Will Kimbrough

The Buddhists have a practice called Sati, which translates to English, roughly, as mindfulness. It’s the practice of living in the moment completely aware of your ever-changing situation, focused on what you’re doing right now as well as on what’s coming up in the future. It’s sort of the opposite of ADD, and if you aspire to be, say, a great guitarist, as well as a great singer and songwriter and producer and performer and session man, plus husband, father, and traveler, it might behoove you to bone up on it. Read Pema Chodron and Tich Nhat Hanh, like Will Kimbrough has. And eat your Zen Wheaties.
     Since the spring of 1992, I’ve taken about 500 guitar lessons from Will. I’ve never paid him a dime and in fact I’ve often been paid for taking the lessons, which have amounted to watching him and listening to him at rehearsals and at the shows we’ve played together.
     I remember the first time we ever jammed, at Tommy Meyer’s place at 310 Chapel. Will set up in the basement with a Stratocaster, a beatup Fender Deluxe and a Rat pedal, and became Richard Thompson and Jimi Hendrix made flesh, right in front of me. I was standing there with my useless Telecaster around my torso, a Budweiser in my hand and my jaw on the filthy carpeted floor as William Adams Kimbrough III single-handedly shut down every excuse I’d ever wanted to make for why my picking technique wasn’t better, or why my tone was foggy, or why my rhythm was sloppy, or why my guitar didn’t sound big enough, or professional enough.
     Before meeting Will that day in April ’92, I’d always thought, “Gee, I bet if I had a good tube compressor, then my sound would be smooth and shimmery.” Now there’s Kimbrough sounding smooth as glass without such a toy. Gee, if I had the right expensive humbucker pickups, I’d get that big tone I’ve always heard in my head. Nope, there’s Kimbrough, four feet in front of me, with stock single-coil Fender pickups, and he’s making that sound. Gee, if only I had an expensive amp and a Marshall 4x12 cabinet. Nope, there’s … you get the picture.
     It’s one thing to be in the crowd at a big concert and hear the guitar hero wailing on the stage, or to see such an animal on television. It’s quite another to be standing right in front of the guy and hearing the same type of transcendent noise happening right there in real time. It suddenly makes it all sound possible, like I should be able to do that too. I’ve been trying now 22 years to do that — what Will Kimbrough does. It’s made me a better player, but I’m still not worthy of licking his boots.
     A fan several years back started making and selling T-shirts that say, “Will Kimbrough is an alien.” That’s convenient thinking, because positing that he’s from another planet can excuse us mere humanoids for not measuring up. And hell, maybe he really is an alien. There are other reasons to think so, not just the guitar playing.
     For one, Will Kimbrough works harder than the president. I’ve watched the process with amazement. Will is about as in-demand as a person can get — for session work, road work, producing, songwriting — and he often works a month without a single day off. It is an entirely typical event for him to step off a plane from a three-week tour of Sweden, kiss his wife and children, immediately have to revamp his pedal board, change the strings on his Gibson and leave for California at 5 the next morning, not to be home for six more days. And when he arrives back from that trip, he starts work in the studio the next day for a 10-day album project. I’ve watched it happen. After about 35 to 40 days of this, his head explodes, and once that happens, he takes about 24 hours to collect himself, putters about picking up the fragments of his head and piecing it all back together, and then it all starts up again. I’ve heard him vow many times that he’s not going to work this hard anymore, and then he works another 31 days.
     Will first picked up a guitar at the age of 12 in 1976, in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. His birthday present that year was a red Alamo Fiesta (the off-brandest of all off-brand guitars ever) with a little practice amp. It set his parents back $20, and adjusting for inflation, that’s still a fricking cheap guitar. Having had piano and violin lessons as a younger boy, he was already versed in the basics of music theory. With that schooling in his pocket, he attacked the Alamo Fiesta with resolute determination. (Everyone who’s ever lived with him can testify to how he can practice well into the wee hours of the morning.) Almost immediately, he joined a band: a southern rock group called the Henry Guinn Band. At the age of 16 that band gave way to a more new wave-ish group called Ground Zero. While other kids were stocking grocery shelves or flipping burgers after school, Will was playing in bars he wasn’t old enough to drink in yet, playing until 1 a.m. and running a track meet at school the next morning.
     When Will was 19, Ground Zero moved aside for his first band to gain national prominence, Will & The Bushmen, who made four records in the ’80s and ’90s. Midway through their career, the band moved en masse to Nashville. A deal with SBK Records came their way, the MTV video was shot, the gigs went nationwide, and — as happens so often in this town — it all looked like things were going to come together and sprout fame and glory. But it didn’t happen. What did happen, however, was that the band garnered a devoted following throughout the South. Will supplemented his Bushmen gigs with solo acoustic shows. One night I was playing in Oxford, Miss., with Government Cheese and Will was solo next door. The marquee said: “WEDNESDAY 6-9 P.M. WILL.” Not “Will Kimbrough,” just “Will.”
