Kevn Kinney, A Conversation of Sorts
In the past few years Kevn Kinney, best known as front man for Atlanta’s hard-rocking Drivin’n’ Cryin’, has emerged as one of the best singer songwriters in America. Of special note are his last two solo albums, the Warren Haynes produced. The Flower and the Knife and the recently issued Broken Hearts and Auto Parts. The later is an understated but masterful effort that finds Kinney in a low-key setting with a full band. His songs are packed with emotion, humor and a sense of honesty. The band adds subtle colors and textures to these personal and heartfelt songs that convey a strange mixture of innocence and wisdom. The disc has been constantly on my player since it arrived a month or so ago and already has a place on my top ten list for the year. It’s that good. There’s not a bad disc on the album. To date, Kinney has released four solo albums and this one is the closet to a band effort and it points to even better things to come. I caught up with the affable, friendly and totally unpretentious Kinney in early April during the promotional tour for the album. Kinney and band put on a truly mesmerizing and musically magnificent show. I haven’t been this captivated by a “folk-rock” performance since I saw Neil Young in London in 1971 and believe me I have seen a lot since then. In fact, the folk moniker is a bit misleading. Kinney is a songwriter that transcends and defies genres. He is good. Really good, as is his band, who offered restrained but perfect backing. Aside from playing most of the new album (opening and closing with the title cut) he threw in a few favorites including a folk version of Drivin’n’ Cryin’s “Straight To Hell,” his own superb “MacDougal Blues” and a sprightly cover of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” What follows is an interview that took place prior to the show during which Kevn was funny, insightful and apt to turn the tables on the interviewer.
K.K. Testing, testing. One, two.
M.S. I told you this is low tech! Why don’t you start by telling us some details about where you are from and how you got into music?
K.K. I was born in Milwaukee (laughs), Wisconsin. I was there until the late 70’s, 77, 78. I started out as a writer, not a writer, writer, I never went to school for it, but I had an underground punk-rock fanzine called The Sheet and then I worked for a socialist newspaper for which I did reviews of like Patti Smith, the Ramones and stuff like that. I did my first interview with David Johansen and my best friend at the time we were in high school together was working for another magazine called the Bugle. I was working for a thing called Impulse. His name was Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes. We grew up together. Through this magazine I met punk rock a band called The Haskells and became their roadie. I quit writing and started a punk rock band called with the other roadie from the Haskells, it was called the Prosecutors. We did like two years and we had like one 45 out. Then I saw “Don’t Look Back” I’d seen the Ramones before that and the Ramones is the reason why I play music at all, but I saw Dylan in “Don’t Look Back” and decided that I wanted to try and do that thing.
M.S. Had you listened much to music by other singer songwriters prior to discovering the power of Dylan or were you more into the punk stuff?
K.K. Well, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe was about as acoustic as I would get, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t really into folk music. It was all stonewashed jeans and beards and shit and that was like not happening, California, not happening. I was all New York. I was totally in love with New York. Then I quit everything and moved down south (note: Kinney moved to Atlanta in 1982) and became a carpenter and did some folk gigs at like a Greek restaurant, just like once every four months I’d do three songs at an open mike night, stuff like that.
M.S. Had you already started writing songs at this point?
K.K. I had started writing much before but they were all kind of juvenile punk rock pissed off songs. They were good, I liked them. There’s one on the new record that actually is from that era. That’s an old punk-rock song. It’s a little heavier
M.S. That song kind of reminds me of Crazy Horse.
K.K. Yeah. It’s mellowed a lot. When I moved down south I got involved in the punk scene down there and by then it was almost all California stuff like Circle Jerks and all the Black Flag stuff. My first folk gig was opening for the Violent Femmes. There was another punk band from Milwaukee that was touring around down there then and I would open for them or they would join me as my band. The bass player (Tim Neilsen) for Drivin’n’ Cryin’ who plays bass on this new record, saw me play with these guys and he said we should start a band, so I started Drivin’n’ Cryin with him.
M.S. Drivin’n’ Cryin’ seems to have been successful but only in certain regions.
K.K. Yes, it is very regional even now. Like we only do festivals now, pretty much and large nightclubs, but we do like a 1000 people a night and we go to the Northeast and we play to like a 100 people.
M.S. What’s the status of Drivin’n’Cryin’ are you still on a hiatus?
K.K. Well, we are constantly on a hiatus. What happened was I was writing a certain type of song. I kind of came out of retirement at 25 to do the punk thing but I started doing more rock songs. I was recording like eight rock songs and writing eight folk songs and only recording two of them, so I wound up with a back log of stuff. My first record came about because Peter Buck of REM said you need to do something with all these songs, so he produced MacDougal Blues. It’s funny it’s one of those records that when I meet other musicians and roadies they go “oh MacDougal Blues, man.” The strangest people go “oh yeah, Ken Kinney” and I expect them to say Drivin’n’ Cryin’ and they say “MacDougal Blues, that was a great record.” It’s one of these records where if I had made money for every record that everybody says they own I’d be doing alright.
