Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Kevn Kinney Interview

Interview by William Hastings

In honor of the tradition of the IWW's Little Red Songbook, and the union's legacy as the singing union, the Industrial Worker Book Review continues its new section of the review, the Songwriter Sessions, with Kevn Kinney.  We spoke at length about his new album A Good Country Mile and his work with his band Drivin' N' Cryin' who are slated to release four EPs this year (the first, Songs from the Laundromat came out June 12th), as well as the effects of New York on his song writing, Allen Woody's fine mandolin playing and how Jack London makes his way into Kevn's work.

You started out wanting to be a writer, ended up formfitting for a while before becoming a musician. Let's start with the writing. How does your initial desire to write affect how you approach writing a song? The Kerouac influence is obvious in your songs, but there's much more at work there than him. What other literary influences do you find creeping into your work? Who should aspiring songwriters be reading?

most recently my friend LENNY KAYE gave me an assignment to read the ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by LAWERNCE DURRELL which lead me to NAQUIB MAHFUZ and the CAIRO TRILOGY. I love how the chapters or books see the same scenario from different perspectives...i also enjoy RUMI translations by COLEMAN BARKS and on a more airport library i always enjoy a good STEPHEN KING or MICHEAL CRICHTON, JOHN GRISHAM…. they are all kinda of the same formula but i can dig it… .and of course you can't forget THE HOBBIT….…. but the American classics of KEROUAC and JACK LONDON and STEINBECK…. ARE ALWAYS PRESENT IN THE WORKS OF AN AMERICANA SONGWRITER…. but aspiring songwriters should read whatever inspires them to flip the switch….from comics, newspapers or SHAKESPEARE….THEY HAVE ALL BEEN USEFUL TO ME

Where do you write? When?

everywhere and anytime…... but mornings are the best…..fresh dreams and new tomorrows….. a broken heart is always useful but i hope I am done with that….

i love a more ZEN OF THE WORKING CLASS subject matter….... i love a good spiritual well read iron worker...gets me every time

With songs like "In the Land (Of Things That Used to Be)" and Drivin' N' Cryin's album "The Great American Bubble Factory" you're one of the few songwriters out there willing to tackle class and work in America. Yet, class and work (or the lack thereof) have always been currents in our "folk" traditions---bluegrass, blues, soul, country. You've been writing about these issues for a long time and our best music has been singing about them for even longer. Is it difficult to keep writing about these issues when change seems so far off for so many, or does the difficulty arise rather from casting yourself into this long tradition and trying to find your own space to say what you've seen?

Well, I am still a member of the middle class and some days lower...i was raised in the middle and was surrounded by fringe politics...nothing too radical, but my Grandfather was a union mediator and former president of Machinists…. a strong influence on me growing up was my parents' ex pastor FATHER GROPPI… . look him up ex communicated by the catholic church for his radical views… he marched with MARTIN LUTHER KING and defended the rights of WISCONSIN NATIVE INDIANS … .I always kind of hope JOHNNY DEPP could revive his memory…...i am only partly kidding… but if Hollywood is good at any thing it can at least draw awareness

Though you're from the midwest, you made your name down south in Athens, Georgia. Georgia has been home to Little Richard, the Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, James Brown, the Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Bloodkin, Johnny Jenkins, Gladys Knight, sacred harp music, gullah music, Chet Atkins amongst others. What is it about that state that helps to create such music?

Unlike MILWAUKEE or say OMAHA, ATLANTA has a history of being a railroad hub…..DRIVIN' N' CRYIN' had a great opportunity to go four hours north to NASHVILLE or north east TO RALIGH/CHAPEL HILL or south to CHARLESTON/SAVANAH… or southwest to ALABAMA/MISSIPPI/ or NEW ORLEANS….. you keep circling that rote over and over…...they used to call it THE CHITLIN' CIRCUIT but the like of REM paved a new way the KUDZU CIRCUIT i call it… cant be a folk singer if you have no folks to sing to...!

You now live in New York. How has the city changed your songwriting? What has it done to your music? Likewise, how did the midwest and the south affect your songwriting? What is the effect of place on song?

i haven't quite figured NEW YORK out yet but O'HENRY makes a lot more sense! But being in NEW YORK actually clarifies my years in the SOUTH and softens the edges i haven't written a lot about NEW YORK yet… ..i'll probably have to move to SEATTLE… people say good morning to each other there? I miss that

 In many of your songs the lyrics reflect a man's heart when its been beaten and kicked around---"Down Out Law" as you put it---and yet, there's always a sense of hope that runs alongside the grit of living. It would seem much easier to write about one or the other, hope or loss, but the difficulty of what you do, that mixing of the two, makes for a truer song. Is this what the blues is about at its core, acknowledgment of wrong and catharsis through singing? Also, is that hope an essential ingredient for you as a songwriter?