     “I remember being really turned on by Jimi Hendrix,” Will says, “and there was a period where I really woodshedded on Duane Allman and his bottleneck-slide style. If there were anybody I’d have to rate at the very top of my influences, I’d have to say the Mick Taylor/Keith Richards era of the Stones. For me, Mick Taylor was the peak performer of the British Gibson blues and rock sound. And then when I heard Richard Thompson, he was a door opening to dissonance and Indian quarter tones.”
     I met Will right as the Bushmen were folding up shop in 1992, and we formed a band together called the bis-quits, with Michael “Grimey” Grimes on bass and the aforementioned Tommy Meyer on drums. Our two years together were some of the best times of my life. We made one eponymous record for John Prine’s Oh Boy! label, and it’s a guitar feast.
     In September of ’94, the bis-quits called it quits and Will took a job that would define him for years to come and expose him to a nationwide audience: taking Doug Lancio’s place in Todd Snider’s band. And that’s when he kicked off a noteworthy stretch of road work for a who’swho of national acts: Todd, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Buffett, Josh Rouse, Kim Richey, Marshall Chapman, Adrienne Young, Lisa Oliver Gray, Brigitte DeMeyer and on and on.
     Will’s rising star got another bump in 2004 when he won “Instrumentalist of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards, knocking aside serious competition from the likes of Sam Bush and Buddy Miller.
     Since his solo debut disc, 2000’s This, Will has released a half-dozen well-received records, as well as a couple with a band he has with me called Daddy. He also has a fairly recent(and successful) band with Grayson Capps called Willie Sugarcapps, who just won the “Best New Band” in the Independent Music Awards.
     He’s produced a long line of records for other artists, probably most notable among them being Todd Snider’s seminal East Nashville Skyline. Will’s four years of having played lead guitar for Todd showed in his ability to bring out of Todd what is probably the most fully realized work he’s ever done.
     Along the way, Todd’s association with Jimmy Buffett led to Jimmy appreciating Will’s abilities to the extent that he’s recorded several songs Will wrote outright as well as flying Will to the Caribbean to write songs together. (Nice work if you can get it.) Little Feat recorded “Goodnight Moon” (written by Will and Gwil Owen).
    Will is the farthest thing from a guitar snob. He doesn’t own a slew of vintage electrics that he dares not take out of the house. His goto arsenal consists of a stock Gibson Les Paul Special, a stock Fender Telecaster, a Fender Stratocaster, a Gretsch Tennessee Rose, and a slew of cheap off-brands, including an Aria Les Paul copy that would fetch nil in a pawn shop but sings in the hands of the master. They’re not hallowed trophies; they’re tools, to be used as such. For acoustic gigs he actually does have a rather valuable 1947 Gibson J-45 outfitted with a Fishman Rare Earth pickup. This replaced a Martin D-18 that was persecuted repeatedly by the airlines, and a Yamaha that was his closest companion for over two decades. For amps, he prefers small 1x12 combos in the 18-22 watt range, preferably without a master volume, and low wattage enough that he can crank the power tubes up to an agreeably creamy level which he can back down to a clean tone with a volume pedal on the floor. For Willie Sugarcapps gigs — in which he switches between acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo — Will employs a Seymour Duncan DTAR preamp interface that helps him adjust the various output signals from those instruments.
    His playing style is marked by precision and economy. Most all guitarists are guilty of “ghost notes,” the faint buzz of knocking against the G string on your way to hitting the B string you intended to strike. Will doesn’t do ghost notes. The result is a clarity and coherence to everything he plays. He has an uncanny ability to sit in with other artists and play songs he’s never heard before. He was born with this ability, but it is also perhaps the best example of his mindfulness; in 20 years of playing with him, I’ve learned only one trick from him on how to do this: Whatever key the song is in, hit the fifth note (say you’re in the key of E, then you would play a B note) and let it ring, then stand there and look cool. It works every time. One other asset to his fretting hand is that his pinky stays in place, uniformly adjacent to the rest of his fingers, not flying away akimbo. That skill took six months of painstaking practice decades ago, and is a vital ingredient in his chording style now.
    Will has never viewed his records (or other people’s) as vehicles for hot-dogging. (If that’s what you want, the Eric Johnson records are filed under J.) The old Nashville adage is, “Don’t play your instrument. Play the song.” The end result is that record lovers who fall for Kimbrough over spare, elegiac songs like “Wings” and “Hill Country Girl” come to the shows, and then they get treated to extended middle sections of fretboard wizardry, bursts of liquid lightning fills, and outros that serve as his platform for stretching out and playing lead passages that tell stories.
    Rodney Crowell has said that when he grows up, he wants to be Will Kimbrough. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” Will says. “I’m very lucky that I get to do what I love and can support my family by playing shows, playing sessions, producing other artists and — through all that — make a living in Nashville.” He will continue to make that living, juggling multiple projects, and maintaining a serene Zen mindfulness about the whole twangy ball of wax.