You've probably never heard of Will Kimbrough. But the musicians you have heard of probably know him. Kimbrough has played guitar for Rodney Crowell, co-written several songs with Jimmy Buffett, recorded with Mark Knopfler, produced Adrienne Young's Grammy-nominated Plow to the End of the Row, and was named the Americana Music Association's Instrumentalist of the Year in 2004.
Like Buddy Miller, another sought-after Nashville musician he's collaborated with, Kimbrough is in demand because he's a consummate team player — the type of guy who'll volunteer to play an instrument at a session even if he's never played it before. "I am technically not a great musician," he says. "But I can play in time, and I can play in a groove, and I can get inside of somebody's head better than a lot of people can. And I understand what they want without judgment."
But Kimbrough is more than just a sideman. In the '80s, he fronted the college rock/southern pop band Will & the Bushmen and co-led — with his buddy Tommy Womack — '90s cult roots-rock faves the Bis-quits (as well as their new band, Daddy). With all of these gigs, it's not surprising that Kimbrough isn't a very prolific solo artist. His latest album, Wings, is just his fifth record in a career that spans more than a quarter-century. Released earlier this year, Wings is both a continuation and departure from Kimbrough's past efforts, drawing from standby classic Americana sources including country, folk, soul, and rock.
There's a lot of love on the album, reflected in songs like "Love to Spare" and "Open to Love." Wings is more upbeat than past records like 2007's politically charged Americanitis, which was about "what was wrong," says Kimbrough. Wings is more optimistic. He recorded the songs around the time Barack Obama was elected president. Kimbrough was also reading Buddhist-related texts at the time — particularly Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness. That book, he admits, instilled "the idea of looking for the good in the moment that you are in now. I don't want to be a tortured bastard."
Wings opens and closes with two terrific odes to domestic bliss. "Three Angels" tells of a man's simple love for his wife and daughters. Similarly, "A Couple Hundred Miracles" offers a moving evocation of life. But the album isn't all "happy celebrations," says Kimbrough. "A record like that would go old pretty fast. [Besides] I didn't have ten happy songs."
There are darker shadings to tracks like "It Ain't Cool" and "You Can't Go Home." The former is a funky rant co-written with fellow Nashville troubadour Todd Snider; the latter is one of several collaborations with longtime pal Jeff Finlin, a native Clevelander who now lives in Colorado after playing in Nashville for years.
Kimbrough's broad musical interests were built during his childhood. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he listened to Top 40 radio back when playlists made room for artists as diverse as Charlie Rich, the O'Jays, and Aerosmith. On his 12th birthday, Kimbrough saw Bruce Springsteen perform on the Born to Run tour, and his mind was completely blown.
Six months later, he was fronting his ownband at a roller-skating rink. "And that was that," he says. "That was my life — playing rock and roll."
Kimbrough remains a music fan to this day. He's thrilled to share space on the Americana charts with Tom Petty and Elvis Costello. But he also realizes that there's a flipside to all this: The bigger and better financed artists make it harder for grassroots musicians like him to snag much attention.
Kimbrough sometimes wonders if he should have been a more temperamental artist. "I don't dig being prima donna-ish," he says, "although I have seen some of those artists do really well with their careers." He's grateful for the way his own career has turned out. "I get to do what I want for a living," he says. "I have a family. I have a few amps that I like. And when I plug my electric guitar into them, they sound great."
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