35 years after forming, the Atlanta quartet is still flying high with Live the Love Beautiful (stream below).
Kevn Kinney is a contented man as he calls from his Atlanta home. “I’ve got my coffee, I’m watching Match Game, I’m good!” he says with a laugh. And there’s justification for him to be cheerful about life in general, not just at this caffeine-fueled moment: the Drivin N Cryin frontman has long been one of the most beloved musicians in the South—where he is once again based after spending about a decade in Brooklyn. Being back in Atlanta also means he can dote on his four granddaughters, who range from one to 14-years-old.
Kinney does periodically return to New York, though. “We try to go every 8 months to New York. It’s important for us to make an effort for fans that want to come see us, and to let people know that we have a new record out,” he says.
That record, Live the Love Beautiful, was released last year, and it features more of Kinney’s signature songwriting, falling somewhere in the midst of hard rock, folk, Southern rock, and Americana. In an unusual move, the band also recorded a live version of Live the Love Beautiful, which was released in February. It was recorded during the studio album’s release show at MadLife Stage and Studios, a hybrid concert venue/recording studio in Woodstock, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta.
It makes sense to focus on the band’s live capabilities, as Drivin N Cryin has long been legendary for their concerts, which can veer from incendiary rock to mellow acoustic ballads. “The live show is in the moment,” Kinney says. “I just read the crowd. I pick and choose our story arc depending on what your day is and what our day is. It can be heartbreaking but it could also be powerful or angry or uplifting. Every show is different. I tell people every show is my first, every show is my last. And I just play it like that.”
One thing is always certain at a Drivin N Cryin show, though. “I always play the hits,” Kinney says, referring to songs like “Honeysuckle Blue,” “Fly Me Courageous,” “Straight to Hell” (which became a hit for a second time when Darius Rucker covered it on his 2018 album, When Was the Last Time), and the one-time MTV staple, “Build A Fire”.
Kinney says this type of flexibility is possible because of his bandmates’ professionalism and musical expertise. Along with Kinney, bassist Tim Nielsen has been in the band since its inception in 1985. Drummer Dave Johnson and guitarist Laur Joamets round out the lineup.
“It’s important to have this caliber of musicians. Tim, Dave and Laur have to know over a hundred songs,” Kinney says—and he expects them to be ready to play any of them with only a moment’s notice during shows. “They have to know that I’m going to call [titles] out and give them three seconds to recall it.”
Kinney knows he’s lucky to have this arrangement, but this gratitude is not new—he understood he was onto something special with this band “right from the first show.” He formed Drivin N Cryin in 1985, after moving to Atlanta three years before from his native Milwaukee.
Those three pre-band years in his new hometown were decidedly unglamorous. “I moved down south and got a job working at the sewage plant.” But while some people might view that kind of work as a misery to endure, Kinney viewed it pragmatically. “In 1982, it was a recession and the world was not an easy place to get a job.” He notes that it also paid double what he’d earned in Milwaukee, where he’d worked as a pharmacy receptionist and technician.
After the sewage plant, Kinney switched to a job in a futon-making shop, where he found himself “spending 8 hours a day, and all I did was sew, reflecting while listening to Japanese meditation music.” This proved to be an unexpectedly pivotal experience, as it gave him time to carefully think about how to approach his musical career.
Drivin N Cryin was, in a way, a direct result of this futon-building job, where he says the differences between working with the steel frames and the cotton stuffing convinced him to embrace his tendency to write songs that veered between hard (driving) rock and softer country-tinged (crying) ballads. “The Drivin N Cryin thing started making more sense to me, the ying-yang,” he says.
Kinney began going under the stylized name “Kevn Kinney”—the new spelling of his first name inspired by a typo on a utility bill. He also began making demo tapes in a friend’s home studio, then assembled a band to play shows. They were met with almost immediate success, with sold-out crowds that still come out in droves to this day whenever Drivin N Cryin are anywhere in the Southeast. Kinney recalls feeling happy but startled by this sudden stardom.
“I was so excited,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, look at this!’ Because I had been in a punk rock band that played Monday nights in front of 20 people. And that was fun and I was used to that. So when hundreds of people showed up, I was frozen.” He also remembers being handed his pay at the end of a show and being amazed to discover it would more than cover his rent for the month. “I was like, ‘This is amazing!’”
Kinney hasn’t stopped since, releasing nine studio albums and five EPs with the band, starting with their 1986 debut, Scarred But Smarter. A 2012 documentary, Scarred But Smarter: Life n Times of Drivin N Cryin, examined their phenomenal and enduring popularity throughout the Southeastern U.S. In 2011, the Georgia Senate passed a resolution commemorating Drivin N Cryin because they had “amassed a devoted fan base and been a staple of historical musical excellence here in the State of Georgia.” The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Kinney also has a prolific solo career, with nine albums to his credit, including 1990’s MacDougal Blues, which also features members of R.E.M., and 2011’s A Good Country Mile, for which he is co-credited with Golden Palominos.
Now, 35 years after the band began, Kinney is still willing to let his music take the lead. “My number one rule in music is, the song will tell you where it wants to go. If you listen to it and don’t step on it, it will breathe and it will tell you it wants a really long guitar solo at the end, or maybe it wants you to play the chorus over and over. Maybe it wants you to stop. You just have to be open to it, to the channeling of it.”
Another lesson he imparts is to “just tell your story. I want to hear about you. So if you grew up in the suburbs and your mom drove a Ford Explorer and you had a slot car track in your basement, tell me that story. Tell me what it was like on a Wednesday in your house when your mom made a casserole and you played slot cars after school with your best friend. That’s what I want to hear. Tell your story. Be authentic. Don’t be embarrassed by how normal you think your life is because it’s very interesting to me.
“Basically, we’re all the same. We all want to work. We all want to fall in love. We all want to relax. We all want to feel good about contributing. We all want to take the high road if we can. And how do you manage? There’s endless amounts of stories as there are stars.”
For his own life experience-inspired material, Kinney says he’s just now starting to write songs that touch on his time living in New York. “I couldn’t write about it as much when I lived there,” he says. “I can write about it more now as I see it in the distance a little bit. The edges aren’t as sharp. I can pretend it was a little more romantic than it was!”
Wherever he finds himself, whether it’s New York City, Atlanta, or a tour stop in between, Kinney is determined to remain open to whatever experiences life throws his way, and how it might impact his music: “I think I was destined to be doing this,” he says of his music career, “but I’m also destined to not do it if I don’t feel like doing it anymore. I can garden if I want to. I’d be happy to be a landscaper. But right now, I feel like I need to keep going out there and singing these songs and talking to people. I still feel like it’s valid and people are listening. That’s why I keep doing this.”