It’s crazy and weird and fantastic to have bands I snuck out of the house to see (R.E.M. and Drivin N Cryin) continue to matter to music fans so much that their albums get re-issued. I’m pretty sure I’ve told y’all the story of not getting hired at a Columbus, Ohio, radio station in the late 1980s when the Program Director asked me who my favorite Atlanta band was and I said, “Drivin N Cryin.” He said, “I only know one song from them, and I don’t like it. Too country.” I ended up working at that station anyway by co-hosting the morning show. I laughed my head off when the PD drunkenly sang “Straight to Hell” at the station Christmas party. Joke’s on you, dude.
As a fan of the band since before their debut album was released, I forget that Mystery Road and Fly Me Courageous are the albums most Southerners knew from Drivin N Cryin. The band played a lot of the material before it ended up on the album, so the vocal mix on the release of “Honeysuckle Blue” (with Atlanta legend, Michelle Malone) stuck out oddly. I was surprised that audiences in the Midwest, where I was living, latched on to the harder rock songs like “Toy Never Played With” and “You Don’t Know Me” and didn’t seem to “get” the dance-able ones like “Ain’t It Strange” or the softer ones like “With the People.” The song that clearly was the live anthem (moving out my favorite “Scarred But Smarter”) was “Straight to Hell,” a crowd sing-along, where the rednecks, punks, and hippies all felt the song was about them.
The upcoming expanded double album re-issue of Mystery Road is exciting for mega-fans and those who arrived to Kevn Kinney’s songs later in life. Primarily, the songs have been remastered and the long-known but not heard demos produced by Peter Buck (R.E.M.) are part of this special package. After Whisper Tames the Lion, the local chatter was that Buck was producing Drivin N Cryin’s next album, but when it came time for release, it was some “outsider” (Scott MacPherson). Not knowing how labels and band obligations and recording and “the machine” worked at the time, my crew of Atlanta fans felt that the album was a bit “slick” for our guys. These Buck-produced demos, though, tease of the direction the album might have gone, had that synergy of Georgia jangle happened. I like that they are demos, because the songs are raw and plain and share how song ideas can change, with time, with influences, and with instrumentation. Listen to one of Drivin N Cryin’s demos, produced by Peter Buck, the omitted title track, “Mystery Road.”
The DNC lineup at the time of Mystery Road included founders Kevn Kinney and Tim Neilsen, former Kansas and R.E.M. guitar tech, Buren Fowler (RIP), and Jeff Sullivan, who had recently left Mr. Crowe’s Garden (who later re-emerged as Southern Rockers, The Black Crowes). The band has played more in the last several years than the decade prior, with drummer Dave V. Johnson, and a rotating cast of lead guitar players, from Aaron Lee Tasjan, Sadler Vaden (now in Jason Isbell’s band), Warner E. Hodges (Jason & The Scorchers, Dan Baird/Georgia Satellites), to recently Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson’s former lead guitar player, and a noted musician and songwriter in his own right, just like the others). Kinney writes prolifically, once telling me that he’ll keep putting out new records for the rest of his life. Their live shows do not follow a fixed set list, and I don’t think they’ve ever played the same show twice. Kevn told me years ago that they all know 100 Drivin N Cryin and Kinney solo songs, and he pulls them out on the fly.
Long-time friend of the band, Darius Rucker, recorded “Straight to Hell” for his upcoming new album. Rucker often sings that song live, especially if you catch him at charity gigs or unofficial nights out. I’m not a Hootie hater, and frankly don’t understand that energy at all. Hell, don’t we all want to hear him sing “rain” in four more songs? I commend him for seeing the potential of this song in a pop country market, and I hope Kevn Kinney and Tim Neilsen get some nice mailbox money out of it.