HEALING myself is the primary drive in almost all my songs….my first album SCARRED BUT SMARTER written at the ripe old age of twenty five was about resetting myself….

believing in my aspirations and preparing myself for on coming disappointments… ... but i think my most important Mantra I say to myself for example is… .right now i dieting and exercising more , is DONT LET HOW YOU LOOK DISCOURAGE YOU FROM HOW YOU WANT TO LOOK… ... i do the same for my mental health or songwriting or performing DONT LET WHO YOU ARE DISCOURAGE YOURSELF FROM WHO YOU WANT TO BE

On your new album ("A Good Country Mile") there's quite a bit of looking at the road ("dust off that old suitcase baby / maybe you can find your way"). How does the road inspire or take away from your writing?

The 'ROAD' is an obvious necessity to being a musician interested in taking his songs to the people….it's the wanderlust and adventurer that seduces all young musicians and later in life supports them... you quickly find out that record sales, for most, are a means to advertise and entice club owners and fans to come out and see you again… that being said it is pretty much in my blood at this point…. and wanders into a lot of the songwriting… .. characters meet circumstance equals song

The tightness and inspiration of the playing on your new album is remarkable. Obviously this comes from a group of musicians who are masters of their instruments playing at the top of their game. But in order for the album to have the feel of raw power, of exploration and movement that it does, did you have to let something go in order to create it? That is, when does the musician stop playing from the head and instead starts playing from the heart?

I think you just have to surround yourself with union of musicians that can feel the power in its simplest form….ANTON assembled the musicians for this album and kept a very clear palate for them to paint…..ANTON PUT THIS RECORD PIECE BY PIECE it took three years and he deserves a lot of the credit for the raw power…. in the drivin n cryin world we are a family and the musical communication is very natural…..we often read each others intentions and it less deliberate and relies more on a common musical library….if you don't like THE KINKS you can't be in our band!!!

I'd like you to talk about your album "The Flower and the Knife" which I think is stellar. There's a remarkable depth to the album that unfolds itself in different shades with every listen. Your backing band on much of it is Gov't Mule and it's one of the last recordings we have of Allen Woody playing with the band. How did your role as a songwriter change knowing you were going to make an album with that band, a band with such a near-telepathic mode of playing with each other? Did the album change your approach to playing, to writing? How did it come about?

I showed up in HOBOKEN with about twenty songs…. I was staying in an apartment above the studio and the first night WARREN HAYNES came over with a tape player and i recorded the song for him…..

in the morning he came back ready to record what he thought was the best eight or nine…..WARREN is a very mysterious presence a very deep river of good karma…. which why when he plays a blues song he owns it….

a lot of musicians don't understand you cant just cover something you have to own it… .and i think when WARREN got together that first afternoon it as obvious we were sharing the ownership of these songs… .thats what great producer does and it is why ANTON FIER is so great as well… .I LOVE IT THAT ALLEN WOODY APPEARS ON THE ALBUM AND PLAYS NO BASS….. JUST GUITAR AND MANDOLIN… .. he looked like a biker but he was one of the kindest and most well read people i know

On some of your albums you have songs that you have previously recorded on other albums. How does the song change with each recording for you? Do you surprise yourself with what you find inside a song when playing it with different bands? For example, what is the difference for you between the versions of "A Good Country Mile" that you played on "Broken Hearts and Auto Parts," the version you sang at the "Another One For Woody" concert and the version that appears on the album you released this year of that name with the Golden Palominos?

Songs can change in delivery and intensity from night to night… .if i do twenty shows the same song can be a little different every night so it goes the same for me in validating the recordings as well… .songs get better the more you own them … .the version with ANTON is going to be different because he never heard the BROKEN HEARTS version so he made it his own…. the same is true for the two covers on the album NEVER GONNA CHANGE and SOUTHWESTERN STATE … .once we do them they no longer belong toe the songwriter and i can separate myself from myself as well

With the current depression do you think more songwriters will arise out of this mess willing to write about the struggles of the many down below?

i am assuming so… it is a somewhat easy subject...what makes it hard is trying to reign yourself in from heaping on one subject or demonizing on the whole…..punk rock kids do a lot of writing about the current conditions but the music keeps the over-forties from getting it….. i like to imagine a single person or couple like for example i might write about an out of work lower east side bartender of twenty years who is pushed out for a younger, hipper bar with no where to go… .. you don't really appreciate the gravity of whats happening in this depression til you don't have what you used to have and might never get it back….. i would avoid blaming it on the MAN and focus on what its like to stand in line at endless government agencies and walking home alone never quite sure how are you going to turn this around… and in the end he does….through a combination of friends and perspective

What makes a good song? What makes a powerful song?

I think is a powerful song sells YOUR truth…. tell me YOUR STORY….... and a couple awesome guitar riffs don't hurt

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