Interview: Will Kimbrough on “I Like It Down Here,” Alabama History and “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Interviews

Scratch the surface and you’ll find Will Kimbrough almost almost anywhere you look in the Americana music scene: he is the guitar playing, songwriting, singer onstage with people and playing on their records; the Alabama native who produces and plays in Nashville and radiates out from there; but this spring he is releasing a new album, I Like It Down Here. Americana Highways was lucky enough to find Will Kimbrough in a free moment and talk to him by phone to find out more about some of the more profound connections he’s made in this record.

AH: What’s the significance of the title track: “I Like it Down Here”?

WK: This song is a celebration of people I know and I love, it’s a celebration of all these odd characters down South.

AH: On the song “It’s a Sin” you sing about how it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, what is that about?

WK: “It’s a Sin” is a tribute to the Harper Lee book, To Kill A Mockingbird. “Daddy” is Atticus Finch, and it’s “a tired old town,” and “Daddy says it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, and I hear one singing up there.” No matter how your life is going there will be people who want to take you down just for being yourself sometimes. But the mockingbird is a symbol of an innocent being, simply speaking its mind and expressing itself.   The lines at the end of that song are “I hear one singing up there, I think one just fell at my feet,” and then the final line is: “I’ll bust out singing before long.”

The world may feel from time to time like it’s trying to silence you from expressing yourself, but there is also a powerful will to express oneself inside every being – from a mockingbird to a person to an elephant or a cow. The will to do it is there, and that’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because we are born to express ourselves. We don’t have to get in anybody else’s way to do it. But innocent babies come into this life singing their little hearts out and little kids are so uninhibited, but then by the time you get to adulthood, that need to express ourselves starts getting inhibited. So this song is meant to remind people: we are born to express ourselves and there is nothing wrong with it. It’s about the book but it’s about that larger concept too.

AH: People do seem to hold themselves back sometimes, out of fear. For example, most people would feel at least initial fear about performing in front of people.

WK: We should all be more brave. Some of the shiest people are performers. Some of the most successful performers are shy people. But they get up and express themselves.

And it’s funny, I played the other night in front of a small group of people I didn’t know, in a small room with a small sound system and no place for me to go like a dressing room or anything. Before I performed I was just hanging out with everyone and then it came time for me to perform and in a way it was kind of awkward on the one hand, but then it was also easy and really good. I’ve been doing this a long time, and still find that situations can be radically different.

AH: You’ve played on huge stages too, with Jimmy Buffett or Emmylou Harris.

WK:   Sometimes performing on the biggest stage is the easiest thing because it’s so impersonal. It’s great and it’s neat. The biggest show I’ve ever played was with Emmylou Harris at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; that show was estimated to be in front of 150,000 people. The crowd stretched completely to the horizon and were unrecognizable as individuals, it was like a throbbing mass that would move like waves in the ocean, and it was fascinating to look at. But when you’re playing there’s nothing to latch on to except each other, and even there you’re on this large stage maybe 20 feet apart, and the band is all kind of looking over at each other at a distance making music, and that was great, but it was a very specific feel.

And then playing in a smaller place where you can see people’s reactions or hear their voice come out of their mouth individually is pretty great too.

AH: Let’s talk about your song “Alabama (For Michael Donald).” This song is about Michael Donald – a 22 year old young African American man who was lynched in 1981. It seems incredible that there a lynching here in America that recently.

WK: That incredulity is exactly why I wrote that song. And the fact that it happened in my hometown, in Mobile, Alabama, to a kid I went to high school with was shocking. I never knew him, he was a year or two older than me but of course we heard all about it, it was front page news, somebody was hanging from a tree.

In writing the song, I wrote the story down as plainly as I could. I didn’t want to add anything to it, because it’s not my place to do that. I just wanted to tell that story.

There is a book that came out in 2017, you can find the reference in my liner notes — The Lynching, the Laurence Leamer book –which presented a lot of information and brought it all back for me. The story in the book is so shocking because there’s a lot of information about the power structure. People from the South, particularly white people from the South, we grow up telling ourselves that, like, if our family had slaves, that “our family was good to our slaves” – that’s a way of making yourself or your family feel not guilty of something. But for the most part we don’t know our past family.   We don’t want to be guilty of what happened in the past, but we really don’t know.  

