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Q&A: Will Kimbrough Brought It All Back Home, Made The Most of ‘Spring Break’

If you love, cherish and follow Nashville’s songwriting and Americana scenes, every now and then, you probably find yourself pausing, perhaps while cooking or crossing the street, and asking yourself: I wonder what Will Kimbrough is up to? And friends, it’s our job to find that out and report to you that the answer is - just about everything. 

The veteran artist, sideman and producer has a new podcast and a Patreon to support it. The album he produced last year on roots/blues queen Shemekia Copeland has been nominated for multiple Blues Music Awards and become part of the national conversation with its hard-hitting title and message: Uncivil War. Kimbrough also wrote a substantial part of Jimmy Buffet’s 2020 album, continuing a longstanding behind-the-scenes collaboration. He’s been traveling a bit, not to gigs, but to do small group gatherings with the invaluable Songwriting With Soldiers program. And late last year he released Spring Break, the first ever full-length solo acoustic studio album of his career and an indication that even when things are grim and unrecognizable in the outside world, Kimbrough’s creative circuits remain switched on.

Just before the new year dawned, we had the following conversation which has been edited for length and clarity.

Hi Will. We haven’t caught up on how your Covid year began. I gather you were really, really far from home.

I think it started down in Australia when my wife and I were deciding to head home, because all my gigs had been canceled. It was Friday, the 13th of March, 2020. My phone blew up. Everything was canceled in Australia for the rest of the trip. Everything was canceled in the United States. Everything was canceled in Europe for the summer. So, we sat in the Sydney Airport and talked for a minute. And then we got a text from my youngest daughter saying, you know, they're telling us not to go back to school from Spring Break. And that's where it started. And then as the spring developed, and I made this record, I thought, well, I'm just gonna call it Spring Break. You know, what I did on my Spring Break.

How was your head space then? Your ability to work?

I have to say, I was super connected to the creative process. That's what I do. I write about what I know and what's happening in front of me and inside my heart and head. And that's what was happening, so I wrote about it. I have a dear friend Rich McCulley who lives in El Paso. The song “All Fall Down” was something he just said. He said, ‘Something in the air don't feel right. Something doesn't feel like it should.’ And then we started our song over FaceTime. And so, I was super clued into it. I had to reinvent myself just like so many people, especially self-employed people. And yes, I came home. I started recording.

  Have you ever done a project in such a secluded way before? And to confirm, have you made a solo acoustic album?

I made a live solo acoustic record, and so that was with an audience in a studio out in San Francisco. And I did an EP back in about 2007 that was mostly recorded at home, but it had a few outtakes that were from a record called Americanitis. And so there was some band songs and then some solo acoustic. But it was around that time I started just recording more at home, even when I just had a laptop and two microphones. I mean I've always had a four-track cassette and then a reel to reel that my band owned. And I've always liked to record, and I've never wanted to own a commercial studio. I produce a lot of records, and when a client has asked me to work in my studio, I usually say come in. It smells like mildew and there's stuff all over the floor!

And this was a homey project in other ways, right?

The cover illustration was done by my oldest daughter, Emma. And the photography was done by my younger daughter Sadie. I recorded and mixed it at home. It was mastered down the road by Jim DeMain at Yes Master. The lacquers for vinyl were cut at Welcome to 1979. So, I really tried to make it like a home kind of local thing.

You're a record producer and musician, and you love all the instruments. What has been your philosophy about solo acoustic songwriter albums?

I love Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. I love Richard Thompson's Small Town Romance record. I love the Vanguard records of the mid 60s, like Mississippi John Hurt’s Today! And also I'd say, Snooks Eaglin’s New Orleans Street Singer is one of the greatest. Before he became sort of an electric blues guy, he was a blind street singer in the 50s, and it's amazing. And the challenge would be, I've played solo acoustic so much. Most of what I've done in my touring career in the past 20 years is tour solo. And even when I played with Rodney (Crowell) for seven straight years, you know, 2000 to 2007, I was on tour as a solo acoustic artist at least 100 days a year. So for me, it's actually quite a second home. I mean, I love a band situation and playing electric guitar and playing with other people. But I've learned to play by myself. And I love it.

It’s been quite the indie journey for you hasn’t it?

I have good people that that work with me and for me, but I've never had that great home of a publisher, you know, or a label with somebody who would introduce you to the right, empathetic people who might understand what you do. But then again, I've been able to be introduced to Todd Snider, and through Todd to Jimmy Buffett. And then through the fact that the sound man and tour manager for Todd went to work for – and introduced me to- Rodney Crowell. And then Emmylou (Harris). So I've been lucky, you know, in that way. But I think that, you know, having your big breaks happen sort of after the music industry kind of shrunk down means that you're probably going to be working on your own. And the good news is for me, I learned how to work on my own. Back at the beginning, Will and the Bushmen put out a couple of records before we even moved here in the mid to late 80s. So we had already done the indie thing.

You must feel great about the mix and being your own boss.

Absolutely. You know, one of the things that I've learned, and this is really my mantra. Nielsen Hubbard and I - he's younger than me, but we both share a long career that has wound up happier than the way it started - we've kind of come full circle back around to like: This is what I love to do. I love to write. I love to perform. I love to create. I love to play on other people's records. I love to help them produce their records. I like to just be the creative person. And so, we decided one day over at his studio in East Nashville that the only true reward for a creative life is that you get to live a creative life. Getting paid is a necessity. You got to make a living. But any expectations for anything different from that - I created today, therefore, down the line, I'm gonna get this…No. What you're gonna get down the line is you're going to have a chance at having a happy life and turning the joy and the tragedy and the sadness and the depression and the excitement into something that you've created. And that has led me to Songwriting With Soldiers for one thing and my Patreon and being able to make records. It's interesting to have Jimmy Buffett cuts, Shemekia Copeland cuts and a (reunited punk band) Devine Horseman cut in one year. (I) just carry on and feel like finally, my decisions are not made out of fear. They're made out of the eagerness to share something.

Find Will Kimbrough’s Patreon with its members-only podcast here.

Find the recent WMOT/NPR Words And Music with Will Kimbrough and Jessie Scott here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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