By Amy Stevens
The stories flow from Will Kimbrough as easily as music spills from the guitar he perpetually cradles, seemingly less a musical instrument than an extension of himself.
His memories crisscross the South he loves, just as his songs do. There are fond recollections of childhood nights spent on sleeping porches in the hot, heavy air of lower Alabama, and there are the sorrow-tinged words of a son who spent long days and drives traveling between present and past as he lost his father to the darkness of dementia.
Kimbrough is a master musician, recognized in Nashville circles as a superb instrumentalist and impeccable vocalist. But, more than anything else, he is a storyteller. To listen to a Kimbrough song is to journey with him – a traveling partner through the highs, lows, joys and regrets that define the shared human experience
“When I was younger, I didn’t really think about where I was from being part of me,” Kimbrough says. “I just wanted to get out of there, so I did. As time goes by, I’ve become much more involved in thinking about my roots.”
“I Like it Down Here,” Kimbrough’s new album set for release April 19, is a reflection on that Deep South lineage. It’s a love letter for the real world – an unflinching examination and embrace of people and places that are both beautiful and flawed.
“I like it down here with the hobos and the drunks,” Kimbrough growls in the title track, “blood in my mud and sawdust in my beer.”
The album, his ninth solo release since 2000, features 10 self-penned songs that overflow with the bluesy folk sound that defines Kimbrough’s work. The superb musicianship that earned him the Americana Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2004 is evident throughout.
It is in the album’s smart, wry, painful, honest lyrics, however, that Kimbrough shines brightest. In “Alabama (For Michael Donald),” he assumes the voice of the South’s last-known lynching victim, who was murdered in 1981. And in “It’s a Sin,” he conjures the familiar words and images of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Daddy says it’s a sin to kill mockingbirds. I think one just fell at my feet. Innocence lost. Experience gained. Into the arms of the pain. Some understand it’s a balancing act, while others look down in their shame.”
Kimbrough is 54 now, and his music has matured with him. He is a husband and a father to two daughters who are nearly grown, roles he relishes. But he remains a traveling musician at heart, drawn back time and again to the bars, clubs and music halls that dot the landscape of the South.
“I’m Not Running Away,” perhaps the most radio-friendly song on the new album, speaks to this love of both family and the road.
“This is a song I wrote to directly address the issue of, ‘How many days a year are you on the road?’ ” Kimbrough says. “It addresses that issue of, ‘How do you have a lifetime relationship with a restless guitar player?’ But my wife and I have been married 25 years now and together 27, so we’re on a good path.”
“I always did like running. I never did know why. Maybe it’s the closest that a man can get to flying. I always liked the deep end – cool and dark and blue. But I never meant for you to think that I was trying to get away from you.
“I’m not running away. I’m just running. I never could sit still for very long. It’s not the highway calling me or the wild blue yonder. It’s just the chance to pick awhile and sing a song.”
With “I Like It Down Here,” Kimbrough once again demonstrates why music lovers are grateful he has achieved this balance between music and family. For as long as he keeps picking and singing songs, fans both old and new will be there to listen, appreciate and share the journey with him.
For more information and tour dates, visit willkimbrough.com. “I Like It Down Here” is available for pre-order on CD and vinyl and will be available for purchase April 19.
This article was contributed by Jonesborough, Tennessee, native Amy Stevens, who lives in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, with her husband, Mark. She is vice president of marketing and communication for Tidelands Health, a not-for-profit healthcare system in Georgetown and Horry counties.
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