I’m teaching a colloquium in rock ‘n’ roll history at the small Georgia state college that has been my home these past 15 years. The other day, inspired by the release of this documentary, I asked my class of mostly 18-23-year-olds if they’d ever heard of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. Not a hand went up.
I wasn’t surprised — mildly depressed, but not surprised. Even at the peak of their assault on the charts they were nearly unknowns, with “Fly Me Courageous” qualifying them as “one-[barely a]-hit-wonders”. Then, as now, those outside the know really missed out on something special. Like a lot of mid ’80s bands signed to record deals in the first wave of commercial interest in “college rock” (before it got tagged “alternative”), they were better than history has treated them.
Such was Eric Von Hessler’s inspiration while interviewing frontman Kevn Kinney on the Atlanta radio show The Regular Guys. Asked to direct a video in honor of the band’s 2009 reunion record Whatever Happened to the Great American Bubble Factory, Hessler ended up following a rejuvenated Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ around for three years, interviewing a collection of band members past and present, associates, friends, and fans in search of an answer to a question long bothering him: “I knew they were great. I wanted to know why they aren’t more of a rock ‘n’ roll success.”
Scarred But Smarter: Life n Times of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ goes a long way towards answering that question, and not just for this band. The story of Kevn Kinney, Tim Nielsen, and Jeff Sullivan could stand in for many others who formed a band young, possessed a talent and work ethic sufficient to making a go of it, built a loyal fan base, and set out to follow their creative vision only to be chewed up and spat out by the major label music machine.
The story of what went wrong in terms of Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s lack of broad commercial success is a pretty standard mix of self-sabotage and record company idiocy, maybe a little heavy on the latter. I remember reading an interview Van Buren Fowler shortly after he became the band’s fourth member. At an industry party, he was standing amidst a group of Island Record executives who were highly impressed with his association with R.E.M. (he’d been their tour guitarist). When informed that he’d just left that gig to join Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, the execs had no idea who they were, even though the band was currently recording its third album with the label.
A parade of interview subjects in this film tells similar stories, and it becomes plain that Island had no idea what they had in Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, or how to market it. This was a band that wanted to sing Springsteen-like ballads to the sensitive kids while rocking out like Led Zeppelin with the stoners. But the rules of this corner of the ’80s music market dictated that everyone pick sides: you were either into “college rock” or you were a “metalhead”, and never the twain shall meet.
But the twain met brilliantly on Drivin’ n’ Cryin’’s first three records, where the rambling country idyll “Catch the Wind” could segue into the ball-busting head-banger “Powerhouse” as on Whisper Tames the Lion or where Mystery Road could open with the fiddle-infused “Ain’t it Strange” only to give way to the stomping “Toy Never Played With” and anthemic “Honeysuckle Blue.” Where a steadily growing audience, particularly in the Southeast, heard an exciting mix of heart and balls, the label only heard a Jeckyll and Hyde act, and for them, Mr. Hyde was personified in Kevn Kinney’s hippie folk streak. So, they struck a bargain, allowing Kinney to record his first solo album, the now-classic neo-folk collection McDougal Blues, produced by Peter Buck, if he promised to keep the amplifiers turned to eleven on the next Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ record.
A promise kept, Fly Me Courageous skirted the top ten and got them on Late Night with David Letterman. It also aligned the group, in most newfound listeners’ minds, with hair metal just as that sub-genre was about to experience its ignominious fall under the Seattle-based grunge assault. Continued label pressure, rock star clichés, and buckets of sell-out self doubt followed. Their next and final record for Island, Smoke, is now viewed among band members and close associates as a sonic catalog of a band self-destructing.
Some of the most poignant and rewarding moments in this documentary occur when Kinney, Nielsen, Sullivan, and Fowler are allowed to reflect on the aftermath of their run towards the upper reaches of the charts and the crash that followed. Fowler was fired from the band following their major label drop and the pain still registers in his broken voice as he describes those events. Sullivan himself had to leave the band to deal with alcoholism, then returned for a while before retiring to a second career in computer animation.
Nielsen perhaps summarizes the deal-with-the-Devil realities of the major label industry game best, declaring “They’re getting paid to destroy friendships and marriages.” Through it all, Kinney appears as a jovial but world-weary realist, a perpetually creative engine for the band and grounding for his longtime musical partner.
The last two men standing, Kinney and Nielsen continue their journey as Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, having independently released a sequence of EPs over the past three years. Despite all the could have or should have beens and amidst all that went wrong, the dominant impression left by the documentary is optimism and perseverance. Even director Von Hessler answers his question of why Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll success story in the affirmative: “What I found out is that they are.”