In many ways, Mobile native Will Kimbrough personifies the best of modern Nashville. He's a superlative producer, guitarist, and songwriter, who has enjoyed—and survived—every imaginable situation a professional musician might encounter. Kimbrough’s production of Shemekia Copeland’s America's Child was named Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis in May 2019. As a guitarist, Kimbrough excells at rock, country, punk, jazz, blues, and can deliver any far-out impressionistic guitar sound you could want. The narration to the 70s era trailer for ABCs Wide World of Sports could serve as the preamble to Kimbrough's musical life which has spanned the globe. He's known the thrill of signing to a major label with his first band Will and the Bushman at age 19 and the (inevitable) agony of seeing the label "walk off the field with the football" in the middle of promoting the record.
He also has endured the human drama—the big thrills and small invaluable lessons—of supporting the best names in the business including Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Buffett, and his current position as guitarist for legend and ineffable country artist Emmylou Harris, who herself rescued Nashville (and probably the Ryman Auditorium, too) from the wrecking ball when she arrived in the mid 70s and formed a series of "Hot Bands" that featuring the best pickers and songwriters of her generation. Now you can add Will Kimbrough to a list that includes James Burton, Al Perkins, Sam Bush, Glen Hardin and many more.
In addition, Kimbrough's songs have been covered by Mr. Buffett as well as Todd Snider (Kimbrough's first job as an accompanist), Little Feat, Jack Ingram, and many others. And he still finds time to make music with bands of friends (Daddy, Willie Sugarcaps) and songwriters like Brigitte DeMeyer. Will Kimbrough stays busy. But he did find time recently to visit Epiphone and pick up a new Ltd. Ed. ES 335 PRO, which he immediately put to work on tour with Harris and on his new album I Like It Down Here, a mult-faceted narrative of living, dreaming, and surviving in the south. We spoke with Kimbrough at Epiphone and at his recording studio about making the transition from bandmate to solo artist and a 1st class (and first call) accompanist to heroes and friends.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone, Will. How did your new album I Like It Down Here come about?
I wrote the title track and rest of the songs came flooding in. My friend Rolff Zwiep offered me time at Blackbird Studios via the Blackbird Academy, and pretty soon all the songs were recorded.
How is Nashville as a place to work now? Does it feel like the same town you knew
When I moved to Nashville, if your band had songs and an audience, you would get some sort of deal-- publishing, recording, or both. The business has changed everywhere. The creative energy in Nashville is, if anything, stronger than ever. The big difference is it’s much more expensive to live here now. The $500 a month East Nashville rental house with a basement for rehearsing...well, that is no longer available.
Congrats on your success with Shemekia Copeland’s America's Child. Are you a different producer for other artists than you are for yourself in terms of how you set an environment?
I recently produced some artists I love and admire. Radney Foster, Steve Poltz, Kate Campbell.
Producing is an act of empathy for me. I can’t think of a marketplace, I just have to go with my gut, my ears, my heart, and try to get inside somebody’s head and help them get their ideas out and on tape.
You've been on the road with Emmylou Harris this year with your new ES-335 PRO. Has it fit well with the sound of the band?
I love it. The 335 PRO
is super reliable. One thing I love about this guitar is you can turn the volume up and down and the pickups don't dull out. That's what I had heard about them and it's true! A lot of guitars can do one thing and that's it. I can play anything with the 335. When you turn these (pickups) down, they still sound good.
Before the interview started we were looking at your collection of funky American guitars from the 50s and 60s—Kays and Silvertones. At what point in your professional life did you begin to recognize how your playing changed when you moved away from "cool funky" guitars to professional guitars.
I'll tell you this: I hardly ever take the funky things on stage. They might work for one song. But as you know, when you play on stage and record in studios—particularly when you go out with an artist like Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, or Todd Snider—you just want to be able to get through the night without having to stop and tune. That's the practicality of all time. The Epiphone 335 PRO gets the variety of tones I need. And that's why it's known as the most versatile guitar of all time—it really is. It's also known for being the go-to guitar for jazz guys like Larry Cartlon. And of course the blues—B.B. King, Freddie King, Otis Rush. I always have a back up or two. But ideally you want to be able to get all the tones for your show out of one guitar. As Jimi Hendrix once said: "We tune because we care!" You need something stable.
