A Few Minutes With Will Kimbrough

Will Kimbrough talks with Pollstar about his career, influences and how he loves alternating between seeing his name on the marquee and appearing as a sideman in Willie Sugarcapps.

It’s hard to imagine Kimbrough saying more than a few words without mentioning music.  A musician for most of his life, when he’s not working on his own tunes you just might find him producing albums for other artists.  He helmed Todd Snider’s East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know as well as Adrienne Young’s Grammy nominated Plow To The End Of The Row

A prolific composer, Kimbrough has seen his songs recorded by artists ranging from Jimmy Buffett to Mavis Staples to Little Feat.

Kimbrough’s latest album – Sideshow Love – arrived Feb. 18.  Listening to the new disc is like reading a collection of short stories featuring well developed characters that reach deep into one’s own life experiences.

Do you have a mental picture or idea of the best way to listen to your music? 

It depends on the song.  Sometimes I record and realize I made a late night 3 o’clock in the morning track, or I made a track that sounds great in the car.  But I don’t know if that whole record is one or the other.  It think there’s … one point of view in music that says it’s either a Saturday night record or a Sunday morning record.  Or there’s something for everyone like a Beatles record, like an Abbey Road where it’s all over the place in a real concentrated period of time. I definitely grew up as an all over the place listener.  We know there are things that don’t work when you’re barreling down the highway with people in the car.  You’re not going to put on … you know, a Nico record, or something. … Then there’s a clear the room [record] … put on a … William S. Burroughs cut-out box set, or whatever.  Then there’s Darkness On The End Of Town when you’re driving around, pissed off, and you want to feel the magnificent, glorious desolation of Springsteen in 1978.  I’ve definitely listened to a lot of music while driving, also at 3 o’clock in the morning.

I knew when I had a song like “Goodnight Moon,” not only is it a woozy 3 o’clock in the morning song, it’s also a song that’s ended up being a lullaby for people’s kids.  I literally recorded one of my songs called “Champion Of The World” at 3 o’clock a.m.  We came back to the studio at 3 o’clock in the morning, smoked cigarettes and drank beer and then as soon as I was drunk and had a sore throat we recorded the song. 

If I have a song and have some time, I’ll start recording it.  We may record it several times.  I can record the idea on my phone.  I can record a demo on my laptop.  I can start making a record on my other computer.  So we have lots of ways. I have a four-track cassette and a reel-to-reel tape machine.  I don’t use them as much because that stuff takes so much more time.  It’s not so much that it’s the modern era and I have no time.  It’s because I’m a traveling, touring, working musician and I have a family.  My day is compressed.

I don’t really think about how it’s going to be listened to anymore. I assume it’s going to be listened to in the car, on earbuds, on a laptop speaker, on a USB little speaker.  Not many people are going to sit down in front of the stereo and put it on and listen to the whole thing through their AR-1s or whatever.  I think when people do, It’s a good listen.  I’ve agonized over the sequence and I’m there at mastering and mixing for every record I’ve ever made. But that’s because of the pleasure and the fascination to me.  As a kid if I could have been there for the mixing or mastering … we could start at “A” and go to “Z” like Allman Brothers to ZZ Top, XTC, Frank Zappa, Richard and Linda Thompson, Nick Cave, Nick Lowe … of course The Beatles.  Actually we do get to do that with The Beatles because it’s so publicized, but you can’t be there when they’re playing those notes.

A person who worked in the recording industry told me that as late as the 1970s they were mixing songs so they could hear how the tracks sounded played through a cheap AM radio speaker.  Do you check out how your music will sound on different devices?

Oh, sure.  There are times when I have to listen to music on earbuds.  I choose not to a lot just because it blasts your head.  I have headphones on a lot while I’m working.  I love listening to music. I’m not a snob. I love records.  I have a bunch of records, I have a turntable and a stereo that I like to sit in front of, but it’s rare that I get to sit there and listen to, like, two whole records or something. 

But I do listen to it in all sorts of ways.  For one thing I’m recording it on the phone, on the laptop, in the studio with nice speakers and headphones.  I’m hearing it all sorts of ways.  I think what they used to use were speakers called Aurotones, which were sort of like the speaker in a dashboard of a ‘66 Plymouth.  Those sounded great when you were in the car with a tube radio cranked up on AM radio and Chuck Berry comes on, or Motown.  It sounds great because that stuff was intended to be heard out of that.  So they had to have a speaker that would give them a sense [of how it would sound].  Good engineers just know that if you want to make the bass jump out of a two-inch speaker you’ve got to roll off the sub frequencies and jack up the low mids. … You’ll hear the bass. You’re not hearing “bass” but you’re hearing the bass, and the kick drum.   Like reggae records – listen to it through subs and it really doesn’t sound any different.  That’s on old reggae, not modern or dance hall where it’s totally subbed-out.  It’s like 200 hertz is cranking.  That’s called AM radio bass.  Then you get the stock system in your car and the low end is all piped up anyway, for whatever reason I guess, because pop music is more bass-oriented these days. I don’t really think it’ for the better.  I don’t think it makes me want to dance more.

