Still in the Drivin seat

ATLANTA -- Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: Drivin n Cryin's latest album, the 2009-released "Whatever Happened to The Great American Bubble Factory," is amazing.

A mixture of the sweet, familiar Southern sounds that made DNC's 1989 classic "Mystery Road" everpresent in the time before Nirvana and grunge conquered the world, a little jagged-edged Detroit city rock and a heaping helping of acoustic-driven folk, "Bubble Factory" finds singer Kevn Kinney -- fresh off a near-death experience -- and bandmates Tim Nielsen, Mac Carter and Dave Johnson in stunningly top form.

It's as if listeners blinked, and MTV was still a network that played music videos, George H.W. Bush was in the White House talking about a new world order and music fans couldn't decide if "Honeysuckle Blue," "Straight to Hell" or "Fly Me Courageous" was their favorite song.

"Bubble Factory" includes new songs -- two of the album's best: the title track and the first single, the wonderful "I See Georgia," which might be Gen-Xers with a Southern bent's "Georgia on My Mind" -- and there is fresh-sounding material that has aged well for fans who've seen Drivin n Cryin in some incarnation since their late-1980s heyday.

Two surprises stand out before you're even through a first listen to the 12 songs that make up the album: The musicianship is better than any time in DNC's career, and Kinney's magical voice has withstood the ravages of time. Such an instrument, which gets its uniqueness from the singer's ability to go with abandon to high register (see "Honeysuckle Blue"), is subject to grow rougher -- and lower -- around the edges with the abuse of more than three decades of live performances.

It was near tragedy, though, that preserved that voice.

"Man, when we recorded this album, my vocal cords were like virgins," Kinney joked during an extended phone conversation from his Atlanta home. "I had a huge cyst on my larynx (more on that later) that was keeping my vocal cords from moving. By the time I had it removed, my doctor said it was like I hadn't used them in four years.

"It was like I got a brand new set. I knew something was wrong because I couldn't hit the high register any more. I figured it was just time. Turns out the doctor said I should have been dead."

Kinney talked with The Herald about "Bubble Factory" before leaving for a weeklong series of shows in Belgium and Holland.

ALBANY HERALD: This is your first proper album in more than 10 years. Why now? What was yours and the band's motivation?

KEVN KINNEY: Yeah, the last studio album we did was, I think "drivin n cryin" (from 1997), and the last time we did one of those big tours was when we did the "Quadrophenia" tour with the Who. Everybody on this record -- me, Mac, Tim and Dave -- put together a folk record just before the terrorist attacks in 2001, but we didn't feel that the time was right to release it, the mood of the country wasn't right. We finished that record, toured a bit, went to Europe and then just started doing fewer and fewer shows. Then around 2006 I found out I had that cyst on my larynx and after a while I couldn't even speak. I basically retired until about 2 1/2 years ago when I got it fixed. After that, I started doing a few shows, but I only had enough energy to do a show every couple of weeks. It took me that long to recover.

I started thinking about doing just instrumental records, maybe looking into other things. I really didn't know what I was going to do. My wife was working to support us through that time, and then my dad passed away. It was just a weird time, and I felt like I could no longer communicate with an audience. I kept writing ideas, bits of songs, ramblings. I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what.

AH: When you got the prognosis on the cyst, that had to be the worst thing for someone who makes his living as a singer. What was that experience like?

KK: I really had no idea how bad it was. I knew I needed to do something, but I'm a musician, I didn't have any insurance. I was just drinking a lot of tea because everyone said that would help. I finally went in to see a doctor, and he said the cyst needed to be removed. I told him I had a couple of shows booked, figured I'd do the surgery after I did those shows.

The doctor said, "If we don't take that thing out tomorrow, you might not live." He said he didn't know why I wasn't already dead because the cyst had cut off my air.

AH: And that series of events led to your putting out another Drivin n Cryin album?

KK: There was a start-up company in Atlanta (Vintage Earth Music) that got the word out they were looking for a name band to do a project with. We told them we'd give it a shot. We got a few six packs, went into Tim's basement and started working on the album.

AH: The songs on "Bubble Facory" are about as close to a perfect mix as you guys have ever put together.

KK: That's really funny, because we've been playing a lot of these songs for 10 years or more. Most Drivin n Cryin songs are like a bride: "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." We went in with that approach for the album. We wrote a couple of new songs -- "Bubble Facory" and "I See Georgia," which proves my theory that there is no new music; I stole "Georgia" from "Honeysuckle Blue," which I originally stole from some Lynyrd Skynyrd song -- but songs like "Midwestern Blues," "Don't You Know That I Know That You Know?," "This Town" and "I Stand Tall" are pure Americana we'd been doing for years.

"Detroit City" we'd been doing for 10 years or more, and we'd been doing "Get Around Kid" a long time.

AH: But the album flows almost like a concept album.

KK: We did keep songs built around the same theme: the idea that America no longer makes the simplest of things, not even the cheap little $2 trinkets like the soap bubbles that kids blow. We need jobs in this country, but we still import everything from China and other places because they can make it a little cheaper. The idea is maybe even if we have to pay a little more, let's start making things again in America.