Emmylou Harris' discography is quite varied in sounds and styles. For those who aren't familiar with her catalog, Emmylou has always featured superb guitarists on her albums including James Burton, Daniel Lanois, and now yourself. How did you prepare for joining her band?
It's a dream come true for me in a sense because I do get to access all the things that I sort of boned-up on in obscurity all my life. 'Hey I wanna listen to my Doc Watson record... and then my Robert Fripp record
(laughs)!' Now I can do both. Emmylou can do rock 'n' roll, ancient country, folk music. And then she did Wrecking Ball (1995) and legitimatized ambient and atmospheric sounds for country—she made a new kind of music. In her band, I can get fuzzed out with delay and shake the neck and get that wobbley-shimmery sound. And then sometimes I get to play "One of These Days" with the James Burton lick—a part that was written just for the song.
I knew her records in my deep memory because my sister had them all and I would steal them and listen to them. And then along the way, I got my own copies so they are in there (taps his head).
There must have been a lot of competition to join the band.
It's the only gig I've ever auditioned for in my life. I've been here for 30 years and I've played with Todd and Rodney and Jimmy Buffet—you know, pro acts that go out and play shows where people show up (laughs). Those were just gigs where I got a call. Rodney, for instance, came over and said: 'My soundman Seamus said you can play a song and not stomp all over it. Can I come over?' The next thing I knew, we were here playing Rodney Crowell songs. After about 20 minutes he said, 'All right, the first gig is in two weeks so learn the songs!' There was maybe one rehearsal.
So I went to audition for Emmylou and I had learned six songs to audition. I knew most of the people in her band. So on one hand there was this comfort zone. I brought a phase shifter and a Telecaster. And we did stuff off the new album at the time that was produced by Jay Joyce (Hard Bargain
, 2011) with cavernous reverb. And then I also sang harmony. Some guys who auditioned said 'I don't sing harmony.' And they didn't get the gig and I kind of knew they wouldn't. If anyone is reading this as a guitar player moving to Nashville or LA or New York—if you can carry a tune on your instrument, you can sing a harmony. Say you do (laughs), you'll get more work. And if you're on television, get a microphone. You'll get paid more money. I hate to be that blunt about it but it's true.
But anyway, I got the gig and now I realize that after all these years. I've done it off and on since 2001. I can get along on the road and in the studio and have fun and play good and be open-minded. That's kind of the gig with her. What I've learned over the years is that it is an in-the-moment thing. She wants you to go for something. And there will be nights—not often because her standards are pretty high—she'll say 'On that tune tonight we got there...' And she won't ask us to do it again or say what it was but she'll say, 'That was good.'
Prior to that I had never auditioned for anyone except when my old band Will and the Bushman
once auditioned for (Sire Records founder) Seymour Stein and he sat like you are today at Maxwell's in Hoboken wearing a Miami Vice suit and there was no one else in the club in the middle of the afternoon. And I'm pretty sure Ira Kaplin (of Yo La Tengo) was running sound. He was back there with his striped t-shirt on—'Do you want any reverb in your monitor?'
Was that your first time in New York?
We had been up there before. I'm from the Gulf Coast, Mobile, Alabama. So—a brief history. I was the frontman in bands from age 12 to age 30—nonstop. And played everyday. And then I was a "pro" paying music to pay my rent...
The very definition of a pro...
That's right! Trust me... I'm a professional. By that point I was writing songs and I hoped to make that what I did. So our band got known for our songs. I went straight from a band that had a regional falling to a having major label deal. Will and the Bushman
were signed to EMI Records. We had a video on MTV. And then—the classic thing, which is really the true story of the music business—the label decided not to promote the record. And then the second record never came out on EMI. It came out later on an indie label. But by then, the band was done. I was 23 or 24 years old and already the second record was not coming out. I was only 19 when we made the first EP that got reviewed in SPIN. That was better than having someone else own it. For the second record, they sent us up to Bearsville Studio (owned by former Bob Dylan and Band manager Albert Grossman) and spent $100,000.
