Drivn’ n’ Cryin’ has spent the past 30 years playing what guitarist and songwriter Kevn Kinney describes as “psychedelic, southern, power pop.” Their career has seen them go from Atlanta staples to college-radio darlings to that old band who never quite broke the big time, but whose melodies still hum randomly through your mind.
They’ve opened for acts such as The Who and Neil Young, and were more recently honored by their home state with an induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. But Kinney says the music of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ is best appreciated in smaller clubs.
“I think bands sound great in a 300-seat club, because if you’re part of the audience, you’re actually part of the band,” Kinney said. “Once you get bigger than that, you’re kind of watching people watch people.”
Drivn’ n’ Cryin’ play just such a venue Friday night, Aug. 5, when they swing in to town for a stop at Vinyl Music Hall in downtown Pensacola. In anticipation of that show, Kinney spoke with SANDSpaper last week about the evolution of the band’s career, the Kudzu Circuit, listening to Hank Williams with the Indigo Girls, selling baseball cards to Johnny Ramone and lots more …
SANDS: How you doing?
Kevn Kinney: I’m doing good. Doing good. We just had a super successful run in Texas, which we haven’t been to in a couple of years and it was really great, so we’re feeling pretty good.
SANDS: Whereabouts in Texas?
Kevn Kinney: We did two nights in Austin at this small road house called The Sahara Lounge, and it was really great. It’s like in the way east part of Austin, Texas, and we did two nights, $10, and it’s a tiny bar, maybe, I guess, in relation to you, I don’t know, yeah, I don’t know what bar it would be like in Pensacola, but it’s a tiny bar, little roadhouse bar, but it was great. And then we did Houston — I can’t remember where we played there — that was great, and then we did Dallas, we opened up for this country guy and just did our rock show and it was just really great. It was cool, the guy’s name is Cory Morrow, that we played with.
SANDS: And that went well, playing the rock with the country?
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, it was like a thousand seat —it was called the Granada Theater, in Dallas, Texas. And it was free to get in and it was like a promotion for the nightclub or something — I don’t know what it was for — but it was us and the Cory Morrow guy, who recorded “Straight to Hell” like 10 or 15 years ago. So, he’d never seen us and I think he was a little shocked.
Anyway, everybody had a great time and he sang “Straight to Hell” with the country voice — ah, I just love it, I wanted him to sing the whole song.
SANDS: That song lends itself well to country.
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, it does, it’s good, I like it.
SANDS: What kind of stuff are you guys playing this time out? What can people here expect to hear?
Kevn Kinney: Well, our record is called “Best of Songs,” which is the best of our four EPs that we put out. Which is like the reconstruction of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. We did these four EPs, and each one was a different genre of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. One was a punk rock, one was a psychedelic, one was our beginning era, the Kudzu Circuit I called it, and then one was what we are doing now, topical songs about what a band feels like after they’ve been through the whole thing, you know, through the ups and downs, the “Turntable,” it’s called.
So, we took the best of those four EPs and made one LP, and we’re selling the LPs at the shows and we’re touring for it and it’s called “Best of Songs.” So, we’ll be doing the songs from it, and then we do all the hits, always. People shout out request, we can usually do’em. We got Jason and the Scorchers’ guitar player with us, his name is Warner Hodges, and he’s a gunslinging, guitar whuppin’, rock’n’roll freak.
It’s a hard rock show, it’s a different show, there’s not a lot of folk music in it. Like past times [in Pensacola] everyone of those shows was a little more intricate, a little bit deeper cuts. This is deeper cuts with the harder rock stuff. This is a hard rock show.
SANDS: Do you dip into the folk, or not so much?
Kevn Kinney: Always. Yeah, we always do — yeah, the folk we do is really intense, though. It’s really beautiful and it’s very focused, you know what I mean? Yeah, we do “Let’s Go Dancing,” always, and things like that. And I’ll do acoustic songs by myself. It’s fun, because when the bottom drops out it really drops out. So, it’s kind of fun.
SANDS: When people describe Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, they usually use a term like “college radio,” and they define you guys to a particular era, like late 80s or early 90s, but you’ve been around for 30 years now, how do you — how would you describe Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ and the arc of their existence?
Kevn Kinney: I would describe us as like a psychedelic, southern — well, I call us an Atlanta rock band that plays psychedelic, southern, power pop.
SANDS: Okay, I think I know what you mean.
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, I mean, we’re really — when we first started off we said, ‘we’re the band that’s like your record collection.’ Our first album was like a mixed tape, except that we wrote all the songs on it. We’ve kind of found our own voice, you know, in doing that.
