Multi-instrumentalist Will Kimbrough is playing Rams Head On Stage on September 10th, in Annapolis, Maryland. The southern-born singer-songwriter has traveled the long and winding road of an Americana journeyman while establishing himself as a premier session musician, consistently sought after by Emmy Lou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and others. Now, he’s taking some time to focus on his own work and tour in support of his latest album. Read what Kimbrough had to say, below, during our interview and get your tickets here.
You released the album Sideshow Love earlier this year and it’s a great blend of roots rock, blues, and folk. Just last week you were back in studio – what are you recording now and how will it differ from Sideshow Love?
I’m always writing and recording and I have a home studio too, so that helps. Today I’m recording very melodic songs – pop songs – that I’ve written and had forever and I’m figuring out what to do with them. I don’t turn away any song. They’re all welcome and I just try to see how they sort out with other songs. If a theme works out then I’ll sort of put it all together, but I know I’m going to tour a lot so I’ll work on songs that I love to play, and the reason I like hearing and playing those songs rooted in early blues, country, and jazz is because they’re malleable songs, and you can play with them live. You can improvise and people still enjoy it, and that’s how I kind of get my rocks off.
I’m not looking to maintain a certain style, but I do play a lot of stuff rooted in country, blues, folk, and gospel. It’s not a conscious decision but just who I am. The most important thing to me is just to play songs that will engage people and bring feeling. If you’re going to strip it down to one person on stage you need to play music that doesn’t sound like it has a bunch of pieces missing.
When did you first learn guitar and how did your childhood in Alabama inspire you to pursue a career in music?
I started when I was 12 in Mobile, Alabama. I grew up between New Orleans, Mississippi, and Florida, on the Gulf, and there was this great radio station down there when I was growing up in the 70s. They played the first couple Elvis Costello records, the Who, Patti Smith, the Allman Brothers, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, the first three Springsteen records. When I was 10-11 years old that’s what I was hearing (and who wouldn’t want to be a songwriter growing up with that?), but these songs also had a lot of guitar soloing. It was just something about the mid-70s. Everybody learned how to play “Freebird.” You know it’s kind of a joke now, but it’s a great song, and people were playing guitar a lot.
There were also places to play. There were skating rinks you could play on Saturday night and as soon as you had a set of songs you could get a gig. Six months after I got a guitar we played a show and I never looked back. Some older guys showed me stuff, and that’s just what I’ve been doing. It hasn’t made me super famous but what I’ve gotten to do is play my music, and in between, work with people like Emmy Lou Harris, Steve Earle (at Rams Head On Stage on Sept. 20th), and Rodney Crowell; people I can’t believe I’m in the studio with: Bill Withers, Mark Knopfler, people that I bought their records for decades… That’s why I don’t turn any song or sound away. It’s a great life. I’ve got piles of instruments and amps in my studio. My wife has to drag me out of here by my hair sometimes, but in the last couple years I decided it was time (after playing with Emmy Lou) to take a break. I had ended up playing about 130 shows a year, and that’s a lot of time on the road. I figured that was probably the pinnacle, but I still wanted to sing my own songs, so I thought I’d probably have to retire from going on tour and playing guitar for people. It was a good arrangement however complicated and strange it may seem to others and me. I was getting calls to go play in sessions just as much as anyone in Nashville, but it’s not the same as playing your own stuff.
I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but you’ve sort of flown under the radar as one of the top guitarists of the past 20 years or so – you were voted best instrumentalist in 2004 and Rolling Stone called you a best kept secret – how do you feel about the level of recognition you’ve received for your work and the position you’re at in your career?
There’s a freedom to relative obscurity and it’s interesting what you can do. I’ll say this. J.J. Cale – one of my favorites forever – I heard an interview that he gave and they were asking him, “Do you wish you were more famous?” He said something like: “Songwriters are down in the fine print.” At the time he was 70 years old. Maybe some musicians are the CEOs and I’m the plumber…but I don’t really mean that. I have a nice house, and a nice studio, and I’ve gotten to record with so many folks and do stuff like play banjo with Pete Seeger at Newport Folk Festival. All that stuff that not everyone gets to do. Hardly anyone gets to makes a living playing their own songs, so I’m not even concerned. My goal is to always get better while recording, and on Sideshow Love I did a lot of recording at home playing in my kids’ bedroom while they were in second grade.
The main thing about music is this desire to do it, and when you get to do it sometimes the circumstances aren’t what you expected, but for me in the end I’ve learned to understand what you need to do: sometimes you have to perform, or record, or write, or come up with money just to get the record out, sell merch, make change – to me it’s all the price you pay to be able to do what you love. I just feel freer than ever when playing live because I’m not nervous and I have this catalog of songs and I can just get up there and play, and be able to play solo guitar, but play guitar solos that are still exciting. I like the place of being a veteran. I’m not jaded. I’m working on 20 songs that have never been released, that I’ve had for a long time, working with another band (Willie Sugarcapps), and also working on a DVD from a thing out in San Francisco. If flying under the radar gives me that freedom then flying under the radar is what I want to do.
I’m interested in your songwriting process. Where does your inspiration come from and what does it mean to you to write a good song? When do you know you’ve got it right and how has your mentality changed over your career regarding how you create new music?
I like it when I see something I can relate to; when it starts to feel familiar. I don’t have any rules about it, but there’s an instinct that you feel. Sometimes you feel like it’s finished when you record it and you listen to it later and all of a sudden it’s not quite as cool as you thought it was. There are songs that get written in one sitting, and songs that take years. I’ve learned to use notebooks, laptops, recorders, iPhones, anything just to capture something you hear on the radio, TV, something you read in a book, little bits and pieces. And you get all these musical ideas, and the good ones (and sometimes the not so good ones) will live in your head for years. You can certainly tap into your memory banks, and if you’re a lifetime musician who’s learned a hundred songs…sometimes I don’t even intend to remember things and that’s how an album like Sideshow Love happens. It all of a sudden happens that it has a consistent theme and then your brain starts coming up with ideas that just fit.
This is a rare show in Annapolis for you – when’s the last time you were here and where have you been touring since?
Well I know I’ve played Rams Head On Stage before, mainly opening shows for Rodney Crowell, Todd Snider, etc. I may have done one on my own at one point. Every time I’ve ever played there has been pretty awesome. It’s where music lovers go. I’m looking forward to telling a couple stories from where the songs come from, experiences about life and where I’m from, and playing a whole bunch of new songs I’ve never played before in Annapolis.
Amy Black will be opening for you at Rams Head On Stage and you’ve collaborated with her on her latest album. Can we expect to see any on stage collaborations next week?
We’re going to be playing together. She’s based in Boston but was born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We did her last album in Nashville but we also did an EP at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, and that’s where the country soul sound kind of came out. The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Otis Redding, and a bunch of others recorded there. Amy and I bonded over that and being singer songwriters and kindred spirits. I played on her new album and we did an EP of covers of several classic Muscle Shoals songs. We just did it live in the studio, and we didn’t try to ape their sound but we definitely tried to stay true to the songs. They’re just great songs. You don’t need to do much. I’m looking forward to playing with her.
– Matt Ellis