CITY BARS AND COUNTRY MILES Kevn Kinney

Drivin
N Cryin’s Kinney and Golden Palominos’ Anton Fier make the album the way
they’ve always wanted… and nearly go broke in the process.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“Nobody knows who I am in New York,”
admits Kevn Kinney, the longtime frontman for Atlanta alt-rockers Drivin N Cryin.’ “To me, a good country mile is all about selling
my songs in a bar on a Monday night on the Lower East Side
to people who never heard them before.”

 

Sure, Kinney’s band might have signed with Island Records in
the mid-1980s, notched a gold record with Fly
Me Courageous
in 1991, and shared bills with the Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil
Young, but in the late ‘00s, he was starting over again. He was working with
one-time Drivin N Cryin’ producer (and chief Golden Palomino) Anton Fier to
reshape old songs in new ways, to rethink beloved covers and to write new material.

 

The process culminated in a good country mile, Kinney’s first solo album in many years and
the first CD to bear the Golden Palominos name since 1996. But it began very
casually, with two musicians who first hooked up in a race for commercial
success, reconnecting over good songs and mutual respect.

 

Kinney and Fier met first in Atlanta in the late 1980s, when
Fier was called in to produce Drivin N Cryin’s first major label release, Whisper Tames the Lion. Back then, their
partnership was arranged by record executives, a strictly business pairing
intended to produce hits.  “Kevn was kind
of a kid, very raw,” Fier remembers, “but I was struck, even then, by the
quality of his songwriting. My first impression was that he was an important
songwriter, or at least potentially an important songwriter.”

 

On Whisper Tames the
Lion
, Fier says he worked more like an employee than an equal. “I wasn’t
allowed to do it the way I wanted to. You know, I’m being hired to help someone
else achieve a vision, and everybody’s got opinions. Record companies have
opinions, other band members have opinions,” he says.  “But this time, it was more like we’re
starting something together here from scratch, you know, as equals, out of
mutual respect. It was a different relationship.”

 

A quarter century later, Fier and Kinney met again. Fier was
playing with Tony Scherr, a downtown fixture best known for his bass work for
Bill Frisell and Nora Jones. He didn’t even know that Kinney had moved to New York until the
songwriter turned up at a gig one night with Aaron Lee Tasjan (who ended up
playing on the new album). Kinney had been sidelined for years with a growth on
his larynx and had only recently had an operation that allowed him to sing
again. He and Fier were both looking for people to play music with. They
decided to meet, try out some ideas and see where it went.

 

The two men got together once a week for about eight weeks,
slowly developing material and a way of playing together. They began performing
their songs at the Shani Ray Truckstop Series, the two of them plus a bass player
– sometimes Andy Hess (at the time, a member of Govt. Mule), other times John
Popper from Blues Traveler.    

 

Fier had recorded their sessions from the beginning, and as
they developed a sound together, he began thinking about an album. “I would
listen back, and after a while, I would say, ‘You know this stuff is good, and
it doesn’t really sound like anything else.’ It seemed like it should be
documented,” says Fier. “That became the priority. How to get it documented.”

 

The recording started in a drafty armory-turned-studio in
Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Kinney and Fier
laid down drums, bass and guitar onto two-inch tape. “What I love about how
Anton works is that he still records in an old-fashioned way,” says Kinney. “Now,
with digital technology, you can have an almost infinite number of tracks. You
can use hundreds of tracks, whatever. But Anton does it like we used to in the
old days, like he would do one really good track, or punch in as he goes, like,
it was great up to here, let’s pick it up from there. And so there’s not a lot
of clutter.”

 

Kinney gave Fier near total autonomy over how the record
would sound. “Anton has a really fine ear, and he has an engineer that he
really loves,” says Kinney. “I was like, I’d really like to see what he does. He
usually produces things for people or is hired to play on other people’s
records. I didn’t want to make him explain himself. So I wanted this record
just to be his record. “

 

“My goal here was to create the ultimate Kevn Kinney solo
record, according to me,” says Fier. “It was my idea of Kevn. Who I thought
Kevn Kinney was as an artist. I wanted to create that, that vision.”  