But, you know, we’re a power pop band, we’re like Cheap Trick. I think if somebody called — like if you were going to try to explain what we are to somebody, you probably, if you said Cheap Trick, they would probably be less disappointed than anything else.
You know, we’re not like REM, but we love REM. We’re not like Skynyrd, we’re not like the Allman Brothers, but we have Allman Brother moments. We’re not like Dokken or Quiet Riot, but we have those moments. You know, we’re not quite The Archies, and bubblegum pop, but we have a little bit of that in us. So, I think if you said we’re the southern version of Cheap Trick, I think that probably, that would be an explanation that most people could kind of figure out.
SANDS: So, you guys were recently honored by your home state, inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. What was that like, and what does it mean to you?
Kevn Kinney: Uhhh … well, I think it validates us as — like I told people back then, I think it validates the fans that supported us here in Georgia. You know, we have a couple of iconic songs, “Fly Me Courageous,” Honeysuckle Blue,” and, of course, “Straight to Hell,” [but] we’re still the underdogs, we’re still the — we’re still the band that should’ve made it. You know what I mean? We’re the band that, that was suppose to be Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and the band that was suppose to be a national —. So, we’re still kinda seen as the underdogs, you know, like, ‘I wonder why those guys aren’t ever on TV? I wonder why you never see them on a late night TV show or anything like that? I wonder why you never —’
You know, because we weren’t ever really, the South —. The South is a hard place to get — I mean, I lived in New York, I’ve been living in New York, I just moved out of New York, but I was in New York for 12 years and I ain’t gonna lie to you, I think those people still think we’ve got like, you know, pickaninny, you know, like I think they think we still have maids and stuff. I mean, it’s really — I’m like, ‘I’m from Atlanta.’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, I never really go to Atlanta.’ ‘Atlanta’s like probably the largest gay population in the South, um, we’re a multicultural melting pot, um, yeah, I don’t know if you know, we don’t have Rhett Butler in Atlanta, I don’t know what you think —.’ I don’t know if they know what the South is, you know? So, you’re still kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re a southern band.’ They lump everybody into this southern kind of thing and it’s like, do you know the biggest southern band in the world is probably REM, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean, they’re like, ‘.38 Special?’ and like, ‘Skynyrd does not represent every southern rock band, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean, the B-52’s are probably more popular than Skynyrd is in a lot of places. So, you know, I think if you play the B-52’s in Germany I think probably more people know who they are.
Kevn Kinney: So, I don’t know, you know, we’ve struggled with that stereotype our entire career, but it also makes us like ‘Oh, we don’t care, whatever, we’re comfortable being that thing.’ So, the Hall of Fame kind of validated us as far as people from the outside world, like, ‘Oh, they’re not just from Georgia, they were like awarded by the state,’ so it kind of helps us explain our story a little more. I think the biggest benefit of it is that we were validated and that they should pay more attention to us, we’re not just, you know, doing this for weed and beer, or whatever they think, I don’t know. And, you know, of course, your kids and your grandkids, over the years, they may think it’s something — you know.
But, I mean, you know that I know that you know that you know that it’s not really that, you know, like it’s not — awards are always lobbied for and you have to kind of put your hat in the ring and there’s a little politics involved and all that stuff, you know?
You know, I would rather sell out an amphitheater. That’s a good award. But we’re having fun, and we were honored to get it and we had a lot of fun. Peter Buck inducted us. It was fun. You know, it’s all psychedelic — at one point, you’re just like, ‘Oh, this is what it’d be like to win an award, how weird.’ You know, we’re never going to win a Grammy.
SANDS: Well, never say never.
Kevn Kinney: Well, it’s not important. The Grammys —. The Grammys are like —. I don’t know, it’s always weird when you see bands disappointed that they didn’t win a Grammy. And you’re like, ‘Well, go back in the 70s, and watch the Grammys. You know who won Grammys? Captain and Tennille, John Denver, Boz Scaggs. You know, KISS and Bruce Springsteen weren’t winning Grammys. No one cool won a Grammy. No one would even watch the Grammys. It was like Lawrence Welk, It was like watching the “Lawrence Welk Show.” None of your — James Gang, they never won a Grammy. I can mention a thousand great rock n’ roll bands that have never even been nominated for a Grammy, so I mean, why would anything be different? Adele’s gonna win a Grammy and Beyonce is — I don’t even know what Beyonce does that’s so amazing that everybody thinks she’s like the queen. I liked her first band, I thought that was pretty good.
