A lot of the songs on this record were written in the dark. It’s a huge part of our relationship, and I’m really glad she has a bigger role on this album: probably half the songwriting and all the backup vocals that she sang.

Who’s “Sam,” besides a guy who might have acquired illicit substances for you in your youth?

Sam is a real person and he’s still around. I was friends with his younger brother, and grew up down the street from him. We hit it off, and got into trouble together. My dad called us “The Gruesome Twosome.” Sam was a mythical figure to me because he was a little bit older; I looked up to him.

He was always getting into trouble with drugs or alcohol, and he would just leave for a while, just get on a Greyhound bus and go. He’d just disappear, and I always thought that was pretty crazy. And I figured I’d write a song about it.

“Sam, where did you go?”

Exactly. And now whenever I talk to him it’s interesting to find out where he is. For a while he was in Florida living on a boat. I texted him recently, and he was in Connecticut. He’s been acting in some commercials…he’s a character, man.

Do you have a goal for where Rollin’ On might take your career, in terms of exposure or critical acclaim?

Yes, I do. The goal for me with playing is to be able to put positive music into the world. And by “positive” I don’t mean that every song has to be happy. I feel right now there’s a lot of emphasis on using recreational drugs. People are gonna do that, but I think there’s enough of that in music right now.

I just want to keep it about the music. I want to make good country music that people love. I want to take it as far as I can. Jodi and I have a motto that the sky’s the limit. We’re not putting limitations on anything.

*          *          *

“Good country music that people love,” indeed.

We’ve been smitten with Daniel’s work for the last couple months, and this will be one of the best – if not the best – country albums of the year. FTM was honored to premiere a song from it, “If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be,)” and we gave you a taste of his live chops from his Atlanta gig last month. The best, most gripping song on the record is “Old At Heart.” (It happens to be Daniel’s favorite, too.) But to hear that one, you have to buy the record.

Now, it’s time to step up. That Feb. 18 show at Terminal West seems like a lifetime ago; nobody had a clue how crazily things would change, or how quickly. Musicians in every genre have taken a pounding in canceled gigs, and nobody knows if or when things will get back to something approaching normal.

Buy this album. In fact, go to Daniel’s store and get some more cool stuff. I got one of these awesome tee shirts.

It’s cool. And it’s true.

Now more than ever, support independent musicians. This one in particular.

Oct 18, 2019

A Conversation With Kelsey Waldon

By Kevin Broughton

Music, a sense of place, and family have been Kelsey Waldon’s passions as long as she can remember. She took piano lessons as a 10-year-old, then switched to guitar a couple of years later. Her mom soon bought her a 10-track recorder to encourage her creativity, and by 19 she’d moved from her Western Kentucky home to Nashville for the first time. She worked as a bartender while polishing her songwriting chops and taking what gigs she could find. A brief interregnum back home in Ballard County – and community college – followed, then it was back to Music City’s Belmont University for serious study and renewed focus on her craft. 

She cultivated a loyal following through frequent touring across the U.S. and two critically acclaimed albums; the most recent of which made it onto NPR’s Fresh Air host Ken Tucker’s “Top10 Favorite Albums of 2016” while the album’s lead single, “All By Myself,” was featured on NPR’s list of “Top 100 Songs of 2016.”

On her new album, White Noise, White Lines, Waldon captures the rugged country sound of her touring band without sacrificing the intimacy of her songwriting. Because of that approach, the record feels immediate and intimate, somewhere between a concert and a conversation. Co-produced by Waldon and Dan Knobler, the collection opens with a confident anthem, “Anyhow,” which finds the artist forging ahead after some frustrating setbacks.

“The past three years since we put a record out, we’ve seen some of the biggest ups and downs, like exciting things happening, and not-so-exciting things happening. We kept going and it’s all about that process,” she says. “And the title alludes to things going on around us, in the world and in our environment. I do think there is a lot of white noise. That title describes where I am.”

The nine songs – and two perfectly placed interludes – on White Noise, White Lines are a distillation of the bluegrass-infused country emblematic of the region John Prine immortalized when he sang of the Green River and Mr. Peabody’s coal train. More on how that legend and Waldon – in Hollywood-script fashion – intersected in a moment. 

“Run Away” is a traditional country weeper about falling for someone whose life is a wreck. Waldon wrote “Very Old Barton” about binge drinking alone, with the hopeful message of getting through the highs and lows of life. But the bold centerpiece of the album comes in a pair of songs. Waldon offers an impassioned protest song with “Lived and Let Go.” She explains, “A lot of times, I tend to write because I have to make senseof the world around me.” Its companion cut (mainly because they’re both either fast waltzes or in 6/8 time – the artist and I weren’t quite sure when chatting before the tape rolled on the interview), “Black Patch,” oozes authenticity. 

