Sometimes you have to forget everything you’ve learned in order to move forward. For Atlanta-based singer/songwriter Kevn Kinney, shedding the experiences of a career that’s spanned more than two decades, 12 albums and 6 record labels proved to be the best way to tap the youthful honesty and wide-eyed wonderment that characterize his latest release, Broken Hearts and Auto Parts (Evil Teen).
“When I first started writing, I based my songs on what I had read — my literary umbrella, so to say. I felt very young making this record,” said Kinney in a recent interview. “I could’ve recorded this when I was 21, before record deals and marketing wheels. I wanted a sense of naivete. So I wanted to go back to that time when it was still your heart that you followed and everything you knew of the world was based on TV shows, stories of your parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents’ adventures — when you lived in a world of firsts. Your first crush, your first kiss, your first fight, your first band practice, your first drink, your first heartbreak, your first lover.”
Broken Hearts is an impressive statement from Kinney, a collection of songs thick with unfortunate characters, well-developed stories and painfully honest, no-nonsense lyrics. Consider the title track, the tale of a man who has lost nearly everything but finds solace in his own guitar and songs, “like broken hearts and auto parts/ and everything between/ I was on the move and in the soup/ and on the silver screen/ where I could hide for days/ to live inside my dreams/ it’s been broken hearts and auto parts this year.”
Kinney has mastered the songwriting craft. Skillfully contrasting solo, acoustic-styled songs with full-throttle, plugged-in rock ‘n’ roll, he’s found an attractive meeting ground for folk, Southern rock and old-school country. The latter genre may have spoken the loudest to Kinney. “Last year, I really listened to a lot of truck-stop country music, like Merle Haggard, Charlie Pride, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. I love the direction a lot of the master class of country has taken, and it inspires me to see country music take a turn back to the days when it was primarily a voice and a story that spoke to something that is common in all of us. The real folk music,” he said.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Kinney came to Atlanta in the early ’80s, where he formed and fronted the band Drivin’ and Cryin’. On the strength of a grueling touring schedule (more than 250 shows a year) and the influence of college radio (now seemingly gone), the band began to enjoy some success. The big year, however, was 1991, when Drivin’ and Cryin’ released Fly Me Courageous (Island). It became one of the hottest albums on rock radio that year, and suddenly, Kinney had all the success he could handle.
To help himself get clear of the whirlwind of notoriety caused by Fly Me, Kinney headed back to the studio to record a solo album, 1993’s Down Out Law (Mammoth). “I remember getting in my car and driving to Memphis, because I just had to do something for myself. I felt I had been talked out, worked to death, and still people needed a little bit more. Fame, and/or the pursuit of it, is a dangerous thing. It’s sad to see people clinging to it because it seems in the end you just wind up with a sort of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ thing, watching your old films in the dark.
“I remember sitting in this big studio where we recorded Fly Me Courageous with a table lamp, my guitar and a bong. It occurred to me then that rock stars are spoiled by the immediate acceptance they get used to. I mean, what must it be like to a painter who paints hundreds of pieces, with every bit as much heart and soul as what I put in, but have to sustain their art not on acceptance but some sort of divine directive? Since then, my main focus has been to be true to myself, no matter the consequences,” he said.
In this case, the chief consequence seems to have been, simply, a great record that displays so much of what draws people to singer/songwriters. Without apparent effort, Kinney infects listeners with the personalities and tribulations he sings of. His songs seem to scream truth despite his usually subtle, toned-down delivery, aged by the experiences he’s absorbed through the years and the endless miles of a lengthy, successful career. Perhaps the biggest testament to his talent is that the guy is still around, still cutting new records that seemingly get better as he gets older, still making new fans — and continuing to have a great time doing it.
“I like music that is inclusionary, something that shares with me something of [the artist’s] life and how they got through it or made light of it or whatever. I’m not an elitist; you don’t have to belong to some secret clique to get it. It’s simple and honest and me. There are a thousand ways to sing the same song, and I think everybody has their own voice and I’ve done my best to capture myself.”