Kevn Kinney can look at people and really see them. His songs, both as a solo artist and as the helmsman of Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ for the past 27 years, are filled with bloody knuckled truthfulness, real deal streetwise stories of the overlooked and overworked, the scrapers and Dust Bowl dreamers wondering if even a paycheck to paycheck existence is long for this world.
Kinney has produced a body of work that should have long ago put him in the same pantheon with kindred spirits like Drive-By Truckers and Steve Earle, but there’s something unruly and just plain ol’ ornery about Kinney that keeps him just outside polite company. His punk rock roots in his childhood hometown of Milwaukee remain part of his basic makeup even as he’s explored folk, classic rock and more. There’s an intrinsic toughness to Kinney and his blue collar, beautifully bruising brand of rock, and this has never been clearer than his latest offering, A Good Country Mile (released February 21), a slow burning, frequently rowdy bit of heartfelt American music, patriotic in the finest, truest sense and swinging at the bullies out to push around the hurtin’ and needy. Produced by Anton Fier, the album finds Kinney backed by The Golden Palominos, who mine his unique mixture of kickin’ Southern rock and sharp-bladed NYC attack with hard-nosed grace and exposed tenderness. It’s an especially timely work arriving at a moment when folks are wondering what America, even in the very near future, will be like down the line – a country that endlessly tilts the odds in favor of the rich and powerful or one that actually cares for the poor, the sick, the children, the “least among us,” as Jesus used to say. Compassion runs hand in hand with a realist’s understanding on A Good Country Mile, leading us to truths that hold one tight after the album comes to a close.
As fine as his catalogue has been, Kinney’s latest offering may be the best solo record he’s ever produced, a mature set that hums with relevance and electricity, grabbing at understanding that endures even if so much feels just out of reach and ultimately unknowable. It’s the kind of album Dirty Impound just had to pick the author’s brain about, and Kevn was kind enough to give us a chunk of his time.
One thing the new album makes clear is you are not going quietly into this good night. You seem rowdier than ever, as if you’ve never let go of the rocker energy you had when you came out of the gate.
As far as energy goes, I’m just glad to be alive [laughs].
It’s hard to make a record sometimes that has that energy. When you get into the studio you often just feel like chillin’. But Anton is not like that. He’s very intense and very serious about being honest to the songs and things like that. There was a lot of experimentation and we rehearsed a lot. We played every Monday night for weeks at this place called the Truckstop with different bass players like Andy Hess and my friend Brent Bass, and we had different guitar players and kinda grew this thing.
Then, we went into the studio with it a couple years ago. It’s intense but Anton’s intense. He loves Led Zeppelin as much as he loves John Coltrane. We made our first record together back in the 80s. It was a Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’ record [Whisper Tames The Lion (1988)], and then he produced Drivin’ ‘N’ Cryin’s The Great American Bubble Factory (2009) album.
He seems to be able to bring out a lot of different sides of you as a collaborator.
Oh yeah, he’s always, “Come on, man, come on!”
There’s some really tasty guitar on Good Country Mile, which reminded me what a good guitar player you are, which you don’t always get credit for.
Well, I have a compressor on myself and I kind of have my own style. I’m learning to play louder without playing louder, if you know what I mean. I draw from Davie Allen & The Arrows and The Seeds maybe, and Neil Young. I picture myself as a Southern Neil Young guitar player. You don’t see Neil Young doing any tapping or jazz licks. My goal is just to be the best Kevn there is.
You’re also a singer-songwriter, so you’re playing to your melodies and lyric lines, which changes how you play guitar.
And my solos are usually counter melodies to something I’d be singing. It’s like when Dylan plays a guitar solo it’s basically what he would play on harmonica [laughs].
That expression of emotional truth instrumentally is an element that’s attracted me to your work for a long time. There’s a human cry in your music even when you’re not using your voice.
Well, thank you! I could always hire a guitar slinger but I never wanted to. Of course, we’ve had guitar players in Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’, and the new guy [Sadler Vaden] is just stunning. And we had a rehearsal not long ago where we added Audley Freed, and that was a whole new level! I just played an acoustic basically because what am I gonna do?