Did you always know you would be a musician?

I’ve been a musician every day since I was 12 years old so I guess you would have to say “yes.”

There was never a plan B?

At one point when I was in my late 20s I sort of dreamed of making a better living.  I … halfheartedly started to apply to college, thinking I’d maybe be a teacher or something.  Then the phone rang and it was an opportunity for something musical and I thought, “At least I have to do this before I go back to school.” Then another five years would go by.

What would you have studied if you went back to school?

History, English, one of those kind of things.

Your music sometimes sounds as if it’s drawing influences from a variety of sources, almost as if you’re one big sponge absorbing everything you’ve ever heard.

I spent hours and hours playing and hours and hours listening.   And not just listening to guitar player music although I certainly studied up on Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, George Harrison, Jimmy Page – the usual suspects of the great classic rock stuff.  Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Tom Verlaine, Robert Klein and anything Lou Reed did. … Then, of course, real pop – Big Star, Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Cheap Trick, all that kind of stuff. 

With The Byrds you have to include Clarence White.  We were listening to the Farther Along record last night and I was going, “Nobody made a Telly sound like Clarence White.”  It doesn’t sound twangy and thin, it sounds fat. A real bluegrass player playing loud.

But I don’t listen to music as much as I used to but it lives in your head.  When you’ve listened enough, it’s in there and you don’t have to constantly be blasting your head.  As a writer and musician I can hear what I’m going to do better without listening to a bunch of music.

Do you already know what your music will sound like even before you go into the studio to record?

I do.  I have a sound in my head.  Sometimes you happen upon another song and you take a turn.  You get caught looking down an alleyway and you’re like, “What’s that glinting at the end of that alley?  I want to see what that is.” There’s a curiosity.  And I’ve learned to play all the different instrument besides the guitar and piano.  I learned because I was curious and willing to fall on my face.  The first time I ever played a banjo was in a session in Nashville with Chuck Ainlay engineering.  He’s famous for having done all the Mark Knopfler stuff. … If I was self-conscious about playing I wouldn’t have gotten up there. 

You get asked to produce records or play in sessions and you are rewarded for knowing how to make a sound or a feeling or an atmosphere from any given number of eras, sounds and styles.

If any young people ever ask me I say if you write songs and want to sing them, there’s no time like now to do your thing.  Life is going to pass way faster than you ever thought.  You just don’t know it yet.

Do you learn things from producing other people that you use on your own albums, and do you use what you’ve learned making your own albums that you use when producing other artists?

Absolutely.  It’s all part of what you learn and it’s all part of what you have in your vocabulary, whether it’s technical, musical, lyrical or whatever. There are people who very jealously protect a certain style that they want to be. … Or they just know their limitations.  But to say you know your limitations … I dunno, it’s kind of like saying there are limitations.

Are there times when you’ll have a chorus or the hook for months before you have the songs to go with it?

Yeah.  Or you’ll have a song and didn’t know you had it until it’s time for the song.  I’ve had songs that lived in my head and I never recorded them on a cassette or in a little file in a computer.  Or they’re just written down. But they don’t seem real until the day you are looking for a certain kind of song, and you re-remember it, and then you’re scrambling around looking for it.

I used to pine for solitude so I could write.  I need some time alone and some days just to write.  And those are wonderful when you have true solitude, say for 48 hours, there is the possibility for some outpouring.  On the other hand, in my life now the odds for that are so slim, I just talk myself into writing 24 hours a day.  You’re either taking in information or you’re putting it out. And you’re kind of always doing both.  There’s no excuse now not to get your idea down.

I do have some time in my car traveling to do solo stuff. I’m in a band on the Gulf Coast, where I’m from.  I needed to spend more time with my parents, as we all get older, and help out mom around her house.  It’s a 440-mile drive.  There’s no good flight.  So I pretty often make that drive. … That drive has become a boon for writing.  I have the phone [and] I just talk into it.  I don’t even sing because I’m just writing lyrics. 