White Noise, White Lines is one of the best country albums of the year, and Miss Waldon should be prepared to hear her name called when Americana award season rolls around.  

We chatted briefly about Prine, Muhlenberg County, tobacco wars and seasickness.

You’re the first artist signed to Oh Boy Records in a long time. How is it you came to the attention of John Prine, and how would you describe your personal and artistic relationship? 

Yeah, that’s right. I’m the first one signed in almost 15 years, and I think that shows how careful they’ve been; I don’t think they do anything unless they want to. And neither do I. But I actually didn’t meet John until last year. I would see him around town in Nashville a lot; I’d freak out when I’d see him at Melrose Billiards and some other places like Arnold’s Meat and Three.

When my last record came out in 2016, that’s when everybody at Oh Boy apparently took notice of me, and when John and his wife, Fiona, heard my music. Later, I performed at a John Prine Tribute show and met Fiona and she said, “John and I are big fans,” and I was just in disbelief. 

I bet!

Yeah! I was like, First off, you know who I am, and John Prine knows who I am! It was just so cool to meet her there. And she’s become a champion of mine, and a great friend. But 2018 – on the Cayamo Cruise – was the first time I met John, and I got to sing “Paradise” with him. Later in the year, when he and I played some shows together, that was when he was able to hear some of my original music. That was when we were really able to bond, and he started asking about my upcoming album. 

I can’t imagine how cool it was to have him call you out on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry and announce you’d signed with the label.

Yeah. It’s funny, but a lot of people think that’s when it happened. They actually think that was the moment he decided! (Laughs)

Like it was a reality show or something.

I know! And I’ll tell you something else, and it’s probably TMI: The first time I sang with him on the cruise, I was so nervous. I had actually been throwing up! I’d gotten seasick and felt awful. And they called me and said, “Miss Waldon, John Prine would like you to sing ‘Paradise’ with him at his three o’clock show [in an hour], can you do that?” And I was so sick, but I said, “You bet I’ll be there!” So I rolled out of the bed and made it work. 

You left Kentucky for Nashville at 19, came back home for a while & went to community college, then back to Nashville where you earned a diploma at Belmont University. What did you study? 

I actually got a degree in songwriting, as strange as that sounds. I had never really planned on being that girl who applies for scholarships and things like that. It’s a pretty exclusive program. Berkley offers a similar program, and I read that Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch did that one. It’s a lot of music theory classes that you have to take. I took a “History of Country Music” class, which was really cool. But it taught me a lot about discipline; it was really cool, because I’d never had anyone push me out of my comfort zone before. It made me learn that there’s inspiration everywhere. And it was good to learn that at a young age, I guess. 

You and Dan Knobler co-produced this album. Had you ever been on the other side of the glass before? What did you learn from the experience? 

All the records I’ve done have been my vision, but all of the experiences are a little bit different. This time I used my live touring band. You know, we’d been out on the road touring pretty seriously for about three years before going into the studio. So we had practiced [these songs], and it just seemed completely natural. The thing was my vision, and Dan was the guiding light in helping me navigate through the process. I asked him if he was okay giving me a production credit and he agreed. I’ve always had a strong say in all my records, so it seemed the natural thing to do. 

And the band, these are folks you’ve been touring and playing with for a while? 

Yes! Brett Resnick, my steel player, he’s played on all three of my records. 

Solid player, by the way.

He’s amazing, and one of my first friends when I moved to Nashville. But yeah, these are the guys who’ve been touring with me since 2016.  And a couple of them, even a few years before that. 

And the recording process: How much of it did y’all do live?

Pretty much all of it. We didn’t use any technology unless we had to. There were a few overdubs as far as layering some of the guitars, but the rhythm section – the “meat and taters” of it – was all done live right there. But if one or two of the vocals live with the band weren’t perfect, they were perfectly imperfect. I just wanted to keep the energy going. I didn’t do anything unless it felt right. None of us did. 

I brought in the songs, and some of them we already had together and where we didn’t, we just played until we got there. 

You come from a community called Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky. Looking at the map, it’s one of those spots in the middle of the country where I bet you could visit four or five other states on half a tank of gas. Would you say there’s a confluence of cultures in your part of the country? 

Well, it’s a unique part of Kentucky, for sure. Growing up there in the river bottoms you see lots of different things and people. I had friends in Tennessee, because you’re right there on the state line, and you’re right across the river from Illinois. The Ohio River was in our back yard; I grew up in flood country. Backwater is part of life when you’re at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio. 

But yeah, there’s a heavy blues influence, and obviously bluegrass was a big part of my life growing up. They say you’ve got bluegrass coming down the Ohio, and the blues coming up from Memphis and Mississippi. But there’s a feel, you know? There are cypress trees all around…I grew up in the sloughs, the Kentucky swamps. My dad owns a hunting lodge down there, and when he’s not farming the land, he floods it out for waterfowl hunting. I always tell anyone who hasn’t been there how unique and beautiful it is in its own right. 

