Catch The Wind

The last time I saw Drivin N’ Cryin play live was at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on the day after Thanksgiving, 1990. Their soaring guitars and earthy rock tunes sounded great in that acoustically perfect old building. I was in my second year of college and the show marked the last time I hung out with a childhood friend of mine and a red-haired, blue-eyed girl I’d had a crush on since 8th grade. The three of us lost touch after that night, drifting into separate adult lives as we all do.

               Anyone of my generation who grew up in Georgia is likely familiar with the band, Drivin N’ Cryin. Their music is a complex blend of folksy rock combining elements of R.E.M., Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Ramones. The searing electric guitar tones, power chords, and pounding drums of some of their songs are offset by acoustic guitars, dulcimers, fiddles, and mandolins on others. Both styles find depth in the lyrics which embody a homespun, witty, southern charm emanating from the mind of founder and Milwaukee, Wisconsin native turned full-fledged Georgian, Kevn Kinney (the “i” is purposefully absent), who delivers them in his unique, almost nasal, yet earnest and powerful voice. Rolling Stone magazine described DNC’s music in the following way: “Crunching hard rock is the Drivin’ part. Brittle country-ish balladry, the Cryin’.

               Songs like Powerhouse, Can’t Promise You the World, Whisper Tames the Lion, Scarred But Smarter, Stand Up and Fight For It, Wild Dog Moon, With The People, Catch the Wind, Toy Never Played With, Let’s Go Dancing, Build a Fire, Fly Me Courageous, and of course the iconic Honeysuckle Blue, and the sing-along Straight to Hell are staple anthems of Southern GenX. But DNC’s later music on albums like Whatever Happened To The Great American Bubble Factory, and their multiple EPs released in the 2010’s offer up gems like I See Georgia, R.E.M., Acceleration, Turn, Out Here in the Middle of Nowhere, and Ain’t Waitin on Tomorrow, all great tunes.

               In 1991 DNC enjoyed the limelight for a while with Fly Me Courageous, the album that went gold, with the single of the same name that reached the masses. By the 2000’s they’d settled back into the cult legend status they gained with what I consider their masterpiece album, ‘Mystery Road’, and they have continued to thrive as one of the most underrated bands out there.  Along the way Drivin N Cryin has won the respect and friendship of iconic and legendary musicians like Widespread Panic, Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, and of course, R.E.M. The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2015, validating their status as perhaps the most beloved underdog band to hail from this state.

If you ever find yourself on a road trip through Georgia, from the mountains, through the rolling pine-covered Piedmont hills, into the Coastal Plain fields and along the Coast, your trip would be greatly enhanced by listening to some Drivin N Cryin. They are what Georgia sounds like. If you ask me, they should be named the official state band of Georgia.

               I was all of 9 years old when I accompanied my parents to see B.J. Thomas in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 1980. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head didn’t make much of an impression on me, but seeing people play music and feeling that sound in person as opposed to over a radio stirred something in me. As soon as I was old enough, I was road tripping to concerts in Atlanta and Albany with my High School friends. In college I went to arena shows, theaters, and club shows anywhere I could—Atlanta, Tallahassee, Macon, Athens, Statesboro, Jacksonville, Gainesville. Live music became important to me.

Music played live can affect us in ways that are somewhat muted by the recording process. Science has discovered that live concerts reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and the release of cortisol, a hormone which is released by our bodies under stress. Live music can serve as a natural pain killer, triggering the release of endorphins, which reduce our perception of pain, intercepting pain signals before they reach the brain. As great as the sound of music can be over some digital file or even an old vinyl record, with live music we get to experience it. It improves our mood and our sense of connection with those around us.

               Internally we experience life in a neurochemical manner. Live music triggers the release of the hormone, oxytocin, which improves our senses of vitality, companionship, and trust. Seeing a live show improves brain function as our minds take note of improvised lyrics and subtle changes in the music we expect to hear. It has even been determined that people who regularly experience live music generally live about 9 years longer than those who don’t. 

 Yet, as a result of life’s twists and turns, the responsibilities of adulthood, and living somewhat off the beaten path of most touring acts, I hadn’t been to a concert since I saw Pearl Jam in New Orleans in 2000, while attending a meeting in the Crescent City. To fill the void over the years, I even took up the guitar myself, but to anyone’s ear, my “playing” is a poor substitute for the real thing. I had been depriving myself of the healing power of live music for 23 years.

Then, on a recent glorious early spring morning as I was headed to the farm, I received a text from a friend of mine asking, “Are you going to see Drivin’ N Cryin’ in Tifton tonight?”