I love to have eight verses and a chorus written. Not exactly how it goes but it has a rhythm, a meter.  Then you make up a song. You can write it 10 different ways and see what you like. I really love that these days.

Are you your own worst critic?

No. … Everyone gets married to a song that shouldn’t be on a record.  And they need someone to be, like, not impressed with it.  I’ve had some great partners like that.  There’s been a few times when I insisted and pled my case.  Of course, it’s my record and I can put on whatever I want.  But I fought against the partner’s wise advice.  I don’t think any of it was some massive mistake or anything like that. 

Another thing that happens with an artist is sometimes a song that you wrote is old. You’ve been singing it around your house for 12 years.  And then you play it for people and they’re like, “Man, that’s a great song. It should go on a record.” And you’re going, “But it’s an old song.” A wise producer would say, “I’ve never heard it before so it’s not old.  So go in there and record it.”

Are there times when writing a song that you think that what you’re working on may not be for you but might be a great track for another artist?

Not really, except that I’ve written for and with Jimmy Buffett fairly often in the past 10 years.  I have written for him and none of those songs have been recorded by him.  He’s heard them all.  He doesn’t say this to me, because he’s nice to me, but he would probably say, “Let me write the Jimmy Buffett songs. “

Rodney Crowell told me that anytime he’s tried to write like that it’s been a mistake. Not a mistake but [the] songs he wrote and thought, “I’m writing this song for Shania Twain … and I’m going make $20 million.”  Those songs never get cut for him.

Then there are people all over the music business who sit at tables with teams of writers and write for artists, write for a marketplace.  There are people who are good at that.  Max Martin, he’s been doing it forever. … I’m just not that guy.  But that doesn’t mean I still don’t try.  If I get an idea, I’ll try.  I’d love my songs to be cut by a bunch of people. They may have been by a certain amount of people. I never thought I’d have this many songs out there earning me a living, part of a living, which I think is fantastic.  Right now I’m grateful for the little fire that stays lit under my heels, under my ass, to make a living. I have learned to feed my family, send my child to college, put braces on my kids’ teeth with music that I actually love.  It’s an addiction that’s hard to get over.

On Sideshow Love, you have a track called “When Your Love Comes Around” that was influenced by JJ Cale.

Yeah.  I’m definitely influenced by JJ Cale. I had recorded it well before he passed away.  I … have another song, called “It Ain’t Cool,” that’s on my previous solo record called Wings that’s another very JJ Cale-ish song that was written with Todd Snider years ago on the road.  That’s one example of a song that was written and completely forgotten about, never recorded.  I got a royalty statement for it from Europe. I tried to track down what it was because I remembered making up a chorus and a little verse part where we were going to write some words for it, and that was it.  Couldn’t find any four-track cassettes or MP3s on it or anything. I called Todd and said, “Do you remember this song?” and he said, “No.” And I just went from memory and made it up.

I love JJ Cale. He’s a hero to me.  He’s an interesting artist.  You can listen to his albums all the way through, there’s the key songs, the hits.  Then there’s the really cool “Thirteen Days,” “Cajun Moon” and “Don’t Cry Sister.”  I can name a million of them.  One called “Soulin’” off the record Really that’s two minutes long – I’ve been playing it for years.  I’m going to take that song and find a looping point, put it in Pro Tools and make like a 20-minute version of it. Because I just want to hear that, two chords over and over again.  It’s my favorite groove.

If Paul McCartney hadn’t met John Lennon back in the 1950s, The Beatles, as we know them, would never have happened.  So, do you believe in luck?

Why does anybody keep doing music long enough to get good enough at it to have a career?  You could go all the way to the deepest level, of all the sperms and eggs, the odds that you’re even going to be born are very slim.  It’s all about chance.  That’s all luck is.  I don’t think you can’t not believe in luck, because you can’t not believe in chance. … I guess you can be a fundamental religious person and say, “God planned out every minute of my life in advance.”

In your own career, what was one of your luckier moments?

I’ll tell you this. As much as I’ve enjoyed breaking out of being a touring sideman, and the last time I did that was only a year ago. …  I[asked myself] “Do I regret, off and on, working with people on their records and their tours?” I thought, “Well, I met Todd Snider when I didn’t have anything going on and it really taught me a lot, gave me a lot of great experiences and I met a lot of people.  I met Jimmy Buffett.” 

Because Todd got dropped by MCA and the band kind of scattered. The sound guy went to work for Rodney Crowell and Steuart Smith joined the Eagles, Rodney [Crowell] was asking his soundman, “I don’t know what to do.  I’ve been working with Steuart forever. I don’t know who to call.” And he said, “Call Will.” 

