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Scarred but smarter: A conversation with Drivin N Cryin

Drivin N Cryin will play Asheville June 22. File photo Drivin N Cryin will play Asheville June 22. File photo

In the annals of American rock music, few storied bands have withstood the test of time and endured with such integrity and grit as Drivin N Cryin. Formed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1985, the group is quickly approaching its 40th anniversary, another milestone along its melodic road of life, legend, lore and legacy — still rockin’, still rollin’. 

A juggernaut of sound and scope, DNC is a sonic muscle car of swagger and grace, all fueled by lead singer/guitarist Kevn Kinney’s old soul poetic lyrical aptitude — this high-octane blend of hard rock, punk, metal and indie-folk stylings.

Founded by Kinney and bassist Tim Nielsen, DNC is currently rounded out by the thunderous roar of drummer Dave V. Johnson and the searing licks of lead guitarist Laur Joamets.

The key to DNC’s longevity was (and remains) grinding it out on never-ending tours throughout the decades. Taking the stage in sticky floor bar rooms, majestic theaters, backyard barbecues, massive festivals and seemingly every setting in-between, the quartet remains a bastion of what it truly means to be an honest, intrinsic artist in a modern world of dilution and distraction.

Catching up with The Smoky Mountain News backstage following a raucous gig at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, Kinney and Nielsen dug deep into what it means to not only still be performing together, but also the purpose and passion behind one of the most beloved rock acts in the Southeast and beyond.

Smoky Mountain News: What does it mean to you to have people still show up and love what you do some 39 years into this?

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Kevn Kinney: Well, it’s an ebb and flow. We’re not a showbiz band. We’re a different kind of thing. We’re just regular, normal, good people. We’re everyday people. We don’t have a lot of pizzazz. And when we tried to have pizzazz, people didn’t like it.

You know, you start off with something that’s genuine. And you wind up trying to appease people — to keep your record deal or to do whatever to be famous, to be better than the Joneses.

You’re like, “What’s Soul Asylum doing? What’s Collective Soul doing?” What’s everybody doing? How do we rate up against them? Are they bigger on the charts?

And then, eventually, you kind of go, “Wait a minute — it’s art.” It’s like saying, “There’s no better painting than the painting over there.” It’s art. You can’t say that. There’s a time when art becomes commercial. It’s pop art. You can’t compete with it and you’re never next in line.

It’s never about whether you’ve been around long enough. It’s just that people either get your art or they don’t. They either like the way you paint or they don’t like the way you paint. You can’t manipulate that.

SMN: So, how do you measure success then?

KK:  Well, success, to me, would be tonight. I thought it was a really honest, good, fun show. I didn’t put on any airs and everybody was happy. We’re just playing music and you guys are paying to see it, to see us practice. [Laughs].

I mean, when we played “Build A Fire” tonight, it felt just like we did in the old days. It’s art. It’s a time machine. Music is a time machine. And I live in it. I don’t judge. I don’t know where I am, I just dive into it [onstage]. We’re scarred, but smarter.

SMN: When you look back at the history of the band, it’s wild to see how much has happened and how much time has passed.

Tim Nielsen:  It’s hard to think about how long we’ve been doing this. But, we were onstage last night in Chattanooga, [Tennessee], and I feel like we’re better than we’ve ever been and we really understand and appreciate what we’re doing more than we ever have.

It’s such a crazy world and the fact that we get to get up there and melt faces for two hours in a packed bar? That’s a blast. I feel fortunate that we get to do this — that we’re still playing music and that people are still celebrating the music we made years ago.

SMN: Well, I would surmise that part of why the band’s still cranking the way it is all these years later is that you still enjoy making music and jamming together.

TN: Yeah. But, I don’t think we came to that epiphany until probably [12] years ago or something. And me, personally, saying, “Hey, you know, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m going to go for it. Let’s entertain people and entertain ourselves.

SMN: What does it mean to you to still be out there doing it?

TN: I don’t think musicians are supposed to retire. I think they just keep going until they keel over. It means a lot [to still be playing]. I want to keep doing it. I’ve never been to Asia. I’ve never been to Australia. We’ve hardly been to the West Coast. So, there’s lot of places in the world where we’re a brand-new band.

SMN: And being a band that’s still out there making an impact.

TN: We kind of just relate to the human quality. We’re real and we sing about real stuff. Hardworking middle-class people — that’s who we are. Not to be cliché or like Bruce Springsteen or whatever, but those guys are all bajillionaires, so that doesn’t really count for them anymore.

SMN: What has a life playing music taught you about what it means to be a human being?

TN: Just to appreciate things and appreciate friends. Don’t take anything for granted. Be kind to each other. Bringing joy to people. Life is hard for a lot of us. So, if we can bring a little joy into the world and make people forget what’s on the news or whatever, what’s going on in the world, is a crazy thing to be a part of.

We go out there and play in these little towns. In the middle of nowhere in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. We’re out there and these people are great — and the music connects all of us.

Want to go?

Legendary rock act Drivin N Cryin will hit the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 22, at The Grey Eagle in Asheville.

Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is all ages. Standing room only. Tickets are $20 per person. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to thegreyeagle.com.

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