I was somewhat shocked at first to discover the band was playing at the Rhythm and Ribs Festival in our small town. I hadn’t heard a word about it until that text. What’s more, the show was free! How could this be? I had been through a health scare just a few months prior and came out of it with a renewed intent to do more of the things I enjoy in life and here was the perfect opportunity. But who would I go with? I knew my wife wouldn’t go. I wasn’t sure any of my current local friends were that into music. So, I texted my youngest daughter, a junior in high school, to see if she’d be interested in accompanying me. Though her taste in music runs more to Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, Molly, I knew, had an objective ear and an appreciation for music in general. She was set to see her first concert in a month or so when Taylor Swift would come to Atlanta. Here was my chance to intervene and give her the experience of seeing a real rock band for her first live act.

I texted a couple of YouTube videos of DNC classics.

At first, she wasn’t sure if I was serious.

“Are you gonna go?”, she replied, “and why are they in Tifton?”

“Its free”, I answered, “So I’m thinking, yes”

In answer to her second question, I responded “The best thing about getting old is that all the bands you love when you’re a teenager are now playing free shows at BBQ festivals in small towns”.

I finished up my chores at the farm and got home in time to shower and change. “Are you really going?”, Molly asked.

“Sure, you coming?”

“OK, I’ll go”, she replied with a hint of curiosity in her voice.

We parked across the street from Walgreen’s and walked a block over to Fulwood Park, a 28-acre square of towering pine trees and early blooming, pink Formosa azaleas in the middle of town. A flashing traffic sign at the corner announced, “Music by Drivin N Cryin”.

As Molly and I made our way through the small, milling crowd and the booths selling funnel cakes, chocolate covered bananas and all manner of cheap, kitschy trinkets, the smoke from an army of BBQ grills wafted over us. The sound of the opening band playing over the PA directed us to the main stage, a small amphitheater overlooking a clearing in the pines. The opening band finished up while we grabbed a sandwich and some ribs at one of the stands and found a spot on the lawn up front on the right side of the stage. No smothering crowds, no beer being spilled on us. Just people of all ages hanging out in lawn chairs waiting for the fun to begin.

After darkness fell and the opening band packed up, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s instruments were set up and the band began to mill around on our side of the stage beside the merch booth. They’ve changed in some ways over the years. Original bassist Tim Nielsen’s once long curly locks are now shorn to a close cut and greying, Kevn has put on a few pounds, and the guitarist and drummer roles have changed since I last saw the band. Buren Fowler has passed away and his blistering Les Paul is now replaced by that of Laur Joamets, formerly of Sturgill Simpson’s band. The drum stool has been filled by Dave Johnson for the last 20 years. When the four of them took the stage at 8:00, it didn’t take long to see that though the members had grown older and part of the lineup had changed, this was still the same band I knew and loved. They opened with a more recent, laid back tune, but in the second song they kicked into “Fly Me Courageous” and the place erupted.

I had missed the feel of the guitar and drums through the PA. I asked Molly if she could feel it.

“Yes”, she said with a twinkle in her eye, “I really like it”.

The band played a short 12 song set, respectful of the small-town hours. The old songs filled the warm, spring air with a wash of nostalgia. Wild Dog Moon, Another Scarlet Butterfly, Let’s Go Dancing, and Can’t Promise You the World where sprinkled among more recent songs like Live the Love Beautiful and Kevn’s solo work, including a spoken word piece called Never the Twain Shall Meet, about his ancestors’ experiences on the Mississippi River. Peacemaker was dedicated to Jimmy Carter who had recently chosen to return home to Plains to live out his life at home with Hospice Care. When the opening notes of Straight to Hell rang out, Molly and I laughed as we watched middle-aged men and women rush the stage to sway together and lift red solo cups into the air, singing along with each chorus. Kevn strapped on his red Mosrite electric guitar at the end of the song and I turned to Molly.

 “Hang on”, I said, “I have a feeling this is gonna be a good one.” And then the pines shook with the opening chords of Honeysuckle Blue. The early blooming pink azaleas throbbed with each kick of the drum. It was glorious.

 It had been a long time. I had not realized how much I missed it. This small, free concert at my small town’s BBQ festival, featuring a band whose music has been part of the fabric of my life since 1986 was fitting in many ways. The music and venue fit the sense of space here in the rural south. It brought everything together. Thinking back to that November night at the Fox Theatre in 1990, I never dreamed that the next time I would see Drivin N’ Cryin, my 17-year old daughter would be by my side.

Sure one of the best things about getting old is that some of your favorite old bands are now playing your small town, but even better than that, is experiencing the show with your kid and seeing in her eyes that she gets it too.

As Kevn sang “Feel the southern breezes and the southern wind…”, I could actually feel it. The cool evening breeze. On it, rode the guitar notes and the words, heard so many times down through the years. They swirled back and forth until time merged together. Here, in this opening under the pines, it all became a single, splendid moment. Like capturing time itself. Like catching the wind.

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