Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Conversation: Will Kimbrough On Jimmy Buffett And “Bubbles Up”

Last fall’s Americana Honors & Awards at the Ryman Auditorium opened with Rounder Records artist Logan Ledger singing “Come Monday” in honor of Jimmy Buffett, who had died of cancer a few weeks before, on Sept. 1. A decade ago, I wonder if the Americana community would have embraced Buffett - he of the “Margaritaville” lifestyle and a reported billionaire - as one of its own. But the good-time, maritime songwriter/star started his career writing country songs in Music City and pursued many crossovers and associations in Nashville and roots music circles over his 50-year career.

One such collaborator known fondly to our scene is Will Kimbrough, a long-time “honorary” member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band and a co-writer on a raft of Buffett albums going back almost 20 years.

“He's one of the most open minded and courageous artists I've ever worked with,” Kimbrough says in the interview presented here. “I finally learned that what he wanted me to do was 100% be myself, and not try to cater to him. And once I learned that, it got better. It taught me to just trust myself. What I have to bring to the table is obviously not always the right thing for the job. But what I bring, only I can bring exactly that. And that's what he wanted from me.”

The Buffett/Kimbrough connection took on new relevance and poignancy when their co-written song “Bubbles Up” became Buffett’s first posthumous single and a viral hit from his Nov. 3 album Equal Strain On All Parts. It’s a serene, wistful song of encouragement powered by an inspired metaphor - the advice scuba divers are given to follow their stream of bubbles to find the surface when they get disoriented. It arrived in September with an endorsement by none other than Paul McCartney, who wrote, “I told him that not only was the song great but the vocal was probably the best I’ve heard him sing ever.”

“(Jimmy) reached out to me in mid December 2022, right as we were winding down for the Christmas holiday, and said, Are you ready for some homework?” Kimbrough recalls. “I said sure, and so he sent me three song ideas in the form of these PDFs, which had some pictures and some handwriting. He must have done it on an iPad with a stylus, like a storyboard.” By this point, Kimbrough had come to understand, indirectly, that Buffett was in a multi-year battle with cancer, making the song concept of “Bubbles Up” especially moving. Kimbrough has had long experience working on songs about life’s challenges working in the Songwriting With Soldiers program. And perhaps even more critically, he’d grown over the years into a comfortable, empathic creative relationship with Buffett. He had a feeling for what was necessary.

Kimbrough first introduced himself to Buffett in a crowded backstage area at Tipitina’s in New Orleans after a mid 1990s Todd Snider show. Kimbrough was in the band. Buffett had signed Snider to his record label. But it was a passing glance meeting, enough of a hello for Will to note that he too had spent time growing up in Mobile, AL. But in 2003, Buffett’s niece called and invited Will to submit some songs for an upcoming album. That resulted in his first cut with the multi-platinum artist, his wonderful song “Piece Of Work.” Kimbrough got to travel to Key West to play on the session. Soon after, he backed up Buffett when he sang “Hey Good Lookin’” with some country stars on the CMA Awards, and thus began his 20 year stretch as an “honorary Coral Reefer," sitting in for stretches when one of the guitar players had to miss shows.

They’ve written more than twenty songs over the years, sometimes remotely trading notes and sometimes working together. It makes for some great stories and an affectionate memorial for Buffett, who was never categorized as Americana per se but whose writing and open hearted embrace of his audience left American music better than he found it.

Bubbles Up (Official Lyric Video)

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