It’s good to be Will Kimbrough (if you can stand the hours). He’s respected — make that revered— as a guitarist, as a producer, as a touring singer-songwriter, and here he is, in 2019, an Americana artist, finding some serious success and acclaim in the blues world.
“I’m tooting my horn,” Will says, “Shemekia Copeland’s album [which Will produced and played on] is up for Album of the Year and “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” [co-written by Will] is up for Song of the Year at the Blues Music Awards. I co-wrote the Song of the Year in Americana U.K. [“Southern Wind,” with Dean Owens], played on Blind Boys of Alabama sessions … That certainly sums up what I do, especially when combined with the release of the new solo record: artist, musician, producer, writer.”
Believe it or not, he’s not bragging. He really does all those things and his part time gig is as Emmylou Harris’s guitarist and harmony singer — before that he was Rodney Crowell’s, and before that, Todd Snider’s. And damned if he didn’t go ahead and carve himself a successful solo-album career during all this other stuff that he was doing. With seven or eight or nine solo records and multiple releases as a member of Willie Sugarcapps and Daddy, Will’s career continues to grow. It is the little engine that will not rest.
Will Kimbrough’s new album, I Like It Down Here, slated for April 19, 2019 release on Soundly Music, deals a lot with his home region, the South, and his roots there: the place where he knew the shortcuts to get to every gig, where he’d had a great upbringing in Lower Alabama with a close family, where he first caught on as a guitar-blazing 16-year-old pop-rock wunderkind, where the last public lynching was in 1981, and where Confederate flags fly from homes not infrequently to this day.
Will explains, “Over the course of a few tough years for me, the Deep South, particularly Lower Alabama and venues like the Frog Pond and Callaghan’s, really made me feel at home. I got closer to my Mother and Sister. Songs and creativity were just flowing (the songs created during this time with Willie Sugarcapps, DADDY and Brigitte DeMeyer bear this out). I started writing a love letter to the South. Then in 2016, things just went haywire — the election, the mood of the country, the divided feel of the times we live in — just hit me like a freight train. Things like Michael Donald’s lynching started just leaping off the page at me. I started trying to figure out why such terrible things happen, over and over again, in a world full of such great people. I wrote this record from that point of view: I feel so at home here, I love the people, the culture, the food and particularly the music. How could I feel so at home and still disagree with most Southerners’ politics? So I wrote this record out of love and confusion. But mostly love.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat these sentiments on the record, or even separate his conflicted views. The title track, “I Like It Down Here,” is in the voice of a white-trash gentleman joyously endorsing waking up at one in the afternoon and popping the first Bud Light of the day. This happy (or at least ironic) tune is followed by the sparse “Alabama (For Michael Donald).” Mr. Donald was the victim of that last public lynching, in 1981, and perhaps on that same night Will’s band at the time, Ground Zero, was playing Buzzcocks covers somewhere in a state that had been kinder to them than it had been to so many. The lyrical tension is always there, whether in the beautiful moment of your feet in the gulf in “Salt Water & Sand,” or in “It’s a Sin,” as in, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. You fill in the rest.
The record opens with a creeper bit of pop gorgeousness: “Hey Trouble” fakes you out with a minor-key verse of distress and then it hits you with the chorus, a bit of simple pop wonder. And bits of joyous R&B and rock ’n’ roll fuel tracks like “When I Get to Memphis” and “I’m Not Running Away.”
Of “Hey Trouble,” Will says, “I wrote it with Rich McCulley, said I wanted to write a song that had all the blues language in it but wasn’t a blues song. So, the lyrics are ‘I woke up this morning and my good gal was gone,’ etc., so I was trying to pay attention to … ‘born under a bad sign,’ and then to this nice chorus.”
Let’s not forget that this is a record, not a pamphlet, and not a treatise on a divided state. It’s a record, with love songs and fun songs, and it’s one of the best of Will Kimbrough’s long and illustrious career. The thought-out arrangements and spartan production make the songs grow, verse after verse, and the intensity builds up, with brilliant instrumental entrances and exits, yet at no time does a song lose its laser-like focus on Will and his guitar. And no song overstays its welcome. This is a 10-song album. (And they’re not long songs.) Designed for the vinyl generation, whether young or old.
Abundant chops aside, Will has never been a show-off on guitar in the studio or onstage; he’s always served the song. And you want to get lost in the tunes anyway — there is a pop taste of the best music he wrote for his first Will & the Bushmen album. His love songs are either sweet as key lime pie or cutting to the bone. The instruments give a wide berth for Will’s impeccable voice — his band the Red Dirt Boys don’t play a note that doesn’t need to be there. This is a spare album with nevertheless tremendous moments.
WILL KIMBROUGH “I Like It Down Here” 2019 Tour Dates
Fri.-Sat., March 22-23 LIVE OAK, FL Suwannee Spring Fest Live Oak, FL (Daddy duo w/Tommy Womack)
Tues., March 26 JACKSON, MS Millsaps College
Sat., April 6 PENSACOLA, FL Pensacola Food Truck Festival (Habitat for Humanity Benefit)
Fri., April 12 COLUMBIANA, AL Black Box Theater
Fri., April 19, 7 p.m. DECATUR (ATLANTA), GA Eddie’s Attic
Tues., April 23 ST. LOUIS, MO Sheldon Ballroom*
Thurs., April 25 FAIRFIELD, IA Sondheim Center for Performing Arts*
Sat., April 27 STEELE, AL HP40 Songwriters Festival
Sun., April 28 MOBILE, AL Mud Bottom Music Festival
Tues., April 30 CINCINNATI, OH 20th Century Theater*
Wed., May 1 MOBILE, AL Thacker Mountain Radio Hour live segment, followed by band show at
Cedar Street Social Club
Fri., May 24 NEWPORT,KY Southgate House Revival (band)
Fri., May 31 BATON ROUGE, LA Manship Theatre**
Sat., July 6 BOND, CO Rancho del Rio
Fri., July 12 TRAPPERSLAKE, CO Music in the Mountains Trappers
*solo, opening for Todd Snider
**solo, opening for Sonny Landreth trio