Plenty of bands have but one good album in them. In the old days – when record companies were still a thing – it went like this: band forms, usually around the songwriting skills of one or more member. Band gigs hard in obscurity. Band develops local following. Band gets noticed. Band gets signed. Band records album full of songs they’ve been honing to a sharp point for ages. Band releases album, tours heavily (perhaps as opening act) to promote album. Album sells, so band is rushed back into studio to record the followup.
If you follow rock music at all, you can probably write the next few sentences. There’s a reason that phrases like “the difficult second album” and “sophomore slump” exist. As the saying goes, you have your whole like to write the songs for your first album, and then ten months to write the songs for the second one.
Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin somehow managed to avoid that particular pitfall. After releasing their debut – 1986′s Scarred but Smarter, a title that would presciently sum up their career over the ensuing thirty years – they followed up with Whisper Tames the Lion, an equally satisfying album.
Of course things began to go wrong with their third album. By their fifth, they had made some fundamental changes in their style, and for their trouble gained their highest profile to date. But while from an objective point of view (or at least one that doesn’t figure in the band’s earlier material) the harder-rocking sound of Fly Me Courageous is an excellent album, it started the band down a path that they would find unsustainable. To say that they crashed and burned with the next album (1993′s Smoke) is an understatement.
That could have been the end of the band. And it almost was. But they got their shit together, came back more focused than ever, and resumed a career – on their own terms, for the first time in a long time – and continue today.
Sure, summed up like that, the Drivin N Cryin story reads a bit like a VH-1 Behind the Music. And it could be, if told in a manner adhering to that arc: fame, fall, redemption. But in his documentary on the band, Eric von Haessler goes deeper. Scarred But Smarter is a film-length rumination on the nature of fame, a meditation on what is important and why. It’s not overly philosophical in tone, but a mature undercurrent informs the film.
A parade of personalities better known than anyone in the band help tell the story: R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, guys from southern rock sensation Blackberry Smoke, David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker), renowned producer Anton Fier. And for those (like me) who grew up in Atlanta, many familiar faces and places show up in the film: Michelle Malone, notoriously prickly music critic/book store clerk David T. Lindsay (mentioned but not seen), The Nightporters (Tim Nielsen‘s pre-Drivin N Cryin band), Ty Pennington (a local Drivin’ N Cryin’ fan who’d later make it big as a TV personality), the famous 688 Club. Von Haessler eschews narration, letting the people involved tell the story. Ex-members explain on why they left (or were kicked out), and pretty much everyone takes an unflinching, no-holds-barred approach to recounting their stories. The director weaves it all together with a minimum of visual gimmickry.
There’s lots of music in Scarred But Smarter. And for those new to the band, the selections will help drive home a fundamental truth behind the band’s lack of (by conventional standards) success: they’re all over the place. As Kinney relates near the film’s end, it’s near impossible to pin Drivin N Cryin down stylistically. Folk? Rock? College/indie rock? Hard rock? Southern rock? Yes and no to each of those. One onscreen personality calls them a “punk band,” but that’s probably overreach. What they were and remain is very good, and very underrated. Their 2009 album The Great American Bubble Factor is a winner, and the series of EPs that followed it played to perhaps the band’s greatest strength: their skill in a wide variety of musical idioms.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the story of Kevn Kinney and his band mates, it’s one similar to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a kid (if you were lucky). Don’t follow the example of the kool kids (read: record company executives). Don’t get involved in dangerous drugs (read: dangerous drugs). Follow your muse, do what you love, and you’ll find success on your own terms. At its heart, that’s the positive message of Scarred But Smarter.
Asheville readers: Drivin N Cryin will play The Altamont on Saturday, March 7. See you there.