Will Kimbrough—despite a quarter-century in the music business, past membership in two critically lauded bands, and a pair of recent, arresting solo albums—is far from a household name. That says something about households, but it also speaks to Kimbrough's role as a musician over the last ten years, which has been primarily a complementary one (even if you've never heard of him, there's a good chance you have an album with his name in the liner notes).
Kimbrough finally released his first solo album, This, in 2000. By then, Kimbrough was pushing forty-young for a Delta bluesman's début, but borderline long in the tooth for a musician in the pop/rock camp. But in every song was evidence of lessons learned and relearned, and the exhilaration of a triumph a long time in coming. The hopped-up chime of power pop blended gracefully with the rugged earthiness of roots rock, and Kimbrough's songwriting moved from first-person pleas ("Need You Now") to finely detailed character sketches ("Diamond in a Garbage Can"). Bringing THIS to a gentle close was "Goodnight Moon," half lullaby and half temporary farewell, with drowsy horns and the caress of Kimbrough's country-soul guitar conspiring to create the sound of longing. It's a striking song that has earned comparisons with "Bird on a Wire" and has been called a slow-motion "Take Me Home, Country Roads." "Somewhere between Leonard Cohen and John Denver; that's me," laughs Kimbrough.
The release of THIS capped Kimbrough's busiest year. He served as guest guitarist ("hired gun" is too dramatic of a term to apply to the unassuming Kimbrough) on over a half-dozen albums in 2000, shifting styles with a character actor's ease. That was Kimbrough supplying the atmospherics on Matthew Ryan's gruffly melodic sophomore release EAST AUTUMN GRIN and on Neilson Hubbard's equally moody WHY MEN FAIL. His work was as crucial to DRAW THEM NEAR from singer/songwriter Jess Klein as it was to HOME, Josh Rouse's collection of soul-searching twilight pop. And he had occasion to let his guitar snarl a bit on albums from Amy Rigby, Todd Snider, and Tommy Womack.
Kimbrough displayed all of those talents and unveiled a few new ones on HOME AWAY, last year's even wider ranging follow-up to THIS. It offers a somewhat different mix, composed of equal parts Nashville-underground roots pop, British-Invasion rock, and '70s-AM-radio fare. But, as on the début, the most memorable song is the last. "You Don't Know Me So Well" serves as a subdued showcase for Kimbrough's warm voice and his mastery of multiple instruments, including guitar, Dobro, piano, bass pedals, and accordion. Built on a melody that's exquisitely simple, the song creates a genuine sense of timelessness; the events in the song and the late-night strum that accompanies their depiction could have occurred last week, but would have felt just as right as a Jimmy Webb song twenty-five years ago.
That was just about the time that Kimbrough was starting out in the music business. He formed his first band when he was twelve to play $150-a-night gigs at the two roller-skating rinks in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. "I wanted to be in a rock & roll band," he recalls. "I didn't want to get a guitar and learn how to play. I wanted to get a guitar and be a guitar player in a band." Kimbrough's next two bands took him out of the rinks and into the clubs. First there was the short-lived Ground Zero, an outfit inspired by the passionately recycled sounds of The Clash and The Jam. Then came Will & the Bushmen, who established themselves as stalwarts on the burgeoning Southern college rock scene. Leaning on a sound dominated by harmonies and sneaky hooks, and selling it with the naïve spunk of a garage band, the Bushmen made their way through the college and club circuit in Alabama and Mississippi in the mid-'80s.
Playing in Deep South honky-tonk towns, they were expected to have two things: their own PA system and four or five sets worth of songs. Until they had enough material of their own, they had to play covers. "We were learning covers to keep ourselves from going nuts," remembers Kimbrough. "We didn't want to learn the hit songs of the day, so we learned our favorite punk rock songs and our favorite Chuck Berry songs and our favorite Dylan songs. We just played our record collection. That contributes to how I still play." Still, some of the clubs didn't know what to make of these jangle-pop kids veering all over the musical map. "We'd drive eight hours and then get fired after one song, because they were expecting us to play songs that people knew already. So we'd drive to the next town."
In 1987, the Bushmen's full-length debut, GAWK, and its centerpiece cut, "Neil Young," took the foursome beyond the "regional favorites" category and helped get them signed to a new label called SBK, just days after the band relocated to Nashville. They continued their hard-touring ways in support of their self-titled 1989 release for SBK, but they struggled as the label's mood swung from enchanted to uninterested without any explanation. The band broke up a year later, and Kimbrough landed in the bis-quits, also based in Nashville. "Yet another band overlapping into another one. I'm a total codependent rock addict," he says. The quartet began as the musicians' equivalent of a weekly poker game, four young road veterans (including Womack) in their late twenties, making music purely for fun. The bis-quits enjoyed a good run and had their album picked up by John Prine's Oh Boy label, but Kimbrough eventually opted out. "I was just ready to not be in bands, period. I was just about to turn thirty, and I had been in a band for like seventeen years. So it was, 'Man, I just cannot stand meetings anymore where you have to decide whether or not to drive to Knoxville.'"
Still, two weeks later, when Todd Snider called saying that he needed a guitar player, Kimbrough said yes, and found himself on the road for the next four years. That experience helped pave the way for his transformation into the kind of session player who guests on seven or eight albums in one year.
"I think he's one of the best guitar players in American music," says Josh Rouse. "He's a chameleon to all these people and their music—he'll blend in, but with his signature mark."
All of Kimbrough's experience and all of the traits that make him an in-demand session player—flexibility, versatility, even honest-to-goodness virtuosity—have enabled him to shine when it was finally his turn for a close-up. THIS and HOME AWAY reflect the road-tested skills of a true veteran, the confidence of a former frontman, and the passion of a guy with a fifty-session résumé and a fifty-box record collection. When he affectionately swipes synth licks from "I Saw the Light" on HOME AWAY's "Crackup," or when he makes the new millennium safe for piano-rock ballads with "I Love My Baby," Kimbrough reveals the enviable ability to make the familiar seem fresh.
Amy Rigby has a story that she uses to describe what Kimbrough brings to a session or a show. "We were in a bar one December night waiting for soundcheck and watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and it was the scene of the misfit toys. Someone put AC/DC on the jukebox, and the sound perfectly synched up with the little figures on the screen dealing with their problems. That's Will! Rock majesty and sensitive humanity."
Matthew Ryan is more straightforward but no less glowing in his assessment of Kimbrough. "I just really enjoy playing with him. His spirit and his tone are two of the reasons I still believe in rock & roll."