Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ will always have “Straight to Hell.” Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Kevn Kinney, who’s been leading Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ for more than 30 years alongside bassist Tim Nielsen, knows this.
He knows that whatever kind of show it’s been, whether they’ve tried out some new songs, stretched out and jammed, or simply delivered a favorites-heavy set filled with songs like “Fly Me Courageous,” “Honeysuckle Blue,” or “Build a Fire,” he can always win the night by giving the audience the chance to sing, “I’m goin’ straight to hell/Just like my mama said.”
“I think about our shows for months ahead of time,” Kinney says. “I’m thinking about the Charleston show now: Do I come out rockin’? Do I come out acoustic? It doesn’t always work, but that’s kind of part of the excitement of what’s about to happen. But I feel like we always bring it together, because you can’t go wrong when you play ‘Straight to Hell.’ We’ve always got that.”
So the rest of the time, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ pretty much does whatever the hell they want. They’ve done the mainstream thing, moving from the genre-spanning 1989 album Mystery Road (which took in folk, country, punk, and hard-rock) to the straight-ahead Southern rock of 1993’s Smoke. And in the short-term, it worked, at least commercially speaking. But Kinney and the band never really comfortably fit in that genre and the full-on rock show spectacle they felt like they had to put on rubbed them the wrong way.
“Back in those days, we had a light man traveling with us, so we had to do a scripted show, so he could move the lights from song to song,” Kinney says. “But what if you get to that song and you don’t feel like playing it? What do you do? Do you play it anyway and do a not-great version, but the lights are really good? And I decided I was never doing that again. I’d rather be able to have the music sound fresh and play what I want to play in that moment.”
So for a couple of decades now, there’s really been no such thing as a typical Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ show. The band (Kinney, Nielsen, guitarist Laur Joamets, and drummer Dave Johnson) has about 100 songs it can play at any given moment, and they try to make sure the hits are included. But depending on the night, DnC plays new stuff, old stuff, covers, stuff from Kinney’s solo albums, stuff they haven’t released yet, and anything in between. Because that’s what they want to do.
“If I’m excited about playing it, then you’ll be excited about hearing it,” Kinney says. “For me, if I’m not selling it, I can’t expect you to be buying it, and if I feel like I’m phoning it in or faking it, that ruins the whole night for me.”
And if the audience isn’t going along with it, Kinney is OK with that, too.
“Maybe I’m just testing you,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I’m just pushing your buttons. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘I know they’re going to hate this, but I need to do this for myself, and if they’re patient with me, we can make some progress.’ We’ll always do the quote-unquote hits like ‘Honeysuckle Blue,’ ‘Fly Me Courageous,’ and ‘Straight to Hell,’ but there are different versions of them. We have four or five different ways we could do them.”
It takes a hell of a lot of confidence to essentially tell an audience, “We’ll get there when we get there,” particularly when you make your living playing live, but Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ has a lot to be confident about these days. They’ve experienced a recent resurgence both on the road and creatively, especially since they began managing themselves a few years back. They’re working on a new collaborative album with former guitarist (and rising star in his own right) Aaron Lee Tasjan, and in terms of their live shows, the band has proven the old adage that everyone in entertainment becomes a legend if they hang around long enough.
“We’ve had a really deliberate focus since we took over our own management a few years ago,” Kinney says, “and we’ve crossed a bit of a threshold where the people who grew up listening to us have children who are now teenagers. At every show, someone tells me, ‘My Dad, all he played was Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, and he told me you saved his life. Your records got him through a hard time, and now me and my friends are here to see you.’ I hear that every night. So I think we’ve earned our place. We’ve validated ourselves. You still might not read about us in Rolling Stone, but we love what we do, we’re proud of what we do, and we take it very seriously.”
And if you listened to country radio in 2018, you could hear “Straight to Hell” on the airwaves, even if it’s not DnC’s version. Darius Rucker took the song into the country Top 40 last summer with the help of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Charles Kelley.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Kinney says of the song’s success. “It was like winning an award! People were calling me and saying, ‘Hey, man I just heard you on Cool 101’ or whatever. So thank you, Darius!”