Shanzing Films’ new documentary, Scarred But Smarter (Life N Times of Drivin N Cryin) is director Eric Von Haessler’s attempt to answer why his favorite band, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, never enjoyed more success. Featuring in depth interviews with lead singer/songwriter Kevin Kinney (known professionally as Kevn), partner in crime and bassist Tim Nielsen, other bandsmates and a slew of admirers including Peter Buck (R.E.M.), David Lowery (Cracker) and Darius Rucker (Hootie and The Blowfish), Von Haessler chronicles the band’s slow but steady climb out of bars, its big moment of fame with their 1990 release Fly Me Courageous, the trials and tribulations of life on the road, and where they are today.
The name, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, was chosen from one of Kevn’s many songs that reflected the duality of his music, i.e. heading in two different directions at once. Formed in 1985, the band would become one of Atlanta, Georgia’s top nightclub acts and signed with indie label 688 Records in 1986. Their first record, Scarred But Smarter, was a hit, affording them extensive touring opportunities and a contract with Island Records. In 1987, the band brought in new drummer Jeff Sullivan, who had been with Mr. Crowe’s Garden, later the Black Crowes. The Robinson brothers make brief appearances as clean shaven, close cropped youngsters.
The hard rocking Fly Me Courageous was the band’s most successful album, and the documentary gives insight into its unique appeal with Gulf War soldiers. Thanks to increased exposure, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ toured with Neil Young and Soul Asylum and continued to release a slew of albums in a variety of styles, including acoustic folk and retro ’60s psychedelia, however, none would compare in popularity with Fly Me Courageous. The band hopped labels from Island to Geffen. Internal feuding and substance abuse would plague the group, causing them to take time off from each other and the road. However, Kevn Kinney maintained a solo career, releasing albums featuring friends John Popper of Blues Traveler, Edwin McCain and members of Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band. Kinney continues to perform solo live concerts and has frequently collaborated with Peter Buck of R.E.M., who produced and performed on Kevn’s album, MacDougal Street Blues. The band was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
Memorable moments include Kinney’s thoughts on his career and his attempts to “clean up” for his family, though he drinks and smokes plenty throughout the film. Bassist Tim Nielsen also reflects on his attitude within the band, and acknowledges “being an asshole,” though his playing and personality brought much of the “drive” to the band.
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ were perhaps at their best as a live act, and the film contains fantastic footage, old and new, to prove it. The band is joined onstage by Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry of R.E.M., Steve Wynn and others. Entertaining extras feature Kevn playing an acoustic tune with New York City rocker Tom Clark.
Regarding Eric Von Haessler’s original inquiry, he gets his answer from Peter Buck toward the end of the film. “Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is a band that’s made a million great records, and they’re successful because they keep playing. They’re still there.”