M.S. Then you did another one after that, right?
K.K. Yes, that was recorded in Memphis and then of course “Flower and the Knife” and then this new one. This new one is really more of a band record though. It’s my first “solo” band record.
M.S. It doesn’t have the all-star cast of Flower and the Knife but it’s got a more cohesive and consistent feel.
K.K. Flower and the Knife was like me and Warren Haynes hanging out. It just sort of started off solo. We were so like unorganized. We said are we going to do a record it was like yes, we’ll do it in January. So we didn’t talk and I showed up in January and he said “What you got” and I had played him a bunch of songs and he said “We’ll start tomorrow.” He’d say “I like this one, this one and this one,” and I’d say okay and we’d record them. Then he’d say John Popper is in town and wants to play. It ended up being a kind of jam and hang out record.
M.S. The nice thing about it is that doesn’t have a jam feel its got more of a relaxed tone where most of the players are understated.
K.K. That’s what is great about it. We were laughing about it when we put it out at how everyone underplayed. You got Derek Trucks and he just like “uh-uh-er.” You got Jimmy Herring doing some weird background noise. You have Warren Haynes but he is just playing really beautiful slide, not playing very many notes.
M.S. You played some dates with Warren, right?
K.K. Yes. I toured with him. I lived with them on their bus. I was the opening act and there was a hippie tour, moe, galactic and Gov’t Mule and in between all those acts were folk sings. There was me, Keller Williams and Gibb Droll and we each live on someone’s bus. I lived with the Mule, Gibb with moe and Kellar with String Cheese. That was about two or three years ago.
M.S. Moving to the new album, how did that come about?
K.K. As far as the players go I wanted to do a solo album that wasn’t a folk record and I wanted to do it with some friends, so I talked to the guys in Drivin’ n’ Cryin, because once again I booked myself to go up there and they all said “man, that’ll be great we all want to come.” They came up and we had no idea of what we were going to do. Then we got in the studio and we recorded the first couple of days with the band and most of it was live. One of our friends, Topaz played saxophone. His band is amazing live. The Johnny (Irion) and Sarah(Guthrie).
M.S. Yes, their harmonies add a nice touch. How did you hook up with them?
K.K. They live in Columbia, South Carolina. I met Johnny down there. When Johnny came to South by South West I met his wife Sarah. They were hanging out with Sarah’s dad in Massachusetts and I said we are going to be in the studio Friday and Saturday if you want to come by and they said yes.
M.S. You seem to record your albums very quick.
K.K. Yes, usually about six days. I spend so much time on the road. I live on the road. I play every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, all year long. So, I have all the kinks worked out. I don’t have to construct songs in the studio. They are all ready when I go in. Working with me is like don’t over think it, don’t fuck it up. Leave well enough alone. If it sounds really good don’t be we can make it sound better. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you have a $100,000 and two months to kill. I don’t work like that anymore.
M.S. Considering that’s your philosophy have you thought about doing a live album?
K.K. Drivin’n’ Cryin’ has one. I’ve got a bunch of bootlegs. I have a lot of live official/unofficial bootlegs of shows that people make. I allow people to bootleg. I allow people to tape.
M.S. It does you more good than harm. It doesn’t hurt record sales.
K.K. Not these days. If people get turned on to it they come and see me play. I don’t make money off records anyway so I don’t really care. When you get a record you are getting something that is real controlled. You get a much of songs that are new. Live records don’t detract form studio records. Do you like Widespread and stuff like that?
M.S. Yes, I like all sorts of stuff.
K.K. What do you think the difference is between Widespread and Phish up here? Why is Widespread so huge in the South, like they will fill out an arena three nights in a row and up here they are not as big.
M.S. In Boston they tend to do the 3-4 thousand range venues. To be honest I’m not sure. Personally, I can’t understand why Phish ever got so popular. But I’m sure some of it just regional.
K.K. Phish is pretty big down south.
M.S. Well, that’s true. Do you have a preference for the type of venue that you play?
K.K. I like small venues, especially where I am right now. I get the privilege of living in the South. It’s hard to be a folk singer in the south. People are not used to listening. It’s more like Hank Williams. It’s more like roadhouse. You can see where Hank Williams gets his chops from. You can get there attention but you really have to try not real hard. You have to rally good song and they’ll stop what they are doing and say “that’s a good song.” But they will not sit there quietly and listen to you play. It’s not part of the culture.
