If A Good Country Mile is your introduction to the music of Kevn Kinney, then nothing more needs to be said. Welcome – you’re going to love this album.
If you’re a longtime fan of Kinney and his band Drivin’ N Cryin’, then it may be worth doling out a word of caution: a quick read of the song titles on A Good Country Mile will reveal tunes you might have heard in one form or another previously (including the title track), but here’s the deal: you’ve never heard them like this. Trust me.
Make no mistake about it – this is a Kevn Kinney album, for sure: as real as real gets, mixed with good storytelling, seasoned with dollops of rock ‘n’ roll grit and dues paid, served with a side order of smarts, and all wrapped up in a well-worn flannel shirt. What skews the setting in the best of ways is the presence of drummer/producer/musical genius Anton Fier.
Kinney and Fier share a history that’s over 20 years old – dating back to Fier’s production work on Drivin’ N Cryin’s Whisper Tames The Lion album in 1987. After traveling separate musical paths for a couple of decades, the two reconnected when Kinney moved to New York City. A 75-week club residency by the pair drew many players into their world, both on stage and in off-hour jam sessions. From that period was born the core band for A Good Country Mile : Kinney, Fier, bassist Andy Hess, and guitarist Tony Scherr – supported by a revolving cast of talent from the NY music scene. The resulting music is raw and lovely and real as hell.
As mentioned, there are reworked Kinney/DNC numbers: “Got To Move On (Again)” is in your face like a vintage Yardbirds rave-up, complete with brainpan-rupturing blues harp blowing by Kinney. “Wild Dog Moon Pt. 2” is a big, fat guitar sandwich with a vocal that can’t help but make you think of Tom Petty. And “In The Land Of Things (That Used To Be)” – a longtime Kinney tune that’s never seen the light of day officially – would be lovely all on its own; Eleanor Masterson’s violin makes it absolutely shimmer.
There are covers of other folks’ tunes: Jason Isbell’s “Never Gonna Change” brings the album in with wailing harp/wailing guitars/wailing emotion. Scherr and Jim Campilongo trade off solos along the way – two different approaches to perfect raggedy-ass twang and crunch. And by the same token, “Southwestern State” (a Seven Mary Three tune) is the perfect outro: a delicate slow waltz down the road featuring Jon Cowherd’s gentle piano.
“Set In Stone” is textbook country soul; “Challenge” starts off sounding like an unplugged Soundgarden and ends up in a slide guitar-driven glide; and “Hurricane” features some more great harp work by Kinney.
The album’s two masterpieces are on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum: “A Good Country Mile” is offered up in a simple setting with Kinney’s vocal and acoustic guitar backed by the lightest of support from Hess, Scherr, and Fier (who can do more with a cymbal sizzle than many could do with a full arsenal of percussion at their disposal). Midway through, all hands join together to support Scherr’s slide guitar – a bit of Duane Allman’s tone; a bit of Sonny Landreth’s phrasing; a whole lot of loveliness. One final verse – and the music drops away completely for a moment before the final chorus, making room for the feelings of the narration. When the full band reenters, it’s with a sound big and full, but Kinney delivers the punch line – “I was just outside of heaven/About a good country mile” – without resorting to an upper-register bellow … and sounds all the more powerful because of it.
And then there’s “Bird”.
On Kinney’s 1994 solo effort Down Out Law, “Bird” was stripped and stark, Nebraska -style. Here, the song is dense with layers of sound, yet Fier’s production allows a place for everything. Big drums; swooping bass; bold piano; and guitars upon guitars: electrics and acoustics chunking out rhythms and fills … a lovely electric 12-string doling out a lush, cascading hook … and Scherr’s slide weaving through it all, his tone liquid and thick – more horn-like than guitar.
Sing, bird, sing
Won’t you sing to me
Kinney’s lyrics are bone-simple, yet sound majestic against the wall of sound wrapped around him. A couple verses and choruses; then at about the 3:25 mark, the song simply launches into a soaring jam, as much jazz as it is rock and roll. It’s easy to imagine Scherr with eyes shut tight, brow furrowed, and cheeks ballooned – but that’s not a sax he’s blowing the guts out of, channeling Coltrane in a wild-assed modal frenzy; it’s a Gibson and he somehow pulls intricately-articulated phrases out of his slide like a reed-splitting madman while Fier and Hess lay down a foundation of splendid rumble, thrash, and thump. A few short steps and the band reaches a junction; a collective breath is drawn …
And off they go into the Land Of Big Rhythm Chords, a blend of acoustic and clean electric guitars (Kinney, Campilongo, and Aaron Lee Tasjan) in full Pete Townsend-like glory: windmilling, power chugging, hammering on and pulling off suspensions to build the tension (hand in hand with bass/drums/piano) until – WHAM! WHAM! – the entire band lands hard in unison as a high-pitched wail is let loose. For a moment you think it’s a human voice, but no – it’s the joyful noise of Scherr’s slide: milky, hot, and sweet. From there the sound layers exchange places like a constantly-shifting psychedelic phyllo pastry, with the bass and drums remaining the constant beneath it all. One final verse and chorus, churning to the tune’s climactic final seconds, Scherr totally gone into mind-blown jazzbo mode. Fier leans into an extended roll …
Kinney calls out in the midst of the beautiful chaos. The whole band – the whole damn band – bellows back at him and Fier unleashes another flurry …
Kinney cries out, bent into the Palominos’ sonic gale. Fier challenges him again and just as he reaches the last thump of his roll –
And now you know what Kinney has known all along: as big and mighty as this beast is, he has the reins – and all roars/snarls/wumps/breaths/pulses are one as he brings the song to a halt with a final –
A chord lingers in the air, gently floating to the ground; then silence, except for your own heartbeat.
It’s nothing short of brilliant.
It’s not too early to start this year’s “Best Of” list. I can tell you with complete and utter confidence that you’ll still be spinning A Good Country Mile in regular rotation come New Year’s Eve. The sum of these parts is scary good.