It’s like, God, everything that Kanye West and those people do, that’s just like this synthesized — like how much time do they actually spend in the studio, they just come in and go, ‘It’s a party, it’s a party,’ and then they just sample it. It’s ‘amazing.’ It’s ‘amazing.’
SANDS: It doesn’t do it for you?
Kevn Kinney: No, it’s ‘amazing.’ I mean, it’s ‘amazing,’ like they should win an award. Okay.
Adele is pretty amazing. She stands up there and sings a song that she wrote. That’s pretty amazing. I think that’s pretty amazing. You know?
Madonna’s still amazing. I’ve seen Madonna live and she’s fucking amazing. She really is. She sings and, I mean, she really — I don’t know, I thought she was pretty amazing. It was really good.
SANDS: You’ve seen her recently?
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, I did. I’ve seen her a couple of times. My road manager was like, ‘You wanna go see her?’ She played a club in New York called the Roseland Ballroom and I went and saw it. I was like, ‘eh, I don’t know if I like Madonna, but sure, I’ll go.’ I was like holy crap, I can see why she’s Madonna.
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, she could really sing. I was like, ‘wow, she’s really singing.’ I was impressed.
SANDS: A lot of the bands you threw out a minute ago, like REM and the B-52s, are from Georgia. Do you think Georgia, during that era, was particularly fertile?
Kevn Kinney: Um, no I think the whole East Coast was really, the whole Southeast coast was. I mean, because, I think there was a really great communication between — it doesn’t really exist anymore, but there was a really great circuit, the fraternity, I call it the Kudzu Circuit, but it was the fraternity circuit. And there were a lot of bands in, like, Mississippi, the Windbreakers, and people like that and some bands that I love in Alabama, the harder rock bands, but the North Carolina, Charlotte, Atlanta, that whole corridor, that I-85 corridor, there were a lot of great bands in that era. You know, Pylon, the Windbreakers.
But I think what really was the seed for all those bands to meet and to hang out was fraternities use to be a really important first step for a band. A lot of bands would make their first $2,000 check that they ever made at a fraternity house. Like ATO or the TKO or whatever the hell they’re called, I’m not sure, but when kids could drink at 18, and fraternities had parties, and they had money, you know, I think everyone of those bands started off playing — maybe not the B-52s so much, but maybe they did, maybe their first gig was, you know their first gig out of town was probably Charlotte or Chapel Hill at some fraternity house.
Like anything there’s cool fraternities and dumb fraternities, you know jock fraternities. But there were a couple that were like real music centric fraternities and would have great bands. And that’s how we made our first — our first year we stayed alive, to make our first album and all that, through playing a circuit of fraternities and then the word spreads and the college radio starts playing you because you played the fraternity, one of the guys in the fraternity runs the radio station or something like that, then they start playing you on the radio, and then you get a gig in a real nightclub, you know, I think that’s how we did everything from Tallahassee to — we did all that, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Athens, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, Greenville, Suwannee, Nashville, I think we did fraternities in all those cities before we did clubs.
Kevn Kinney: And that’s where you learned about all those times, you know, ‘yeah, REM was here, like, 12 years ago and they did whatever, something like that.
SANDS: And do you think that helped shape you as a band, helped shape your sound? Intermingling with all these other groups?
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, it helped us with our sound. When you meet other bands, you talk about other musicians, and bands that they like, so you start crossbreeding bands that they like and you like. You know, for REM it was talking to those guys and, you know, you learn about their record collection. You just kind of listen to albums, it’s all about sharing music, history, and learning about the roots — ‘What bands did you like growing up?’ — And they’re like ‘oh, yeah,’ and you turn people on. And eventually — there’s a certain, I guess seriousness maybe that came with southern rock, with some of the southern bands. I think Michael said they were kind of known for being kind of serious, and then Peter and Mike and Bill, REM, they have really a minor-chord kind of centric thing, so they really encourage a lot of bands to play minor chords, I think, like D minors and A minors, that’s all Peter and Mike and Bill. And they also brought an appreciation of country rock, I think all those bands had a tinge of some of the country music that they’d grown up on, which I didn’t grow up on, I grew up in Milwaukee, so I didn’t ever — my dad listened to Charlie Pride and Freddy Fender and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, but we weren’t a country music house.