 

Fier says that one of his goals was to make Kinney’s songs
sound timeless, like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield records he had grown up
with in the 1960s and 1970s. “I wanted to make a record that wasn’t modern
sounding, but wasn’t retro either,” he explains. “I wanted to make a record
that sounded like it could have been recorded in the 1960s, the 1970s or
yesterday. Or tomorrow. And I believe I did that.” 

 

 


kevn kinney & the golden palominos “Challenge” by Howlin’ Wuelf Media

 

 

Many of the song titles on a good country mile will be familiar to Kinney fans. There are two Drivin
N Cryin’ songs and a few more from Kinney’s earlier solo albums. Yet the songs
on this new record are very different from their original versions,
intentionally so. Kinney says he hates the Drivin N Cryin’ version of “Wild Dog
Blues,” here revisited as “Wild Dog Blues Part 2”.

 

“I was listening to too much Aerosmith the week I wrote that
song,” he says, ruefully. “If you listen to it, you can see…that’s me trying to
be Steven Tyler.” Yet even then, the song had a very pretty coda to it, the
only part of the original arrangement that Kinney retained. The rest, a
Creedence-ish guitar vamp, came through practice sessions with Fier.  

 

The title track, too, is an older composition, originally
written about ten years ago when Kinney’s friend Allen Woody, of Gov’t Mule,
passed away. (Kinney is part of the Mule extended family and a permanent
fixture at Mule frontman Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam concert.) “Bird,”
the album’s triumphant, multi-guitared centerpiece started life as a simple
little folk song, that is, before Fier turned it symphonic.

 

“I cut one guitar track on there that me and Anton recorded
a long time ago. It was the last thing we did back in the cold, cold basement
of Martin Bisi’s studio,” says Kinney. “We started off doing it kind of pretty
and Anton got frustrated, and it just came off really aggressive and built from
there.”

 

Fier says that the original tune, a modal melody without
much harmonic embellishment, reminded him of the Byrds “Eight Miles High.”  He opened it up by bringing in four different
guitar players, and putting on layer on layer of guitar sound. The track mostly
developed through jamming, rather than premeditation, he adds. “I did have a
vision, but the vision was being further defined at each moment in the process
of creating it. The vision changed.”  

 

Kinney says that that song, along with “Set In Stone,” one
of the new ones for this album, are his favorite parts of the new album, but
Fier, though he calls “Bird” the instrumental high point, can’t single out any
favorites. Fier says he loves every moment on the album, and if he hadn’t
believed in it, he would have had ample opportunity to quit. In fact, he and
Kinney took a break mid-way through when they ran out of money. In the midst of
recording a good country mile, they
both decamped to Atlanta to make another Drivin N Cryin’ record, 2009’s
highly-regarded (Whatever Happened to
the) Great American Bubble Factory
.  (Dormant
since the late 1990s, Drivin N Cryin’ had been reactivated; Kinney and his
fellow band members are currently working on an EP of new material.) But
despite all the interruptions and
financial pressures, both of them finally felt that the music was too good to go
unheard.

 

“Everything else that Kevn and myself do in our lives we get
paid for, but unfortunately, on this one, it’s nearly broken us financially,”
he says. “But ultimately, we both believe that …It might be the best record that
either one of us ever makes.”

 

“It was made for all the right reasons,” Fier says. “Out of
love and respect for each other, and love and respect for music, love and
respect for a certain era of music, for our feelings when we were younger about
the way that ‘rock music’ offered hope and possibility. We wanted to make a
record that had an innocence to it and wasn’t calculated in any way. We were
making a record to please ourselves.”

 

Adds Kinney, “The Drivin N Cryin’ experience in the early
days, it was kind of like a competition. It was like a sporting event. Who are
you opening for? Who’s paying attention to you? The hierarchy. The flavor of
the month kind of thing. Whereas now we just make records as art, I guess.”

 

[Photo Credit: Brittny Teree Smith]

 

Kevn
Kinney, along with Fier, Tim Nielsen and Audley Freed, are on the road this
week. Check dates at Kinney’s Facebook page.

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