We narrowed down the list of songs we had to ones that fit together best. Putting an album together is kind of like trying to write a novel, making sure you've got the chapters right.

AH: A lot of fans, myself included, have always thought of Drivin n Cryin as this collection of cool songs and this one guy with a great voice. On this album, though, I was impressed with the musicianship throughout.

KK: Well, the truth is, over the last 10 years we've all gotten to be better musicians. It's like the irony of being a punk rocker: You keep rehearsing and writing and playing, and all of a sudden you get better.

We did some things on the album that we've never done before. Me and Mac played more harmony -- more two-part -- guitar. I think we found that the different sounds we got from our guitars complemented each other. We were more like a band doing its first record on this album. A lot of times you find that a band's first record is its best because they've been playing the songs for a long time before they actually record them. We'd been playing most of these songs for years, so we were very familiar with them.

AH: "I See Georgia" is a great song for those of us born to the land. I know you're a Georgian now, but how did you get here?

KK: My brother left home in Milwaukee around 1976 to hike the Appalachian Trail, and he ended up settling in Georgia. He called me and told me I could get a construction job down here, so I moved in '82. I was doing a kind of punk-folk thing, but I decided to "retire" from music and head south. I drove down with my girlfriend, and we got jobs. She worked in a record store, and I did construction.

One of my best friends from Milwaukee was in the hardcore band Die Kruezer, and when they played down here I'd jam with them and sometimes open for them. Tim, who was the "it" Atlanta rock star at the time, saw me playing with them and said let's start a band.

AH: Thus was born Drivin n Cryin?

KK: Yep. We took the band name from one of the songs I'd done with my old band, the Prosecutors.

AH: I'm a word man when it comes to music. Let's talk about some of the specific lines from "Bubble Factory." First of all, what's "I See Georgia" about?

KK: You take the lines "That jukebox in the corner got all my favorite songs. The whiskey ain't so lonely anymore. Turn it up a little louder, I wanna feel that Southern breeze. From the midnight train to Georgia on my mind." And I talk about hearing the Allman Brothers at a bar in Montana ... It's just about being homesick for Georgia and all its great music. You got the Black Crowes, the (Georgia) Satellites, blah, blah, blah ... all these great musicians coming out of here.

AH: I have to ask you ... The rock radio station here (Rock 103) plays a live version of the song that has an added section where you talk about hearing Georgia bands -- the Allmans, REM, Drive By Truckers, Collective Soul -- all over the world. Where did that version come from?

KK: We actually did an acoustic live version of the song for an Atlanta radio station's (Rock 105) morning show. I just did that part off the cuff, ad libbed it. I think they play that version more than they do the studio version, and I know they've made it available to other stations they're affiliated with.

AH: What about "If you can make it here, why don't you make it here?" from "Bubble Factory?"

KK: That's pretty much the point of the album. If we can make something in this country -- even something as silly and as simple as kids' bubbles -- why don't we do it? If it costs a little more, I don't mind paying.

AH: By the way, great album cover. Is the cute little girl a relative?

KK: Actually, we'd been talking about getting some kid to blow bubbles in front of a closed-down factory. The guy who owns the record company had his little girl in the car with him, and we turned her loose. They started a photo shoot at 1 o'clock, and by 4 o'clock they were done.

AH: What about "I met the poet and the singer that all along was me" from "Don't You Know?" A little self-discovery?

KK: That's my "Fight Club" song. You've seen "Fight Club," right? Well, that's one of those lines where I'm writing about me.

AH: One more ... this is fun, by the way. The "work two weeks just to pay my rent ... work two days just to get to work" verse from "Preapproved, Predenied." And, of course, the closing "Just how stupid do you think I am?"

KK: It's the way the credit card companies work; the way they sucker people in. I can't believe how they suckered us because we had to pay for my surgery using my wife's credit card. We've been paying like $900 a month for the last couple of years to pay for a surgery that cost $12,000 and we still owe more than $9,000. In fact, when I do "Preapproved" live now, I end it by saying, "I got a letter in the mail today saying 'Dear Mr. Kinney, you are preapproved for one of our credit cards.' Well, I don't want to be rude, but my response is, 'Hey, Mr. Visa, F--- you!'"

AH: So, where do Kevn Kinney and Drivin n Cryin go from here? Are you looking to get back to that "Mystery Road" level of stardom?

KK: It's just a "let's see what happens" deal right now. I'm happy with the initial response to "Bubble Factory," but we've got to do a lot of work on our own to get it out to people. It's like "Fly Me Courageous" ... That song was out a year before it took off. It's going to take a lot more work on our part. We're going to do a tour around Los Angeles in June, and we have a tour of the northwestern states in the fall. We're going to do things little by little.

I've got a new mission now. People say our music appeals to an "older crowd," to a crowd that doesn't buy records anymore. Well, I'm 49, have two grown daughters and a granddaughter, and I still love music the same way I always have. Not like some 50-year-old trying to act 20, but as someone who loves music. Just because you have kids and a respectable job, that doesn't mean you can't still rock. I listened to "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast" soundtracks all through the '90s, but that didn't change how I feel about music.

My new goal is to get older people off the couch. Get out and see a rock and roll show. You can be 50 and still enjoy yourself.