Speaking of your neck of the woods, there was a running, turn-of-the century shooting war over tobacco prices, and the Duke family’s monopoly, for about five years. I didn’t know about it until I heard your song “Black Patch,” so I had to look it up.

Oh, really? That’s great! Pretty crazy imagery, right? 

It’s awesome! Did you grow up with stories passed down? The Hatfield/McCoy thing in Eastern Kentucky/ West Virginia gets all the press and romance, but this was some serious stuff.

Yeah, you know I think the region and Kentucky in general has so much history. And growing up, yes, I did hear the stories. My great-grandmother wrote so much stuff down, and kept everything. And my brother-in-law and little sister farm tobacco and dark-fire it. It’s a huge part of fall every year. That’s the tobacco used in snuff. But I actually learned about the Black Patch war from taking a History of Kentucky class in community college, and still have the textbook. But reading about it, I was like, “Holy sh*t!” The imagery was just so romantic, and I thought, “This sounds like a song.” Just the name “Black Patch” is so killer. 

It’s also a way, I think, for me to just speak up for local farmers; people getting the thumb of the government pressed down on them. It was a way for me to share their story. 

I want to piece together a timeline, because this just seems so – if not perfect – at least poetic. In the spring, Mr. Prine formally announced you were on the Oh Boy label.  There’s an aptly-named “Interlude” on the record where you play a voice mail from your Dad where he says, “Hey, Babe. I’m down here in Muhlenberg County, looking for turkeys.” It’s freaking precious. Did you know there was a chance you’d be on John Prine’s label when you played that back for the first time? 

No! Not at all! 

You promise?

(Laughs) I do promise! We tracked this record in late 2017; it took a while to get this one out. The whole year of 2018 I was trying to find the right home for it. I didn’t want to independently release something again, and knew it was time to do something else. I wanted to elevate things a little bit. And it’s hard, you know? It’s hard to find people who understand what you do. 

That’s kind of going off on a tangent a little bit, but no. I save all my mom’s and dad’s voice mails. I just love them so much. My dad leaves the really colorful ones. And my granny does too. But I’d been wanting to do the “interlude” thing for a long time, and with this particular record I wanted it to feel very human and untainted. I also didn’t want to overdo the interludes, and that one had a perfect sentiment, I think. My dad and I had turkey hunted together in Muhlenberg County, and just had a perfect weekend.

But I swear, I had no idea. It just worked out that way. 


Grab White Noise, White Lines (on Oh Boy Records) wherever you get your music. Oh, and she’s touring, too. Go see a show.

Aug 23, 2019

Hopeful Emergence: A Conversation With Jason Hawk Harris

Photo by Sean Rosenthal
By Kevin Broughton

Jason Hawk Harris hit rock bottom during the writing and recording of his debut full-length albumLove and the Dark. In the last few years, the Houston-born-and-raised, Los Angeles-based musician endured life-altering hardships—illness, death, familial strife, and addiction—yet from these trials, a luxuriant and confident vision of art country emerged.
With an unlikely background, Harris is a singer/guitarist/songwriter who walks his own line, one that touches on Lyle Lovett’s lyrical frankness, John Moreland’s punk cerebralism and Judee Sill’s mysticism and orchestral sensibility. There’s even the literary and sonic audacity of an early Steve Earle, an outlaw unafraid to embrace harmony. Comparisons to Jason Isbell will inevitably follow, and they won’t be hyperbole, either. 
While touring and performing in the indie folk band The Show Ponies,Jason started writing his own songs, intuitively returning to his country roots but incorporating his classical and rock ‘n’ roll performance skills. He released his first solo offering, the Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips EP in 2017 and hit the road.
Meanwhile, his world fell apart: his mother died from complications of alcoholism; his father went bankrupt after being sued by the King of Morocco; his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and gave birth to a premature son with cerebral palsy; and—subsequently—Jason got sidetracked by his own vices.
This album is his personal narrative on death, struggle, and addiction, of a life deconstructed and reassembled. From the opener, “The Smoke and the Stars,” it’s apparent this album, produced by Andy Freeman, will take you to compelling new places. An ache, a longing, claws its way out of the speakers, the gradual drone blossoming through without rigid genre designs. You can hear the essence of classical music in a long crescendo; you can feel his Houston upbringing in JHH’s soulful and humid inflection; you can sense his Los Angeles home in the sharp and risky dynamics. You can also hear the joy and exquisite desperation when he swings for the fences, belting “Maybe I was just waiting for you, to get through the grapevine, tear down that door, and let me live in those green eyes of yours.”

Harris has composed one of the best country albums of the year and helped Bloodshot continue its hot streak of debut records from its stable of the finest talents in the genre. 