M.S. Have you ever been to Europe? People are really tentative.
K.K. Oh yeah. It’s great. You get spoiled, but I’ll have folk singers come done south and it will jut fuck em up. They’ll be like three people talking at a table in the back and their whole show will be fucked up. They can’t deal with it because they are not used to it. I focus on my musicians and what I am doing. I close my eyes and I do what I do. When people right in front of me are talking I don’t stop the show or say anything. I just do it.
M.S. Who is in this touring line-up of the band?
K.K. The drummer from Drivin’N Cryin’ The guitar player from Drivin’n”Cryin’ and a bass player from Athens band It’s kind of cool. It’s like Pink Floyd meets Thin Lizzy.
M.S. What kind of music do you listen to personally these days?
K.K. I listen to the obvious. Bob Dylan and the Beatles. People never mention that in my bio, but you take it for granted. But other than Dylan and the Beatles I listen to newer people like Stacy Earle. Ryan Adams, John Wesley Harding, Todd Snider. I like Oasis. I love Galactic. I love Topaz. I love some of the jam-band stuff and then I love some of the older stuff from when I was a kid, Robin Trower, Patti Smith and I listen to a lot Sinatra. I love Sinatra. I am a huge Sinatra fan. Sinatra and Elvis. It’s Americana. It’s just a once in a life time phenomena. Beyond being acclaimed they actually delivered. They were good singers. There’s nothing like a really good Sinatra delivery. He is not selling it so hard all the time. It’s important to learn that sometimes just say what you got to say. It’s hard listening to music where they are constantly trying to sell it.listen to what I have to say it is important” and I am like, it’s not important just relax.
M.S. I love the part on the new album in the last track where you say your father gave you advice about automobiles and womenmaintenance!
K.K. My father was there and I was cracking him up while I was doing it. It’s not serious anymore. I have learned to be a little more aloof and I think a lot of other people like a Jorma Kaukonen and people like that have learnedI wish that in the old days they could have enjoyed the world like they can now. They can go out and be totally appreciated for what they do. They can sell out any 300-500 place. Everybody is enjoying the moment. He is not selling himself to anybody. Everybody is there because they want to be there and it is small enough. I think 300-500 seat places is optimum. I think once you get over 500 it gets lostthere’s still people in the front that you are playing to but everybody else is watching them watch you. It gets worse when you get the amphitheaters.
M.S.. I ve seen people make the 900 seat Somerville Theater very intimate.
K.K. Some people can pull it off. Bono could. What he does is brilliant. It’s clever what the guy can do. U2 really can really shrink a club. In a 900 seater you can sometimes get an act that is oozing with talent can do it. Someone like Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Emmylou Harris, they can make you feel like you are in their living room. Willie Nelson would do that.
M.S. Don’t you play different towards different size crowds?
K.K. Yes, you play less audience friendly the more people there are. The more people there are the more you become detached.
M.S. Isn’t that just inevitable?
K.K. Well yes, but it doesn’t affect me because first of all I never open my eyes. I don’t play to the crowd. Only when it gets to beI don’t know. I think with me the fewer people I have to play for the more nervous I am, the more sub conscious I am. The more people I have the easier it is .I played to 40,000 people last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and I never was more relaxed and had more fun because I don’t give a rats arse. I had a great time, but last night I played the Iron Horse in Northampton and I had 14 people there and I have never been so self-conscious in my life. I didn’t say anything. It was this next isI don’t know I couldn’t feel comfortable. It was like playing for my grandmother. If I had to that I would more nervous than I would ever be opening for the Who or whatever.
M.S. Will you be doing another Drivin’n’Cryin’ album?
K.K. Yes, I am going to do one in June. We have enough rock songs. I’m not sure who will release it. I’d like to go with a Southern label.
M.S. That sounds good. In conclusion are there any artists that you would like to play with?
K.K. I’d love to play with Peter Townsend. I’ve opened for the Who. But I would love to sit down and talk to him and play some music, but just about everybody. I’d love to sit down with Dylan, Springsteen ..if they would come down South and hang out and come to our neck of the woods and get out of their element I think they could be fun. I wish I was 30 years old and had 14 albums under my belt and it was 1974 and I could meet Dylan, he would still be older than me but to meet him then around “Blood on the Tracks” and that we could have hung out, and that I could have hung out with Springsteen in like 1975. He was big but he was still like a working mans songwriter.
M.S. Are you personally satisfied with where you are?
K.K. I am huge in the South I love playing there. I can satisfy my ego. I can finance trips to other places and play in front of50 people and it won’t hurt me financially. I still get to make albums and I get to do shows and I can finance it with my home base so I have everything I need.