Will Kimbrough: The Hardest Working Man in Nashville
The Americana mainstay and in-demand session guitarist returns to the solo life with I Like It Down Here
A lot of time passes between new solo albums from Americana artist Will Kimbrough; the brand new I Like It Down Here is his ninth solo record since 2000 and his first new solo work since 2014’s Sideshow Love.
It’s not that Will’s been slacking off – in the three years between these albums, Kimbrough also released a collection of duets with singer Brigitte DeMeyer (2017’s Mockingbird Soul) as well as the third album by the band Daddy that he formed with Nashville singer/songwriter Tommy Womack (2018’s Let’s Do This). Prior to both of those albums came the second studio LP from Kimbrough’s other band, the Alabama Gulf Coast supergroup Willie Sugarcapps, formed with singer/songwriter Grayson Capps (2016’s Paradise Right Here).
The truth, really, is that the former Americana Music Association “Instrumentalist of the Year” is usually making and/or performing music all the time. Kimbrough’s prolific musical talents have made the guitarist Nashville’s “go-to” guy in the studio, where he’s played on albums by artists as diverse as Billy Joe Shaver, Chely Wright, Hayes Carll and Amy Rigby, among many others. Kimbrough has been an integral part of the touring bands of artists like Rodney Crowell, Todd Snider and Emmylou Harris, and he’s highly regarded as a songwriter with artists like Snider, Jimmy Buffet, Little Feat and Jack Ingram recording his songs. Kimbrough is also an in-demand producer, most recently helming the acclaimed 2018 release America’s Child by blues singer Shemekia Copeland, which has been nominated for two Blues Music Awards by The Blues Foundation.
With this impressive workload, it’s a wonder that Kimbrough even has time to record a new solo album. It’s been like this since Will moved from Mobile, Alabama to Nashville better than three decades ago to pursue a career in music. What first got him interested in playing music? “Great radio in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama,” Will says in an email interview with Rock and Roll Globe, citing “early Springsteen, classic rock (Beatles, Stones, Who, Hendrix, Allmans)” and, later, “the Clash, XTC, Costello, Velvets” as musical influences. Kimbrough says that he was a “typical late ‘70s/early ‘80s kid who got exposed to great rock ‘n’ roll and got to play in bands when kids were real excited about seeing bands.”
Kimbrough first came to prominence with the critically-acclaimed power-pop band Will & the Bushmen, whose late ‘80s albums like Gawk and Blunderbuss have become prized additions to many collections. He formed the Bis-Quits in the early ‘90s with friends Tommy Meyer, Tommy Womack, and Mike Grimes, the band releasing a single self-titled album in 1993 for John Prine’s Oh Boy Records label. As I wrote a few years ago for All Music Guide, “on the strength of his vastly underrated guitar skills, Kimbrough embarked on a career as an in-demand session player and touring musician,” subsequently recording his first solo album, “a collection of shimmering pop-flavored rock titled This,” in 2000.
Perhaps influenced by folks like Todd Snider and Rodney Crowell that he’s played with through the years, Kimbrough’s Beatle-esque songwriting has gradually grown more expansive, his music imbued with, and deeply-rooted in classic rock ‘n’ roll, old-school country, and traditional blues and folk music. All of this is displayed on Kimbrough’s I Like It Down Here, an album so damned good that it deserves a wider audience via major label release; however, it’s precisely because the crowd-funded album was created by the artist without label interference is why it works so well. How did he like going the crowd-funding route for the new album? “Great experience,” he says. “In a music biz-free world, the artist collaborates with top-notch fans.” Crowd-funding has its “flip side” as well, in “lots of extra work for already overworked artist.”
Kimbrough leads a talented trio that includes bassist Chris Donohue and drummer Bryan Owings on I Like It Down Here, the album kicking off with the country-flavored “Hey Trouble.” A love-gone-wrong song that would have fit nicely on radio 40 years ago, it’s probably too smart these days for its own good, the lyrics evincing a blues influence while one single phrase – “I’m a long black Lincoln on a lost highway, headed nowhere driving blind” – could serve as the narrative storyline of the next Jim Jarmusch film.