So Rodney came over to my house and I started playing with [him].  Then Buffett … wanted to hear some songs I had.  Then, a little while later I met Emmylou Harris through Rodney. Then I made my own records.  Luckily, when I gave Buffett my stuff, it was [on] CDs that I made.  I don’t think he wanted to hear songs pitched by a Nashville song guy. He wanted an artist.  Because on my record I had a Guy Clark song, a John Hiatt song … I think he was looking for songs of people that he liked and I was a new person he had not heard before.

The point is, some of the best things I’ve had happened, they’ve almost all been through pure luck.  I’m in this band named Willie Sugarcapps. We made a really cool record and played really cool shows. It’s a real innocent thing that’s allowing me to spend as much time on the Gulf Coast as I need to as a son and family member.

I got put on an in-the-round songwriter night with Grayson Capps and Sugarcane Jane which is a duo of Anthony Crawford and Savana Lee.  As it turned out, everyone on that stage was from south Alabama and everyone had a long career and all kind of brushes with fame, fortune and greatness, and nothing that had really stuck except the continuation of wanting to do music and not even thinking of a plan B. …  We just have tremendous empathy for each other.  And everybody can play, improvise and react on a similar level.  There are four good songwriters in the band. It’s a really fun thing and it doesn’t have to be full time.  And that was completely by chance.  A really cool promoter on the Gulf Coast put us together.  We have every intention of playing together for the rest of our lives, I think.  That’s a really beautiful thing to have happen when you’re having one of your children in college and your parents are getting old. 

How many children do you have?

I have two girls.  One is a freshman in college, and one is a seventh grader.

Are they thinking about pursuing music careers?

They both play music.  My oldest is a visual artist and she’s concentrating on that … etching, printing, painting.  My youngest is a really good piano player and has a good ear.  So if she wants to play, she will.

That’s the thing about music. You’ll know because you’ll just be doing it. There won’t be anything to stop you.  You will be obsessed over playing.  Right now nobody is pursuing it and that’s totally fine with me.  I’m not pushing them towards it, I’m not discouraging them from it, and I’m not passive about it, either.  If you’re driven to do music, you will be doing it.  I just find that to be an excellent fact.

“I just talk myself into writing 24 hours a day.  You’re either taking in information or you’re putting it out. And you’re kind of always doing both.”

Upcoming Will Kimbrough solo appearances:

March 9 – Silverhill, Ala., The Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm
March 21 – Auburn, Ala., Sundilla
March 22 – Live Oak, Fla., Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park (Suwannee Springfest)
April 4 – Chattanooga, Tenn., Charles & Myrtle’s Coffeehouse
April 13 – Silverhill, Ala., The Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm
April 26 – Columbia, S.C., House Concert 
May 15 – Nashville, Tenn., Station Inn (Appearing with Brigitte DeMeyer)
May 24 – Crawford, Tenn., Jammin At Hippie Jack’s Festival Grounds
May 25 – Crawford, Tenn., Jammin At Hippie Jack’s Festival Grounds
June 27 – Huntsville, Ala., Von Braun Center
July 11 –  Pomeroy, Ohio, Riverside Amphitheater (“Rhythm On The River”)

Upcoming Willie Sugarcapps gigs:

Feb. 21 – Newport, Ky., The Southgate House Revival
March 7 – Birmingham, Ala., WorkPlay Theatre
March 8 – Atlanta, Ga., Smith’s Olde Bar
March 14 – Baton Rouge, La., Red Dragon Listening Room
March 15 – New Orleans, La., Carrollton Station
March 22 – Live Oak, Fla., Spirit Of The Suwannee Music Park (Suwannee Springfest)
April 12 – Magnolia, Ala., Magnolia Springs Festival Grounds (Magnolia Springs Seafood Celebration)
April 20 – Silverhill, Ala., The Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm
April 24 – Gulf Shores, Ala., Meyer Park
May 4 – Mobile, Ala., Callaghans
May 10 – Saint Daphne, Ala., Southern Napa (99 Bottles of Beer On The Lawn)
May 16 – Birmingham, Ala., Moonlight On The Mountain
May 24 – Crawford, Tenn., Jammin At Hippie Jack’s Festival Grounds
May 25 – Crawford, Tenn., Jammin At Hippie Jack’s Festival Grounds
Dec. 20 – Nashville, Tenn., The Basement 

Please visit WillKimbrough.com for more information.