drivin' n' cryin': Live the Love Beautiful
Seventeen albums and thirty-five years ago Kevn Kinney and Tim Nielsen formed drivin’ n’ cryin’ in Atlanta, Georgia, playing their first show at the legendary 688 Club. Their blistering performance inspired club owners to start their own label (688 Records), which would go on to launch the recording careers of the band as well as Louisiana based act, Dash Rip Rock. In the thriving Georgia music scene of the 1980s that included artists such as R.E.M., the Black Crowes, Guadalcanal Diary, The B-52s, The Georgia Satellites, among countless others, drivin’ n’ cryin’ brought their unique style of rock/country/folk/punk/metal music to life. Taking their name from their creative songwriting philosophy of driving rock, and somber folksy blues, they took the southeastern college and club circuit by storm. In the early 1990s their fourth album Fly Me Courageous saw commercial success and major attention from MTV, with the anti-war title song going on the become an ironic favorite among U.S. Navy fighter pilots in the Gulf War.
Whether touring in support of The Who and Neil Young in major arenas or combing the club scenes across the nation, these guys have seen it all. It’s difficult to understand how such an accomplished group can still be considered an underground band, but perhaps that has been a blessing in disguise. As glamorous as such a resume may sound, founding members Kinney and Nielsen have seen the ugly side of the industry as well. Persevering over record labels who chastised everything from the lower-case letters and apostrophes in the band name to the “country shit” found in their slower songs, drivin’ n’ cryin’ may have found their name to be all too accurate a reflection upon their careers as well as their music. Nevertheless, they forged ahead, making music their way, and the result is a library of rich and beautiful music.
This month the band is releasing their eighteenth record, Live the Love Beautiful, an eleven-song collection of original material, penned by Kinney, further developed and refined by the band during recording, and produced by Aaron Lee Tasjan at Welcome to 1979 Studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Kinney had previously mentored Tasjan as a young musician, recruiting him as an opening act for drivin’ n’ cryin’, and eventually as touring guitarist for the band. Having come full circle in their relationship the result is an intimately collaborative effort in a poetic sense where the brilliant protégé returns to assist the master in furthering his journey. At the same time Tasjan’s love and respect for drivin’ n’ cryin’ remains evident in his approach to the project. In a recent interview with Jean Beaudoin for Pop Matters, Tasjan declares, “Part of what is magical about this record is what Kevn is saying, lyrically. It feels like a very personal record. He usually disguises what he says. You can find your own story in it, which is beautiful. But he was reaching deep on this. I wanted people to be able to hear what he was singing really clearly.” Tasjan goes on to explain of the recording approach that, “I wanted to capture what I'd heard live, which was this rock 'n' roll juggernaut, which is also capable of breaking your heart with a beautiful acoustic song. There's also a place in Kevn's voice where it sounds naturally distorted. It's years and years of singing, and it sounds very natural to me. I wanted to leave all of that in there.” The album’s overall sound comes across very much as a live performance as a result of the band playing together in the same room during recording and production rather than laying down tracks of individual instruments and vocals over each other.
While Tasjan’s production approach to the band carries a palpable authenticity to their music, much of the magic within can be attributed to Kinney’s overall vision as a songwriter. Deeply intellectual, influenced, and introspective, Kevn Kinney writes about events and experiences that speak to him powerfully. Yet this brilliance is combined with an intentionally humble attitude and a vagueness that opens up the music for broad interpretation by the listener. Melissa Clark of Americana Highways quotes Kinney explaining this philosophy, “… it’s universal in that there is not just one way to experience it. You can experience it from your own perspective. You can see it any way you want to see it.”
The album begins with “Free Ain’t Free,” a song carrying a populist theme exploring the challenges and complications of freedom as our society evolves. Alluding to the housing crisis a decade ago, Kinney paints the picture of a widow thinking she’s safe in retirement because her home is already paid for by her family’s hard labors of the past, only to be undone by the collective greed of developers, banks, and governments, which threaten her financial stability. In keeping with his writing philosophy Kinney makes his own perspective pointed, while offering a variety of interpretations to the various obstacles to modern freedom. Musically the number begins very melodically as the background story is presented spoken, moving on to biting exclamations and charged guitar riffs, expressing the frustrations of the speaker. It’s thought provoking by design, and even more effective because of the humility in how it’s delivered. One walks away from this piece repeating the song’s lingering question, “Free ain’t free why are you surprised?”