So, that’s what really influenced me the most. Because I came from a hard rock, punk rock, power pop, Cheap Trick kind of think. And then I came down South and I learned about — you know, I’d never listened to country music before, so it was brand new to me. I think the Indigo Girls turned me on to Hank Williams for the first time. I think they were playing Hank Williams — they picked me up one time and drove me to a show, like a long time ago, they were playing in Athens, they were like, ‘You wanna go open?’ I was like sure, ‘Can I have a ride.’ I think they played me some Hank Williams in the cassette player on the way there. I was like, ‘This is awesome. Who’s this guy?’ They were like, ‘It’s Hank Williams!’ I was like, ‘Wow, he’s great.’
SANDS: That’s funny.
Kevn Kinney: Yeah
SANDS: So, you have, over the course of your career, either with Drivn’ n’ Cryn’ or solo, have played with or opened for various notable acts. Any of those stick out for you?
Kevn Kinney: Well, we opened for the The Who, and Neil Young and REM, those are the main ones. And, there’s not really, there’s not a lot — you know, by the time you’re doing those kind of things you’re playing amphitheaters. So, you know, it sounds a lot more magical than it is. By the time you’re doing that, you’re really part of the circus. There’s 16 moving trucks, and buses, and you’re one cog in the wheel, you’re there to do one job.
Kevn Kinney: It’s not really like you hang out with Neil Young or The Who. You know, you see’em in catering maybe. It’s kind of like doing a movie or something. They’re there on a different level, to sell a certain show. People pay them a lot of money, there’s a lot of stress on them to fill these amphitheaters and do what it is they’re needing to do. They’re needing you to basically play until the sun went down. That’s usually your job.
So, it’s not like they’re jamming with you. REM did. Peter and Mike did come out and play “Straight to Hell” with us just about every night. They broke that rule. They were a lot different than any of the other — they worked really hard, every time you saw an REM tour they handpicked their opening bands, and they would hang out with their opening bands, they were just different in that respect than everybody else. But, outside of REM, every other tour that you get — like Spin magazine wanted to come on tour with us when we did one of those things, and I wouldn’t let’em. I was like, ‘Why, you just missed the fuckin’ story, man.’ They were like, ‘What do you mean?’ We were just in a van and traveling around and driving — we drove from Atlanta to Seattle and California many times, in a hot van to try to get 10 people to see us, you know, I mean, where were you then? That was the story.’ And now they want to come and sit in some sort of football dressing room, or locker room, or whatever you call it, where they put on their outfits —
SANDS: Right, yeah — ‘uniforms’ is, I think, what they call’em.
Kevn Kinney: — ‘and now you wanna sit in a amphitheater and,’ there’s no story, there’s no story. It’s just truck stops and backstage and that’s it. And a short show. I was like, ‘No, I’d rather you not come. You kinda missed the story, or wait til there’s a story to tell, but —’
You know, like, back in the 80s when we toured it was a cool story, it was a really cool story. There were no truck stops. You know, there were truck stops that were for trucks, that’s what they were. There were no huge Love’s and Pilots and all these things with sushi, you know what I mean? You stopped for gas, and you got a Powerhouse candy bar and a Coca-Cola. And then you got back in the van. That was it. There was no coffee, afternoon — you know, there was no iced coffee. You had to stop at a restaurant and have dinner, you know, it was great.
SANDS: Do y’all still do it that way these days? Or is it more iced coffee?
Kevn Kinney: Well, I learned to make my own iced coffee with the Solo cups, but yeah, we’re part of the system now. It’s hard to avoid going to the Love’s, the truck stops, where everybody’s got something. You know, the fresh apples, the cheese. You can get an apple and cheese plate with fresh bruschetta — you know, why not take advantage of it?
There was a place called Books-a-Million, that was the first place that had espresso. We would seek out those Books-a-Millions. We were like, ‘God, that’s amazing, they have espresso.’ That was the first place — we would hit a Books-a-Million, we knew where every good book shop and espresso was in the South, that was our thing.
SANDS: Well, we actually still have a Books-a-Million here, so you’ll be able to get an espresso.
Kevn Kinney: I love it. I love Books-a-Million.
SANDS: You mentioned the amphitheater shows with REM or Neil Young, how does that compare with maybe smaller affairs, like when you played with Widespread Panic a year or so ago, or like the Warren Haynes stuff, the Christmas Jams, are those more intimate affairs?
Kevn Kinney: I think that — here’s my thesis on all this: the size club that we play in Pensacola, Vinyl, and what we did here in Atlanta, Smith’s Olde Bar, and the bars we do, you know, like 300 people, to me, is a rock show, is a great rock show, for me.
