Taking it to the streets

Since age 12, Will Kimbrough has fronted his own rock bands, survived several record deals, served as a sideman for other recording artists, and become a much-in-demand Nashville session guitarist.

Now 36, Kimbrough has just released a CD of his own songs on his own label — a coup he views as a kind of day of reckoning.

“For me now, it’s almost down to the nuts and bolts of how can I do this with some creativity and some soul and have some dignity, because I’m too old to be a little punk anymore,” Kimbrough said in a recent phone interview from his Nashville home.

More to the point: “I can’t tell people to f••k off anymore.”

Kimbrough was resting up after a monthlong tour of Europe before setting out again on a tour of 14 American cities in 16 days, including an upcoming stop in Asheville.

“There’s a lot of strange living that goes on when you go on tour, especially if you go out for a long time,” reports Kimbrough, who’s spent about 100 days on the road in the past year. “You sort of just turn into this animal.”

Still, Kimbrough says he’s excited to be touring now, because it’s the first time in several years that he’s promoting his own product instead of backing up someone else. His new CD, This, was released June 26 on Waxy Silver Records, a label he founded along with a partner and an investor. Reviews and reports on radio airplay have yet to come in, he admits — but Kimbrough’s other solo work has begotten an almost cultic following in certain pockets of the Southeast.

On his latest tour, Kimbrough will come to us as a duo act with singer/songwriter Kim Richey, a Mercury Records artist.

“We do the whole show together,” he explains. “She plays acoustic guitar, and I play electric guitar. We sing together a lot, so all the harmony stuff’s going on. I play electric guitar with a bunch of pedals and stuff. We seem to make a lot of racket for two people.” (Topping the bill for The Basement date is the insightful country-blues-tinged singer/songwriter Kenny Roby, formerly of the beloved North Carolina group 6 String Drag. Roby released his first solo album, Mercury’s Blues, on Ricebox Records earlier this year to warm acclaim.)

When Kimbrough isn’t touring, this celebrated guitarist can be found in Nashville, embroiled in session work:

“There are times of the year when I get a lot of studio work, and I like to do that,” he says. “I can learn from that and make a living off of it. And I actually have gotten really great, creative work in the last couple of years. I’ve gotten to work on whole records with people I really like. I try to keep it to stuff that I feel good about having my name on.”

Making a living with his music is quite important to Kimbrough — in fact, he can’t imagine any other life.

“I’ve considered doing something else, and every time I consider it, music comes around and sucks me back in,” he declares. “I’ve worked temporary jobs from time to time, and flipped pizzas when I was a kid, but that’s it.”

Kimbrough has made his home in Nashville since 1988, though he grew up in Alabama. As a child, the future virtuoso guitarist took piano lessons and played saxophone and violin in school.

“I don’t have any formal training on the guitar, but the other stuff sort of gave me a background,” he explains, adding, “but the guitar took over for me.”

The budding musician crossed his first musical milestone on his 12th birthday, when he got a guitar and a $4 ticket to see Bruce Springsteen in Mobile, Ala., during the 1976 Born to Run tour. “That [concert] was pretty convincing for me,” he allows. Kimbrough’s thoughtful songs and arrangements on his new CD, however, show the influences of other early heroes, particularly the Beatles.

“I love all the classic stuff — the Stones, Hendrix, the Beatles, Dylan, The Band. … I love all the English stuff, like the Kinks. I loved the first wave of punk rock. I loved the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello and the Clash and all that stuff — I’ve been through all those different phases,” he notes. “I have a 4-year-old daughter, and so I’m turning her on to music. I know at some point she’ll probably go techno or whatever, but as long as I’ve got control … she likes Hank Williams, and she likes Louis Armstrong and the Beatles, so that’s great. It’s just timeless stuff.”

But a certain Canada-born star provided the soundtrack for our interview: “I don’t think I sound like Neil Young, but he’s probably the artist that continues on that I respect the most. He just does whatever he wants to do, and he does it good.”

Though Kimbrough is glad to be rid of session work for a while, he says he’s learned a lot from working with other musicians, including some of the hottest acts in modern country and rock (over the years, he’s played with Todd Snider and the Nervous Wrecks, Matthew Ryan, Josh Rouse, Allison Moorer and Garrison Starr).

As a sideman, he relates, “I’ve had to put myself into people’s heads — you learn [to] just let yourself do it, [not to] be scornful to somebody that you’re working with or for. That goes on a lot. That’s a big sideman’s disease, like, ‘Oh man, I could do better than this.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, then go ahead.’

“So I just try to have a good time,” he continues. “If you just free yourself up, then you can do some good work and play something that might move somebody in some way. I don’t know if that’s corny or not, but that’s what music is for me. I’m looking to be moved to some other level other than just driving down the street to the mall. That’s what America has turned into, and we need things that can take us away from that to a better, higher place.”

While working for others in recent years, Kimbrough continued to write. Finally, he came up with the tunes he felt were right for his own solo album.

The guitarist says he couldn’t be happier in his new role as an indie artist:

“I’m not looking for a major label deal at all. I’ve been there … [so] I know that I can make records very inexpensively that are competitive soundwise with just about anything. So I just don’t have any reason to be on a big label.”

To illustrate his point, he tells a story about a friend who cut an album with a major label two years ago; unreleased, it remains in limbo because of corporate mergers and buyouts.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with music,” he observes. “I think art and business just butt heads. And it’s possible to be the one in a million person to be able to do both — I’ve waited long enough.”

For Will Kimbrough, then, maybe This is it.

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