Back in his tiny catch-all of a kitchen, Kevin Kinney is pulling a pair of black jeans from the dryer and fretting over soap stains. “I’m the Loretta Lynn of rock ‘n’ roll,” he declares suddenly, taking an ironic jab at his hapless domesticity. It’s a radiant spring morning in Athens, Georgia. Heavenly white dogwoods and blazing pink redbuds are in full flower along the streets that lead to the neat gray duplex where Kinney lives, near the University of Georgia campus.
Best known as the frontman of the hard-rocking Atlanta trio, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, Kinney moved to Athens in 1993, during the making of the band’s fifth and most contentious album, Smoke. It was a tough time for Kinney, and the small college town offered a welcome respite.
“I ran away from Atlanta and I started a new life here,” he says. “I was doing a lot of bad things in Atlanta. I have a very addictive personality. I can do something for three months and it can almost kill me.”
Right now, though, what’s killing Kinney are the white spots all over his load of dark clothes. A photographer hired by his new label, Capricorn, will be arriving in a couple of hours to take publicity shots of him. And Kinney really would like to look his best. But after a bit of blotting with some water and paper towels, he resolves to buy liquid detergent next time, settles back to roll another Drum cigarette, and stirs a spoonful of vanilla ice cream into his coffee.
Barefoot, in ragged shorts and an old shirt, his long, thin hair falling into his eyes, he exudes the kind of casual comfort he claims to have found in Athens. The kitchen, which he calls his office, is filled with so many odds and ends it’s difficult to get a fix on them all. A harmonica rack hangs on the wall next to a hand blender; a dingy yellow cocktail tray with a portrait of the Beatles is perched above the door jam; a pair of blackboards display the phone numbers of friends and family in smeared blue and white chalk.
Most interesting are the scattered stacks of CDs Kinney sifts through whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. Among them: Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series, Led Zeppelin’s Presence, Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s Spinning Around The Sun, and the collection of Scott Joplin rags he’s listening to at the moment. A coverless promotional copy of Kinney’s new solo disc, The Flower And The Knife, sits atop his battered compact stereo.
From the time of its 1986 indie-label debut, Scarred But Smarter, which nonchalantly fused frenzied rock with backwoods bluegrass, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ embraced an eclectic mix of styles. But on his 1990 solo debut MacDougal Blues (produced by his longtime pal Peter Buck of R.E.M.) and 1994′s Down Out Law, Kinney favored a spare acoustic sound as a backdrop to his closely observed modern folk ballads.
The Flower And The Knife, his third solo effort, was produced by Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and was recorded in a week at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey. Though the mostly live sessions ended up featuring an all-star cast of guest musicians — including John Popper of Blues Traveler, Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers, Allen Woody and Matt Abts of Gov’t Mule, and young Derek Trucks — Kinney says that was total happenstance.
“It started as a collaboration between me and Warren,” he says. “But all those guys were playing together in Frogwings, doing three nights at Wetlands, so every day we’d just get one of them to come by to do something. I don’t know what you call that genre of music, jam band or hippie or whatever, all I know is that those guys love to play and they really work hard. I really admire that.”
Kinney first hooked up with Haynes in 1997 at a benefit concert in Charleston, South Carolina, organized by Edwin McCain. After that, Haynes, McCain and Kinney performed together several more times, including some dates at the Bottom Line in NYC. The trio’s work together is evidenced most prominently on the new album through a soulful cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. That Haynes’ serious baritone introduces the song, and is followed by Kinney’s rather more reedy vocal, initially comes as something of a surprise — a fact that’s not lost on Kinney.
“That was something me and Warren and Edwin would do as a show-closer,” he says. “It’s a lot to step up to. But that’s the way we sang it live, so we hung in there and did it live in the studio. But you know, no one has ever called me to do singing work. No one has ever said, ‘I need a singer, you know Kevn Kinney, he’s a singer.’ Not once has that phone call come that says, ‘Hey man, will you come sing on our record?’”
Kinney is, of course, a bit too self-effacing when it comes to his voice. As legions of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ fans know, its keening, lonesome quality is ideal for putting across both caustic laments and headlong rockers. The other Dylan song on the disc, a haunted, mixed-up take on “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”, proves ragged can be exactly right.
“I just love the whole premise of that song,” Kinney says. “A poor guy, just everything going wrong, and then he kills everyone with a shotgun. For some reason it feels very Midwestern. I just felt very spooked by it. The words aren’t in the right order, because I’m just wingin’ it.”
Asked if he thinks people will say that two Dylan covers on one album are a bit much, Kinney bristles: “I don’t give a rat’s ass. Maybe it should be all Dylan, I don’t know. When Bob Dylan made his first record, he had, like, two or three Woody Guthrie songs on there. Were people going like, ‘Jesus, enough with the Woody Guthrie’?”