For diehard rock and roll fans, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ are one of the last honest American institutions left and really have been since their debut in 1986. True Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ fans are devoted members for life—in good times and bad--as are their musical champions like R.E.M’s Peter Buck, Warren Haynes, and Jason & the Scorchers legend Warner Hodges, who is touring with D’N’C’ to support their new collection on Plowboy Records.
For 30 years, the band, led by songwriter and Epiphone devotee Kevn Kinney, has made fans a handful at a time, criss-crossing the world in a van. It may sound romantic, but it’s a hard-fought existence. And they're still going strong. And loud. Epiphone spoke with Kevn just prior to the band’s tour of the UK and Europe.
Thanks for speaking with us Kevn. Tell me about the new album, Best of Songs
We have a series of EPs that we made over the last two years called Songs
. Each one is a different song title…Songs About Cars, Space and the Ramones, Songs From the Psychedelic Time Clock, Songs for the Turntable
. So, we compiled the best of them and we put them out on an album on Plowboy Records. That’s out in May. We’re combining that and celebrating 30 years of traveling in a Ford Econoline Van like the Ramones. You wanted to be like the Ramones when you were a kid? Well here you are
! (laughs). And in the meantime, I’m writing for next year for a few different projects under my name. This will be our last Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ thing for awhile.
In your writing, do you go back and forth between composing for your solo work and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’?
One of them has always fed the other. If I do too much of the folk thing, I can’t wait to do the rock thing and vice versa. I get a little bit tired of volume and fighting with the subwoofers and things we didn’t have to deal with in the 80s. “Subwoofers? What are those?”
(laughs) Your ears burn out a little. But it’s hard to switch gears. It’s a different animal. But I made my first folk record back in ‘88 or ‘89, MacDougal Blues,
which was an album I made with Peter Buck from R.E.M. I’ve made eight records since then. So yeah, it’s two different worlds for me. Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is a little easier since I don’t have to manage, I don’t have to guitar tech. I do have to drive the van.
And you’re touring with Warner Hodges on this run.
We’re gonna use Warner this year, who was one of our idols when I moved down south. I had never heard of Jason & the Scorchers or R.E.M. when I was living in Milwaukee. We had rockabilly but we didn’t have punk. Not at that level that Jason and those guys put it to—almost cow-metal
sometimes. And he’s just a great influence on me as a human being, too…a really positive person. He exudes positive attitude. So it’s refreshing.
Have you been writing together?
Not yet, no. Things I write with Peter are usually like...he’ll come up with a riff first and then I’ll write around it. The songs that we write together follow a similar path that R.E.M. followed I think. But I don’t do a lot of songwriting with people. I’m always kind of selfish a little. I know where I want to go. Even with someone like Todd Snider. I don’t want to step on his toes. I’m not bold enough like a lot of Nashville writers who can say “this isn’t working for me.” I tend to say, “yeah…well…that could work
Well, you write with a singular voice which isn’t very popular in Nashville anymore.
I’ve heard that a lot. I don’t like people touching my stuff (laughs). You don’t see a lot of co-painters. What if I painted this beautiful painting and someone comes by and says ‘well, that house could be red and I changed it while you were gone
” Dude! Seriously?
When someone like Warner Hodges comes in who’s a fan of the band, does that change your set list at all?
Right now he’s just trying to learn the songs. The thing about what Dave (Johnson) and Tim (Nielson) do in Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is they can play all the songs we’ve ever recorded. We have no touring set list. You have to know all 100 songs. And I start 50% of them. I might hear a request from over there, start the riff, and they have to remember it. I never use a set list because I never stick to it and then it drives everybody crazy. I’m in the mood right now to play “Right Side of Town” tonight. But I might walk in later and someone might say “Oh, can you do “Dirty Angel”, it’s my favorite…”
But your fans expect that the show they see is going to be unique.
That’s one of our shticks. If you pay more than $10, you get “Straight to Hell.” If you pay $5—say in Georgia where we’re doing a $5 show at a punk bar--you’ll get nothing (laughs). I mean you’ll get exactly what I feel like –maybe all new songs.
What have you been listening to?
I’ve been working with Aaron Lee Tasjan on my solo stuff. He’s committing himself to a solo career now. But he’s a great songwriter, so I’ve been listening to him. I’m also listening to Jim James kind of stuff…Arcade Fire, getting into that positive, big-world thing. There’s a band called Leagues featuring Thad Cockrill--kind of a really cool English dance band sound. Stunning, just stunning. And I listen to my friends like Todd Snider
. There’s a band called Dead Heavens out of New York. They are kind of like Television meets Grand Funk Railroad. I love the Ghost Wolves. So, I’ve been catching up on things that I did not listen to before.
Are you able to write on tour?
No. The folk writing thing just falls out while this Drivin' N’ Cryin’ thing—this machine—collects soundcheck riffs like crazy. So I’ll get those together when it comes time to record--I’ll listen to those old riffs and try to put something around them. I have a list of songtitles by my front door and try to match them up.
And you’re playing Epiphones on this tour…
Yeah! I went out and bought an Epiphone --my first acoustic guitar after I saw (Bob Dylan’s) Don’t Look Back
when they re-released it. I still have it. It’s been destroyed over the years. I wrote all my first songs on it. It’s hanging on my daughter’s wall. I stumbled onto the Casino
, which is just super practical. They always sound good. I can play them all. They’re easy to set up. They don’t feed back. I had a Gibson 335 but I could not control it at all. I have goldtop Casino and red Dot. They’re practical—great price range. I now that I can get another Epiphone anywhere and it’s going to work perfectly. My guitars have endured 120 degrees and 6 below and they always seems to work. I’d like to get Epiphone to make me an 8-string.
Do you see a way to merge your folk style of writing and the Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ style or is it better to keep them separate?
It’s better for me to keep them separated because at this point, there are a lot of people coming to see our show who are working class people. Those Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ songs mean a lot to them. But I don’t play them solo. Sometime from now when you look at the overall arc of my career, I think you’ll see the “Kevn Kinny” thing was more consistent where as the Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ was a lot of fun for me. It was more experimental. I can be a character. I can be a rock character, which is a bit of a persona. Where as my work is mine. I bring a lamp. I’ll tell stories,. I’ll deconstruct songs. If I met a bagpipe player, I’ll bring him on stage to play with me. It’s real.
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ can play in Birmingham tomorrow night and there will be 250 people there or more. If I don’t play “Straight to Hell”, there will be angry people. But if I play there next Friday night solo, there will be chairs, maybe 50-75 people tops. So I’d like to get that brand up a little so I can do a little more. But it’s hard. People like the brand name. When you went to see the Ramones, it was the Ramones. You’re not gonna get Joey solo. But that’s what’s great about the Epiphone Dot
. I can play some metal on those—some ‘Sabbath. And I can do some Dylan on it, too.