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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

A Little Folk, A Little Rock

Kevn Kinney’s homecoming

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Kevn Kinney answers his cell phone on day two of the new year from inside an Atlanta studio, where he is mixing Preapproved, his first solo album since 2002. The Milwaukee expatriate looks forward to a busy year. Aside from Preapproved, a solo disc recorded in Holland, 2008 will also see the release of a pair of albums by his band, Drivin’ N Cryin’, one studio and the other live. The Dutch album could have been out a year ago if Kinney hadn’t rerecorded the vocals. “I had a cyst in my throat at the time that has since been removed,” he explains. “My singing sounded like an old bluesman, which is kinda cool on some things, but not on others.”

Thirty years ago Kinney and I were among the five kids in our high school of more than 2,000 students who embraced punk rock. Finding each other in study hall was not difficult. Pooling together our spare change, Kinney and I started the photocopied punk fanzine that became the Express half of the Shepherd Express. Kinney, however, realized that he’d rather play music than write about it. He formed one of Milwaukee’s second-generation punk rock bands, the Prosecutors, before blowing town for good at the end of 1982.

“I used to look at the colored weather map in USA Today. The South was always orange. I decided I was moving out of the blue,” Kinney says about Midwestern winters. Going to Atlanta provided him with more than warmer weather. “I went there to work construction.

I could make $6.50 an hour in Atlanta—twice what I was earning in Milwaukee.” But even while helping build a sewerage plant, the call to music never stopped. Whenever his friends from Milwaukee, the hardcore band Die Kreuzen, played Atlanta, they tapped Kinney as a solo opening act. By 1985 he teamed up with the rhythm section from the popular Atlanta band the Night Porters and formed Drivin’ N Cryin’. Before long they were signed to a major label.

Although Drivin’ N Cryin’ has toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band always steered a middle course between the region’s ’70s rock acts and ’80s alternative bands. “We’re the Cheap Trick of the South,” Kinney says. “We’re pop and hard rock.”

Now a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., Kinney has kept one foot in rock and the other in folk. “They’re just different ways of writing songs,” he explains. “The folk songs I write sitting on my couch. Once you’re playing at high volume with a drummer and a bassist, you do what you have to do. Different kinds of songs come out.

The folk songs? You need a story and you can be more subtle. In rock you need to be more concise—you say it in the chorus.” For his solo Milwaukee show, Kinney plans to play a few songs from each album and a few new ones. “I’ll tell stories and take requests,” he says. “I never have a set list. I just go out there and feel it out.”

Kevn Kinney plays Shank Hall on Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. Mike Benign of Blue in the Face opens the show.