With the money spent on that record, you could have made records for the rest of your life...
Right! And we knew that. We had made our EP in a studio right outside of New Orleans. College radio played it and everyone liked us because we were the underdog. Then you're not the underdog anymore. As Dan Baird would say, you gave your football to someone else. And now they own it. They can give it back to you and let you run with it... or not (laughs). You can't play the game without the football.
Anyway. Then I was in the Bis-quits with Tommy Womack and Grimey (Mike Grimes, founder of Grimey’s Records in Nashville) on Oh Boy Records, which was much cooler. But I had been in a democratic band half of my life—arguing over the set lists—and I was burned out on it. I was ready to spend some time with new wife and try something different. Then Todd Snider called. That was the first time I had ever been a sideman before. He was on MCA. All of a sudden, I wasn't singing lead on every song. I was just playing guitar and singing harmony parts. And all these details about playing guitar became evident to me.
I spoke with Todd about those days. He had very mixed feelings about being run up the country music flag pole as the next big thing.
There were times when Todd would say things like he said in your interview when he told his label—'Please take me off the radio!' I was completely stymied by that. My band wanted that and they wouldn't let us have that. But we had a great act and it changed and grew all the time. We played on the records together. I'm sure the label didn't like that. But I got to learn how to write a song or at least witness how to tell a story.
You're a bandleader yourself and even though you're performing at a high professional level, I'm sure it's still difficult some nights to find more than one highlight in a set. In other words, whether you're doing it for fun or doing it for a living, the challenges are the same.
That's right. Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites—he's very wise—Dan differentiates between the pro and the gifted amateur. The gifted amateur is inspired from time to time but sometimes it just falls apart. A 'pro' would never fall apart. Or even if it fell apart you wouldn't necessarily know it. Dan would also say the music business is snack or famine.
When you're in a band for a long time you depend on reaching a certain volume to get the band 'sound' and get to a sort of comfort zone. But songwriters are constantly throwing themselves out on a limb, trying to avoid the comfort zone. Did you have a role model for this new role you found yourself in?
1987 was a big year for me, as a lot of my favorite albums became available on cd and I got into listening to them again. Though it sounds like a clichè, I was listening to the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street
and trying to figure out what was going on there which was very helpful. That sound seemed like something I could use with Todd. And then Keith's solo album came out that year, Talk Is Cheap
, with Joey Spampinato (a longtime member of NRBQ) on bass and I was already a Keith Richards fan. And then there was a Ry Cooder record, Get Rhythm
, where he was playing slide in Open D with flatwound strings. So, I started buying small amps and getting some of these funky guitars because I wanted to get that sound.
And then John Hiatt's Bring the Family
, too—that's the songwriter with the ultimate band. That album still resonates with me—the idea of plugging your guitar straight into the amp to get a clean tone. Ry is the master of the clean tone and the dirty tone. Keith is the master of the in-between tone. They are masters of this universe of sound.
There is a toughness that comes with playing on a lot of sessions and doing roadwork. Veteran players like to be able to dive right in. If there are excess changes or the melody isn't strong, they will say so. Do find now with your experience that you're becoming that kind of player, too?
I was once doing a session with a friend who was doing publishing demos but had very cool friends and the acoustic guitar player on the session was "Big" Al Anderson from NRBQ. He's one of the greats. He's authoritative. All those guys—Al, Rodney Crowell, Richard Bennett—they went to the Everly Brothers school of rhythm guitar. And that is a powerful school to go to. Anyway, at this session I was all ready to be the 'atmospheric' guy. But Big Al was speaking out when he needed to. 'Are we gonna push that bar into the chorus or not?' Or I might say 'Is that actually how we're going into the bridge?' The happy accident is a wonderful thing but it's not always the right thing in the long run. Sometimes it is. That's one of the wonderful things about being here. You learn to turn to Steve Cropper or Al Perkins—someone that's a hero to you—and say, "No! We're not doing that. Just play the chords!"