On The String: The Musical Multiverse Of Will Kimbrough

May 9, 2019

Will Kimbrough had played Nashville plenty of times by the time he moved here in the winter of 1988. It was a heady time, he remembers. Country and punk and pop buzzed in the underground of a superficially sleepy Music City. His first gig as a new resident was opening the Exit/In album release party for Bill Lloyd's power pop debut Feeling The Elephant. At the same time, Lloyd and his duo partner Radney Foster were killing it on the country charts with their debut single "Crazy Over You."

That means Kimbrough has been here over 30 years, and in that time he's distinguished himself in about every way a creative musician can. In recent years he's been a guitar playing, supple-singing sideman for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.  He's in three bands - Daddy with Tommy Womack, Willie Sugarcapps with Grasyon Capps and the Red Dirt Boys, a spinoff of his ensemble that supports Emmylou. As a sideman, Kimbrough has toured or recorded with Todd Snider, John Prine, Kim Richey and Mark Knopfler to name a few. He's become a valued writing source and partner for Jimmy Buffet. And he's stepped into producing with great results so far for Shemekia Copeland (the album America's Child is up for Album of the Year at this week's Blues Music Awards in Memphis), plus Doug Seegers, Bonnie Bishop and more.

But let's not forget that Kimbrough started as a songwriting band leader and that's where his focus is these days. The latest, his sixth solo disc, is I Like It Down Here, a collection of ruminations on Southern themes and the staple of how love intersects with life. "I'm Not Running Away" leans on a Jackson Browne, wide-horizon soundscape to reassure his family that while he's frequently gone, he's always coming back. The title track is a witty salute to the happily dissolute, to folks a lot less driven than Mr. Kimbrough himself, all set to a slinky humid beat.  "Alabama (for Michael Donald)" is a sobering reminiscence of the fact that the last known lynching in the US took place in his home town, to a kid at his school, when he was 17 years old in Mobile, AL. It makes the political personal with a grace and lyricism that recalls Kevin Gordon's "Colfax."

Kimbrough talks about all of that in the new episode of The String (No. 89). In addition, he recalls two early venues that ushered him to a life in music:

"One was a garage that our neighbor allowed us and helped us to convert into a practice room. His son played bass in our band. So we practiced every night in that place. There were two places you could play in Mobile, and they were skating rinks. They would hire a band on Saturday night and they would pay us $120. So my first gig was December, 1976 and I was twelve and a half, and we played Skate World while girls with Farah Fawcett hairdos and braces skated around with those big combs hanging out of their back pockets."

And he addresses the balance between working for himself and for others, which is more fraught for him than for many other musicians:

"I am trying to concentrate on being a solo artist and playing under my own name as much as I can (now). The reason I do so many collaborations is partly because I'm able to flit around from style to style. But the thing is that it's about friendships and relationships. And when you live the life I've lived...if I don't make a project with my friends, I might not see them."

UPDATE: Shemekia Copeland's America's Child, produced by Will Kimbrough, was named Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards on May 10. 

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