Southern rock road warriors Drivin N Cryin rose to fame in the late '80s, when Atlanta's diligent dive bar heroes got their due on MTV. Among the legions of kids watching the channel's long-running alt-rock show 120 Minutes when Drivin N Cryin's "Honeysuckle Blue" aired was future Americana star Aaron Lee Tasjan. As fate would have it, Tasjan (a longtime fan of the band) would go on to befriend the band (currently made up of Kevn Kinney, Tim Nielsen, Dave V. Johnson and Laur Joamets) and produce their stellar new album Live the Love Beautiful (released on June 21).
Wide Open Country caught up with Tasjan to talk about producing Live the Love Beautiful, the enduring influence of Drivin N Cryin and what happens when a longtime fan becomes a friend.
On what Drivin N Cryin means to him:
What Drivin N Cryin is an example of is that the work will never fail you. If you do the work of being a good musician, a good songwriter, a good band with a good live show, which they've done -- they've been a band for 34 years. If you make your success...the completion of that work that it takes to just be a band on a really high level, I think the end result of that is you can be a band for 34 years and be a band that people still take seriously and is relevant and has an audience. How many people -- how many singers or songwriters can really say that? Drivin N Cryin has been in an elite position in my opinion.
I find that incredibly inspiring, because when we get so caught up in whether we're winning this Americana award or if there was only a hundred people at our show last night or whatever it is, it's easy to get in your own mind and kind of psych yourself out about it. What I love about Drivin N Cryin is that they've just made it about 'We're just gonna write a good song and then record a good record and go out and play a good show.'
On friendship with Drivin N Cryin's Kevn Kinney:
When I graduated from high school I moved to New York and I actually met Kevn (Kinney) in New York. He was living in Brooklyn at the time. We just met there and he didn't realize that I was a huge fan of his and I was trying not to let him know that (laughs). He was doing a little acoustic gig where I met him and he realized I played guitar. He asked if I would sit in with him and I said 'sure.' I was playing his songs because I knew them note for note and I don't think he realized that I was a fan. I think he just thought I was some kind of guitar genius, like I could figure all his songs out on the spot.
We formed a fast friendship based on that night. We ended up going to Holland together. I played a bunch of guitar on Kevn's solo band, Sun Tangled Angel Revival, and just a bunch of Kevn Kinney shows as well. A lot of our relationship got formed playing Kevn's music together. Riding in a van with that dude is like riding in a van with the patron saint of rock and roll traveling. He knows every gas station, every little nuance of travel, all the best thrift stores. He calls Sunday, every Sunday in the van when you're out with Drivin N Cryin is called KK Fun Day, which stands for Kevn Kinney Fun Day...Traveling with him is a gift, man. Kevn is really a gift as a human being besides being a great songwriter, obviously.
On producing 'Live the Love Beautiful':
I just really tried to create a record to me that sounded what it was like to go see Drivin N Cryin live. I think that something very special happens with that band in a live setting. It's kind of where it all comes together. They have all these different types of records and songs that they can do, but when you see them live you see them cherrypicking all these different things from their different records and going through all these different styles and genres -- going from huge arena rock anthems to these very beautiful, heartfelt, acoustic, incredible folk ballads and everything in between that. I wanted to make a record with them that had that kind of feel to it. It's almost more like a mixtape than an album really because Drivin N Cryin is steering you through what they do on this record. My goal became to really just capture that in the studio. Every song became an album unto itself.
On the album's balance of struggle and positivity:
ALT: [Kevn's] a guy who has lived through some really dark and tough things. If a Kevn Kinney biography came out that was really honest, I think people would be thinking 'Man, how did this guy survive all this stuff?' He's really a survivor. But the thing that I love so much about Kevn Kinney is that those moments for him -- when he talks about them if he ever does -- which is pretty rare -- he talks about them as a student and with a sense of humor. These things -- if they happened in someone else's life, maybe somebody would really be devastated. For Kevn, they almost seem to be spiritual transformations, where he ends up in this more understanding, more loving place as a result of having been through them. I know he feels that way about music.
I asked [Kevn] one time if he liked Townes Van Zandt and he goes 'Man, I really appreciate Townes Van Zandt, but it's a little sad for me.' He said 'music for me has always been about joy and it's been a release from the difficult parts of life.' I think that really translated on this record because Kevn, for the first, time chose to sing about some things that are really personal for him. He's usually a very mysterious, Tom Petty-type lyricist where you don't know exactly what the song is about but it has meaning for you. That's what's important. On this record, Kevn really got specific about some things lyrically that have been happening in his own life and that's the first time I've heard him do that on a record and I've listened to pretty much everything he's ever done (laughs)...He really is that guy who can talk about heavy stuff but it somehow makes you feel better because he's coming at it from such a place of love and acceptance and peace.
This interview has been edited for clarity.