Mystery Road, the third album by Georgia rockers Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, found Kevn Kinney and company continuing the band’s unintentional, unconventional, out-of-sync major label career. Signed on the basis of the band’s fantastic, gritty rock debut album, Scarred But Smarter, its major label debut album, Whisper Tames The Lion, shocked both fans and label, as it was a quiet, folk-minded record that didn’t sound much like the band’s intense, gritty live show. So when the band began working on their third album, they decided to call on their friend, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, to produce. It was an inspired choice; not only were they contemporaries in the Georgia scene, but they were enjoying massive success with their album, Green, and were on the cusp of international stardom. Buck and holed up and recorded over a dozen songs, yet the label balked, opting instead to use Scott McPherson. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter who produced, because Mystery Road turned out to be a fantastic album irrespective of its producer, for when you compare the Buck demos with the finished product, the sound really doesn’t change that much. (The demos mainly feature Mystery Road versions, though “MacDougal Street” and “Not Afraid To Die” would appear on Kinney’s solo album MacDougal Street, while “1988” would appear on Smoke, and, oddly enough, “Mystery Road” would remain unreleased until now.)
Mystery Road is the sound of a band that’s blending traditional Southern Rock with a bit of folk-rock and country that results in a unique stylistic amalgam that doesn’t really sound like anything before it. The album opens up with the haunting, Appalaccian-inspired “Ain’t It Strange,” replete with fiddle and banjo breakdown, and then is immediately followed by “Toy Never Played With,” a balls-out Southern rock number. “Honeysuckle Blue,” a gorgeous Southern rock ballad that sounded like it should have been a big hit, is then followed by “With The People,” a dark R.E.M.-style number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Out Of Time. But the most endearing song is the album’s closing anthem, the barroom rock sing-along “Straight To Hell,” a number that has not lost its edge and sounds damn good when they play it live and sounds even better when you’re half-lit. And that’s the delightful thing about Mystery Road—when you first listen to it, trying to pin down the band can prove to be a mystery, and yet the beauty and the quality of the music never suffers from what could easily be seen as an identity crisis.
Yet in true Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ style, the band’s next album would be another incredible sonic shift; Fly Me Courageous would be a hard rock album with a title song that would become a fluke hit that tied into the patriotism around the first Gulf War, and the band would double-down on this style for their next album, the heavy metal-minded Smoke. The tumult of this era nearly destroyed Kevn Kinney, but he would pull out of his self-destructive spiral, and the band is still active today, still playing out, and still releasing music. (We highly recommend the superb documentary Scarred But Smarter to learn about the full history of the band and the inspirational tale of perseverance.)
Mystery Road has long been an obscure gem, beloved by those who knew of its existence. This deluxe reissue offers up a chance for rediscovery, and it is encouraging to know that the album’s lost none of its potency. Here’s hoping that the rest of the band’s superb back catalog gets the reissue treatment, as Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ is a band deserving of revival.
Mystery Road is available now via UMe.
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