Kevn Kinney: I’m not comfortable playing to a thousand people. I don’t like it. It’s not me. I don’t feel like I can control — with my weird voice and my diverse music and whatever it is that I feel like doing, the lack of structure and lightshows and things like that. I don’t have a light show, because I can’t do a set list, because I can’t commit to whatever song I want to play next, everything is improv. The length of the song, the version of the song, the kind of song, and it changes every night because I don’t know what I want to do until I walk out and look at the crowd. So, it doesn’t lend itself to being a thousand-seater show really.
SANDS: You feel like you can connect more with the crowd?
Kevn Kinney: We do amphitheaters down here for fun, and it’s great, in Atlanta, and they’re sold out, and it’s great, but, you know, it’s fun to be a little rock star for a minute, but that’s not something I’d want to sustain. I love playing Vinyl. I think that’s the perfect size club for me. I just love it. You know, if only a hundred people can come, whatever it is, it still looks good, the people are cool, and it sounds great, and it’s a cool — I think bands sound great in a 300-seat club, because if you’re part of the audience, you’re actually part of the band. Once you get bigger than that, you’re kind of watching people watch people. You know, and once you get to the 5,000-level you’re just watching — there’s a few bands that can pull it off, like U2 can pull it off, for some reason they artistically know how to make something intimate. I don’t know how to do that. I’m really happy if 300 people came. If I can get 300 people in the door I’m really, really happy. I love that, it’s the perfect amount of people.
SANDS: I got one more question for you and I’ll let you go. Thanks for talking with me this afternoon. I read somewhere that you gave your baseball card collection to Johnny Ramone. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Why did you do that?
Kevn Kinney: That is 100 percent true, I sold my baseball cards to Johnny! Yes, I did. When I first met Johnny, I met him in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They were playing a country bar, the Ramones were. And my friend said, ‘You know, Johnny collects baseball cards, you should bring your cards and I’ll introduce you to him, because I told him about you, I said, ‘Well, my friend Kevn has a bunch of cards.’’ So, I bought my cards to the show. And after the show we went to the Red Owl grocery store and he bought some milk and cookies and we went back to his room and he called his girlfriend to check on the Yankees’ score because it was before, you know, cable TV era, and he says, ‘Yeah, so, let me see your cards.’ You know, we sat there for a couple of hours and he’s looking at the cards and we talked about them. He was a little miffed that I kept them all in rubber bands. He was like, ‘You’re ruining the edges.’ I was like, ‘I’m not really a collector,’ but I had all the years, like ’72, ’73, ’74, when he was a construction worker and he’d just been starting the Ramones. So, I had all the years he hadn’t been collecting. So, he gave me like forty or fifty bucks for some cards, and then he was like, ‘I don’t have time to look at all these, but can you come to Chicago tomorrow?’ And he put me on the list and I drove to Chicago and went to the hotel with him again. He gave me like sixty or seventy bucks, it was a lot of money back in 1977 or 78. I was like great — ‘79 I think it was — and then he just kept in touch. Every time he came to town he would call me, we became good friends. He would always put my name on — you know, he’d say, ‘I’m coming to town, you got any stores you can take me to?’ and we’d go look for baseball cards. And when he moved to Atlanta he’d call me. You know, he sent me a Christmas card every years. He’s just a great person.
But he knew me as a construction worker, baseball card collector guy, he didn’t know I was even in a band. And then after “Fly Me Courageous” he was like, ‘So, you’re in a band?’
SANDS: That’s funny.
Kevn Kinney: Yeah, it was funny. Johnny was kind of hard to get to know because he was very focused. But he taught me a lot as a mentor, as a guitar player and a band leader. You know, to be super focused on the fans, super focused on doing a great show every night, there’s no excuse, no drinking, you know, don’t be sloppy, get up there and do what they paid you to do, you know, be a hard worker and don’t cheat the people. And give them the hits. The Ramones always gave them the hits. They never just played their — they never just played their new record and then said, ‘Aww, fuck off, you don’t get to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” tonight because we already played that for you.’ That would never, ever happen at a Ramones show. Those people — you know, he taught me about the hard working people that paid good money to come see the Ramones, and that the company name means something, and that you should respect that. And that’s what Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ does. I know a lot of people spent $30 for them and their wife to come and I don’t take that lightly. That’s a lot of money, they spent thirty bucks and they haven’t even bought a beer yet and they wanna hear “Honeysuckle Blue,” they’ve never seen Drivin’ n’ Cryin.’ I’m not going to experiment on them with, like, this is called “Pop Improvisation, March 7,” and just fuck with’em, I’m never gonna do that. So, that’s what I learned — you brought up Johnny, that’s what I learned from Johnny. The Ramones always played “Blitzkrieg Bop,” every show.