A master’s degree in music was at one time a viable option for you. Though you ended up not going that route, I’m curious about what formal or classical music education you’ve had. 

Yeah, I have a bachelor’s degree – from a small, liberal arts college in Southern California called Biola University -- in music composition with an emphasis in voice. That’s the level I stopped at. I applied and was wait-listed for the master’s program at UCLA, but I just decided I didn’t want to go that route. 

Do you play more than guitar on this album? 

Uh, let’s see…I played some percussion; I played most of the guitars, though there were a few of those parts I didn’t play. I played somepiano, but for the most part, anything that wasn’t guitar…I wanted killer players on this record and had them in studio. So the piano and percussion stuff I did was after the fact and just to fill in space. 

A couple of the songs have a classical or orchestral feel to them, particularly the first and last cuts.  Can you describe how you and (producer) Andy Freeman went about arranging and producing this album? You obviously had some really good players; how much of this was done live?

As far as the arranging goes, I’m the most anal about that sort of stuff. So usually when I go in the studio I have a really good idea what I want to do. And I’ll throw it to Andy, and he’ll be like the fine-toothed comb; he’ll say, “Well, I like this, but this part needs to shine a little bit more,” you know? Andy is really good at unlocking the creativity in the people he’s producing. And sometimes he’ll just let me go nuts, like I did at the end of “Grandfather,” and bring out all the classical chops and orchestral training. 

A lot of the album was recorded live. Even the base tracks for “Grandfather were recorded live; obviously the strings and the percussion and xylophone were not. “I’m Afraid” is one whole, live take. 

Speaking of the opening song: I believe a dream about being in a room full of snakes inspired “The Smoke and the Stars.” Someone with green eyes comes to your rescue, but by then the snakes are a metaphor for something else, aren’t they?

Mmm? I don’t know. Maybe. My thing is when I’m writing like that, I’m not just writing metaphors. And I don’t like metaphors that have to work too hard. So I’m just writing as if the subject is real. 

You’ve not made a secret of the fact that you struggled with substance abuse during the making of this album. If you don’t mind elaborating, which were your poisons of choice, and what are your physical and spiritual states as you approach your release date? 

I’ll just say this. I’m physically and spiritually more healthy than I’ve ever been. It’s something that I’m trying…trying not to think of as something that defines me, even knowing full well that it has an effect on me. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about drug of choice or low points or anything like that just yet. Maybe for the next record

“Giving In” is as positively an upbeat song about an addict’s relapse I can imagine, with imagery of a man’s using his wife’s wages when he goes out to fix. What went into writing this song?

Yeah. Not all of my songs are completely autobiographical. Most of them have a lot of me in them, though. “Giving In” is a character that’s kind of based on my mother and me. My mother was an alcoholic and an addict, and she was someone – and I’ve been around a lot of addicts in my life – who wanted to stop. She wanted to be sober more than any addict I’ve ever met. And she was just powerless to do so. 

So it’s a combination of her journey and her struggles, and mine. 

The line “I wish that where I am was where I’ve been” can be interpreted at least a couple of ways. Is someone looking ahead or backwards?

The way I was thinking about it was, “I wish that where I am now,” which is not sober and completely idiotic and drunk – I wish that was something I could look back on and say, “Oh man, remember when I used to get so f*cking drunk and I was a mess? That was so dumb.” 

You’ve experienced a horrific level of family tragedy in a short time. It seems hackneyed to ask if the creative process was therapeutic, but there does seem to be a hopeful air to an album filled with really sad vignettes. Do you feel like making it helped you emerge in a better place? 

Yeah, I think so. Hope is something that – even in the darkest times of the past five, six, seven years when the aforementioned tragedies took place – I never felt hopeless. It’s…I do believe in an afterlife and I believe that we’re all going there. And that gives me a lot of hope, even when I see the worst that life has to offer. Because I don’t think that it’s the end. And it’s okay if other people don’t believe that, but that happens to be where I fall on the spectrum of belief. 

I kind of got that feeling, especially listening to the last song, which I’ll ask you about now. “Grandfather” is such a warm, big sweeping song. It’s literally otherworldly; I’m just not quitesure of the context. Did you have a near-death experience and see your granddad? The song has a church feel to it; is this how you envision Heaven? Or something else altogether? 

I think I’d like to keep it open for people, because I wanted it to be – well, I wanted it to have an opiate feel, which is why I’m so vague about where I am in the first verse. And I think that’s important to the song’s ethos – that it has an air of mystery and the unknown. I think hope is the embrace of the unknown; it’s not something desperate and awful. 


Love & the Dark is available today on BandcampAmazon,iTunes, Spotify, etc.

Aug 7, 2019

What Keeps Him Alive: A Conversation with Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin

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. 

Um…what’s Tuesday? 

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!

Oh, yeah!

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.

Wait. What? 


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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