Another thing I appreciate about Bubble Factory and Good Country Mile is how you continue to be a chronicler of the American Experience as it really is, not just waving a flag and wallowing in false nostalgia. It’s right there in titles like “In The Land (Of Things That Used To Be).” Before you’ve heard a note, that should give you pause.
That came from growing up in Milwaukee in the 70s, which was a really hard life – five children in a 500 square foot house, seven people living in that tiny house during the Recession. All the companies were leaving and it was grim era. I remember my father driving me to see my grandmother in this high rise, old age thing, and just driving there and back with her my dad would point out all the things that used to be – “That used to be a pastry shop. That was a factory. And that was where they used to make submarine parts.” Eventually I came to think of Milwaukee as the Land of Things That Used To Be. It came back but the same way Pittsburgh came back. It didn’t come back physically or job-wise. It reinvented itself as a vacation location with a fake Dutch and German heritage…which is true but would have been even cooler if they hadn’t torn down 50-percent of everything. Pittsburgh is beautiful now but there are no jobs.
Sadly, it’s a glimpse of what America has to look forward to. These cities are the tip of the iceberg for the economic and social set-up the wealthy and powerful have been working on for decades – arguably the greatest long grift in human history. This country is going to have to figure out what to do with itself when it becomes the Land of Used To Be.
That’s why it’s important to live in the underground, which I’ve been a part of for years. I’ve tried to be frugal and tried not to get my expectations up too high. I don’t want to live in a mansion. Col. Bruce [Hampton] taught me you never want to play a place bigger than a 1000 people because then it’s just people watching people watching people…unless you’re U2 or something and pull it off like it’s church. I’m really satisfied to playing to 45-50 people.
I think parents should teach their children to never have a credit card. Credit is going to go back to the way it was in the 20s. It’s going to be hard to buy anything you want when you want it. You don’t need it. I used to say at my shows, “All you really need in life is a couple friends, a full tank of gas, and a good cup of coffee.”
We’re not a culture that’s comfortable with the notion of enough-ness. That’s not something that’s been an American ideal for a really long time.
You’re just making somebody else rich. I think what comes across in my songs is the idea that you are what you need to be happy – right as you are, sitting in your chair, holding your wife’s hand. You could go anywhere in the world, and you don’t need the double pane glass windows. You don’t need to spend money on a deck [laughs]. If I saved my money to buy a deck that’s fine, but I wouldn’t borrow it from Visa.
People often get hopeless about this stuff, but you’re able to avoid despondency. Even if people get pissed off it seems to stop at anger without any positive action following it. I’m an old punk rocker and the bands that always touched me were the ones that wanted to do something with that pissed-off energy.
My whole thing on punk rock – and something that I learned in the couple semesters I went to journalism school – was a good editorial not only brings something to light but offers some solutions to problems. It isn’t just bitching about something. There has to be some sort of resolve at the end. On Great American Bubble Factory, we ask manufacturers, “If you can make it here then why don’t you make it here?” My next record I’ll probably have something on there about trains. In the Northeast you can go to Boston without a car. In Atlanta you can’t go to Chattanooga without a car.
I live out near San Francisco and you can’t get a whole bunch of places without a car. And if we don’t fix up the rail system in America soon it’s gonna be bad.
And it can’t just be the one train from San Francisco that goes to Seattle once a day. It’s gotta be once an hour like in Holland. It’s gotta be every two hours a train is going a bunch of places.
Your challenge as a songwriter is how do you make infrastructure sexy?
You start with heading West on the rails. It was a revolutionary idea when they connected the East Coast to the West Coast, but have they really done that much since then? They kind of stopped in the 50s. They’ve been talking about this train to Athens, Georgia or Macon and they’ve never done it.
The mythology of trains is still floating around in our collective psyche.
They’re so efficient in Belgium and Holland and Italy and Germany. It’s just so much more efficient to get somewhere. You have to share your space but it’s part of being a family.
There’s a greater sense of connectivity to European culture. It’s just a little more adult in general over there. I dig how people don’t steer around the Red Light District in Amsterdam if they’re out walking with their children. That’s just part of what people do, kids.