“What’s Wrong With Being Happy,” is a reflective gaze back into days of childhood as Kinney wants to explore in song, daydreaming of the happier times with “Baseball cards and popsicles, rock n’ roll TV, pretty girls in go-go boots.” With a distinctly folky sound blended with subtle jangle pop guitars, this song calls us to remain positive through strife, reminding us that we hold the key to our own happiness.
In another very introspective effort “Step By Step” not only describes a recovery process from a past affliction, but likewise “steps” the music up to towards more of the drivin’ sound to follow on subsequent songs, while still carrying some cryin’ expressed in the healing process. It’s another exploration into personal accountability and taking control of things adversely affecting us. While calling on us to walk in his shoes, Kinney posits that he, “Always saw myself as a victim, one that I had to create,” and “Always an excuse for my addictions, but I had to stand up, take my place.” Recognizing from experience that even as these challenges are daunting, we’re encouraged to take them on, “Step by step.”
From here the record launches into a trio of songs with psychedelic musical backdrops both drivin’ and cryin’ and varied lyrical themes. “Spies” calls out to the hypocrisy of the increasingly narrow-minded perspectives evolving in our nation today as we’re all sure that we’re so correct, gaining our information from one myopic point of view. Here the album really kicks into gear allowing guitarist Laur Joamets to let loose. “Live the Love Beautiful” slows briefly while maintaining a mix of elective 1960s blues rock sounds, that have you wanting to get the incense going and the sitar out, as CW McCall might say. “Don’t piss off the genie!” exclaims Kinney humorously out of nowhere in a seemingly hippie dippy message of positivity of living the love beautiful. The third song in this grouping is “If I’m Not There I’ll Be Here,” which has a similar musical arrangement and a style that almost makes one wonder if drivin’ n cryin’ is attempting another concept album. However, this song is a rearranged version of a slower paced and more acoustic version they released in 1989.
Over the years, drivin’ n’ cryin’ have never shied away from guest musicians with the band. In addition to Tasjan’s time with the group in 2013, several accomplished guitarists such as Warner Hodges, Warren Haynes, and Sadler Vaden have shared the stage and studios with them. On, Live the Love Beautiful, they get some help from some heavy hitting friends. Former Georgia Satellites frontman, Dan Baird adds vocals on “Ian Mclaughlan,” a fitting tribute to the late Faces keyboardist. Additionally, Elizabeth Cook lends her beautiful voice to complement Kevn’s on the album’s closing song, “Sometimes I wish I didn’t care.”
Live the Love Beautiful is a brilliant project resulting from the passional efforts of career professional musicians patient and determined enough to do things their own way at the expense of grand commercial success. There’s no filler nonsense within this record. Each song was purposefully crafted to be what it is and comes across as both a stand-alone piece of art within the entire exhibit of the album.
The band tours extensively throughout the southeast, but not exclusively. They’re likely to be out in support of this new album this summer and fall. If they come to your town, chances are you can see them live for less than $20, and you’ll be happy you did. Kevn takes special care at every show to acknowledge fans for supporting original live music no matter how many show up on a given night. While drivin’ n’ cryin’ may not be a household name (they should be), and they may still be difficult to pigeon hole into a country, folk, or rock genre (they don’t need to be), this band does what they’ve always done, kick ass.
The players and principals:
Kevn Kinney - Lead and Rhythm Guitars, Lead Vocals
Tim Nielsen - Bass Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
Dave V. Johnson - Drums
Laur Joamets - Lead Guitar
Elizabeth Cook - Vocals
Dan Baird - Vocals
Produced by Aaron Lee Tasjan
You can find out more about drivin’ n’ cryin’ at: drivinncryin.com