“I feel current,” laughs multi-instrumentalist Mick Kinney as he sits on his front porch in picturesque Pine Lake, not too far from the acoustic haven of Decatur. “I just feel a little—um, obscure.”
For Mick Kinney, obscurity is a way of life. “When I play, people come up and say, ‘This is so great, where did this stuff come from?’ I say, ‘Well, you should check out the source.’” As a music historian for most of his five decades of life, the man has an encyclopedic knowledge of all genres past. His owlish glasses and authoritive, yet easygoing demeanor suggest a hip college professor more than the witty, full-time musician who has played just about every venue possible, from smoky rock and folk clubs to musty retirement homes.
The jovial Wisconsin native, who moved to Georgia in the mid-’70s, prefers the sound of brittle 10-inch records to the modern bustle of mp3s and iPods. Quoting George Bernard Shaw and Bevis and Butthead in equal doses, his quick wit and inner muse both revolve at 78 rpm.
“One day when I was about ten years old, my dad comes in and says, ‘One of the guys at work didn’t want this and said we could have it.’ He comes in with this wind-up Victrola… with a chest of records under it,” he explains excitedly, showing his visitor the prized possession. “It was stocked full of everything you can imagine. I loved it instantly, and I’d play along with it on the piano.”
His “typical Catholic family” had a total of five kids, including his younger brother Kevin, who later dropped the “i,” moved to Georgia in the early ’80s and rose to national fame as Kevn Kinney, leader of Atlanta-based Drivin N Cryin and a popular solo artist. But back in the day, the family home was hardly a rock and roll crib. “During the Beatles [craze], we had these buzz-cuts, like Buck Owens. When we finally did let our hair grow out, we had to have it with Vitalis, with a pompadour, side part. We looked like The Beaver and Wally. Our Dad didn’t approve of the whole rock thing.”
Fiddling with old-time music
But Dad liked the older music on the old 78s, so they found a common ground. Their mom had played piano before she abandoned it to raise the family. The instrument, banished to the basement, fascinated the budding musicians. “I saw [pianist] Eubie Blake on the Tonight Show, during the ragtime craze of ‘The Sting’ and all that, in the early ’70s. He said he’d written ‘The Charleston Rag’ when he was, like, 16. Well, I was 16 then, so I decided right then that I could write a rag too! And so I did.”
After hiking to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail in ’76, Kinney decided to stay and become a part of the scene. But instead of finding a place in the fledgling new wave and punk clubs, he focused his attention on bluegrass and old-time fiddle music. “I’d go to the fiddle conventions way north of here and learn from the old guys,” he says. “I learned the Georgia fiddle repertoire, and it’s very different from the standard; there’s a lot of Civil War and Reconstruction tunes in there. Pretty soon, [local pioneer] Fonzie Kennemer became my mentor of sorts.”
Stints in Irish and zydeco groups followed, and during a local buzz of excitement about his unique fiddle style, he moved on again. “I don’t like to settle,” he says, strumming a vintage Kay guitar, “I like to mix it up.” Finally in 2002, a collection of his songs appeared on his debut album, the eclectic Nothing Left To Chance. “I call it my greatest hits record,” he chuckles. “I figured I’d start with that and then move on to the other kinds of music I’ve been working on.”
After a lengthy collaboration with his professional and personal partner, the effusive cabaret artist Elise Witt and their friend, the late Stranger Malone, Kinney issued Rag Nouveau earlier this year. The collection of original ragtime compositions is “still coming out,” he explains. “Some of this stuff was written in the ’80s, so when you consider the gestation period, it’s still brand new—to me anyway.”
Truly “new” releases from Kinney include the tentatively titled Secret Songbook, a collection of decidedly retro performances, eerily channeling the Great American Songbook, and multiple appearances in the documentary DVD Who’s That Stranger?, a loving tribute to Malone by Peabody-winning filmmaker George King.
Time stamps mean nothing to Kinney, and he’s instilling that ideal in his sons, ages 23 and 13. “My youngest son is into Django Rhinehart and Stephani Grapelli and even Dick Dale. He thinks ‘OK, The Who was 40 years ago, and this kinda thing may be 20 years before that.’ He looks at it like I did, as music.”
For Mick Kinney, the past is present. “I’m totally happy with representing a time and place that maybe never existed. I try to be a time machine, a way to take people away from now.”
“If you haven’t heard it, it’s new,” he smiles as he sings part of an obscure ditty from decades ago. “It’s all 20th century mood music.”