You need to teach your kids about sex and learning how to drink. In the South especially, there’s this Baptist Bible Belt where it’s all just forbidden, forbidden, forbidden, forbidden! Oh, you’re a freshman in college and you’re suddenly getting hammered! They don’t know how to drink. Let ‘em start at 16 and learn properly.
If I’m honest with myself about when I started dabbling in weed and booze, then it makes me want to be less of hypocrite with my own kid.
I’m from Milwaukee and we were encouraged to drink beer in Little League…but we were encouraged to drink smart [laughs].
One thing that’s long amused me about much of what’s written about you is how everyone thinks you’re Southern through and through but you grew up in Wisconsin, and that’s a big part of your sound, attitude, etc. AND then you moved to the South. Your music is an intersection between these two forces.
I’m like the opposite of O. Henry. I grew up in Milwaukee. I was a punk rocker. My roommate was in his thirties and had the largest punk rock collection in the world along with avant-garde jazz. I grew up on a lot of jazz but unfortunately in the 70s it was all fusion. But I was drawn to stuff that didn’t have weird pedals on it like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. I was a writer and reporter for this super underground magazine, and I founded a magazine in Milwaukee called The Express, which is the longest running underground paper in Milwaukee. Every ten years they give me credit for starting it. Then, I met a band and decided I wanted to be a roadie instead of a writer. And ever since then I’ve been an observer.
I had this whole other life in Milwaukee – punk rock, the avant-garde, black & white filmmaking, degenerate art. Then when I moved down South I had to make a living and became a construction worker. So, I wandered into the local punk rock club, of course, to get my footing. Then, I started meeting musicians and got a much fuller vision of the South. Having never grown up there, I didn’t know about the mountains and the ocean and the trees and the way people communicated. To sell a car in the South is a daylong thing where they get to know you. They don’t want to just give you their car. It’s not just about the money, it’s about who’s going to drive MY car. You sit and have some tea and walk around the car, and maybe you come back tomorrow and buy the car. It’s never, “$450? How about $350? Bang!” and you’re driving it in an hour. That shit never happens down there.
It’s a really different world to where you grew up but you’ve always had a knack for picking up on the nuances of Southern culture not unlike John Fogerty in the Creedence years. He was another guy writing about this culture who grew up in a way different world – El Cerrito, California is not Biloxi, Mississippi.
Something I learned to love about it is that in the Midwest there was a little more competition between bands – or a fatalism that says, “Fuck it, we’re never gonna make it out of here” – but in the South people like R.E.M. were inspiring to me. Meeting and befriending Peter Buck was just an epiphany. There was a lot more sharing going on. Bands would hang out and encourage each other. It was like the early punk rock days where bands like mine and Die Kreuzen were really tight.
I’m still kind of a voyeur. I liken myself a bit to Kerouac. We were born on the same day, so I have this affinity for him. I totally identify with him. He’s a voyeur, too, like Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, but Jack was a baseball card collector kind of guy, a gawk who was really good at watching what was going on and writing about it, always putting a bit of himself into it.
Your songwriting reflects this observational gaze, where you capture these moments of ache in simple things like someone standing on a street corner looking confused. You somehow know how to put that into verse. The title tune on the new album is a prime example of this, where one finds themselves “just outside of Heaven” but it’s still a good country mile away.
“They’re bouncing off the walls and they’re eating off the streets.” It’s just like New York [City], bouncing around the subways. The hardest part for me of living [in NYC] is getting people to say, “Good morning.” And I’m going to keep doing it for as many years as I live here. I’m determined to make people look at each other and say, “Good morning.” It’s so weird to return to Atlanta or Milwaukee and I look down at the ground. I have to force myself to look up and maybe say, “Good morning.” Here, you just don’t do it. It’s very rare you’d walk out of the subway and say, “Good morning, everybody!” I’ve never seen it, and I don’t have the balls to just get on a subway car and say, “Good morning, good people!” Maybe if I was with one or two other people. There’s power in numbers.
Download a free MP3 of “In The Land (Of Things That Used To Be)” here!