The title track is a vivid morality play with a soulful groove, Kimbrough’s filigree fretwork, and brilliant lyrics that reference Captain Beefheart and would make Tom Waits turn green with envy. Where does a family man such as Kimbrough find inspiration for a street-smart song such as “I Like It Down Here”? “The street,” he says, adding “Life. Language.” Kimbrough is also a fine, if underrated political lyricist in a John Lennon vein, and his socially-conscious songwriting efforts date back, at least, to his 2006 album Americanitis.
Whereas he usually colors even his most pointed lyrics with some humor, the stark “Alabama (For Michael Donald)” – about the 1981 lynching of a young African-American man by the Klan in Alabama – is a somber and serious song, Kimbrough’s performance simply devastating. How difficult is it to write a song like “Alabama (For Michael Donald),” putting himself in character as he did in the lyrics? “It was disturbingly easy,” he remembers, “Laurence Leamer’s excellent book, The Lynching, was my guide” in crafting the song.
Similar in vibe to much of Springsteen’s Nebraska album, Will’s plaintive vocals are accompanied by those of the great blueswoman Shemekia Copeland and some high lonesome guitar picking. Kimbrough produced Copeland’s aforementioned America’s Child album – how did he get that gig? “I played on her previous record,” he says (2015’s Outskirts of Love). “When producer Oliver Wood was too busy to do this one, he suggested me.” How did he get her to sing on I Like It Down Here?” “I asked her to sing,” he says. “She did from the road, and I appreciate her efforts. Her voice, her spirit – she’s a great human being.”
Kimbrough’s “Buddha Blues” is a similarly folk-based song, at least lyrically, with scorching blues-rock moments providing light and energy to the quieter sections, which tell the tale of a death row inmate transcending his imprisonment to find freedom from his anger and pain. By way of contrast, “I’m Not Running Away” is a melodic, infectious pop-country tune with solid lyrics and a soundtrack graced by the twangy pedal steel playing of Sugarcane Jane’s Anthony Crawford and his wife Savana Lee’s sweet backing vocals, which propel the song above the typical Music Row fare. In a just and perfect world, “I’m Not Running Away” would be blasting from car radios from sea to shining sea.
The South is frequently used as a lyrical device in Kimbrough’s songs, and the story-song “When I Get To Memphis” manages to reference a wide swatch of the region, from the Bluff City to New Orleans, the geographical distinctions disguising a clever love song fueled by Kimbrough’s earnest lyrics and gorgeous guitar playing, which displays more than a few Cajun overtones. Kimbrough’s “It’s A Sin” is a haunting waltz driven by the singer’s restrained vocals and Jim Hoke’s inspired saxophone playing, the song’s lyrics providing another literary treat with its Harper Lee references (“Daddy says it’s a sin to kill mockingbirds,” “It’s an old town, a tired old town”) in a tale of hardscrabble life in a small Alabama town. What is it about the South as a place that makes it such a great literary device for songwriters on songs like “When I Get To Memphis” and “It’s A Sin”? “Good vs Evil,” says Kimbrough. “Shadows and Light. Love and Hate. The best and the worst. Always rolled in to one. Always.”
“Anything Helps” is another street smart story-song worthy of Springsteen, written from the perspective of a homeless protagonist who “took a swing at life and missed” but perseveres nonetheless, eschewing pity but not too proud to accept the kindness of strangers. It’s another finely crafted song, with subtle transcendent guitarplay and Kimbrough’s heartfelt vocals. The album closes with the tender, poetic love song “Star,” co-written with the talented former Nashville songwriter Jeff Finlin. The song’s brilliant albeit fragile imagery (“I think I saw your star as I lay my head to rest”) is supported by Kimbrough’s fractured, emotional vocals and lovely six-string embellishment. It’s a fitting way to finish up the album that leaves the listener wanting more.
What’s next for the “hardest working man in Nashville”? “Touring,” he says. “Sessions. Writing. [A] Red Dirt Boys Record, at some point.” Whatever project Will Kimbrough is involved in, one thing is certain – it’s gonna be great!
Find out more about Will Kimbrough at www.willkimbrough.com
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