There’s always a lot more going on behind every story. But really what happened in this story is that Michael went out to get a pack of cigarettes for his sister. And he was picked up and forced into a car by strange white men and that was that. He was lynched. He died.

That was shocking enough, and then that it happened in 1981, and then for me that it happened in my town, where I was attending that public high school at the time, running track with people of all races, creeds and colors, was a lot of layers to be shocked about.

But in the end, because somebody stuck with it and filed a civil suit, that bankrupted the largest Klan organization in America at that time. It took until 1985 or ’86 for that to happen, but, you could say there’s at least one good thing that came from that very bad thing.

AH: You have Shemekia Copeland singing with you on the song, “Alabama,”  which must have been a powerful experience particularly on this song, as a white man to sing with an African American woman.

WK: It is an amazing experience working with her anyway, but yes, it was powerful, in particular on this song. And this song is meant to remind us that, as William Faulkner said: “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” This reminded me of that. And there’s a lot of racial tension now, here in our country and in the world. I’m not a fan of that behavior.

When you make an album, there is a time delay. And you need your songs to be relevant enough that they aren’t about something so specific that they are not relevant anymore by the time they actually come out. You’ve had to record them, mix then master them, get the artwork finished and then actually get them made available in various forms to people.

On the one hand, you usually hope the songs are still relevant by that time but on the other hand, for things like this, you wish they wouldn’t be still relevant. And that’s significance of this song. This happened when I was a teenager, and this book came out more than thirty-five years later and really spilled the beans on what was going on in my lifetime and is still going on. It was eye opening. Things that are eye opening are worth saying.

AH: You are in a unique position to help process this event that we would think we as a nation would have been “beyond.”

WK: I’m from the city, too. Mobile is a city with 5 colleges and 300,000 people, it’s very urbane, lots of sophisticated people live there.

That’s another thing that’s shocking. This wasn’t at some rural crossroads, this was in midtown Mobile.

AH: What’s happening in your song “Anything Helps”?

WK: That song is from the point of view of a homeless person. I wrote that song with Dean Owens, a friend of mine who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was in Austin one day and he was in the homeless shelter where he was going to perform; he has this experience witnessing people who are homeless, this song is about that.

Not everybody volunteers with the homeless, not everybody is around homeless people a lot, so this song brings the experience to a wider audience.

For my experience with homelessness, I produced a record by an artist named Doug Seegers. He was a rock star in Scandinavia, he made his first album when he was fresh out of the homeless shelter. He was discovered by a Swedish film crew and I got the job to produce his record. And he’s a streetwise dude but he’s also a talented human being.  

And you realize that everybody is just a person. A homeless person is just a person. And the guy who got lynched was just going to the store. Just normal average people. And so part of the message of the album is that we all have the same amount of value, and we are all just people.

AH: “Buddha Blues” is a song about prisoners, what is that one based on?

WK: There is a maximum security prison outside of Birmingham, Alabama and it is particularly maximum security for prisoners who are not eligible for parole, and it’s almost 100% African American men. You can find in my liner notes again a reference to a film that was made: The Dhamma Brothers about some people who teach meditation who went in and taught these prisoners to meditate. They made a film about what happened to these folks and how the experience was transformative and helped add meaning to their lives even though they were going to spend the rest of it behind bars. This song is about that.

AH: You have so many roles to play within the music business, I heard Todd Snider mention you onstage just last month, as “his buddy who co-wrote Horseshoe Lake,” you are really active in so many aspects of music making.

WK: That is the way I am! I’ve been asked to do things and one thing led to another. Starting out I said yes to a lot of things just trying to feed my kids, and then I started to get such interesting work. I’ve gotten to work with Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, Mavis Staples, Steve Poltz, Emmylou Harris, and so many others, and the inspiration that I receive from these folks makes me feel so lucky. Really.

Sometimes things do get complicated, like when I have to navigate travelling 1200 miles home after working all weekend.

And right now I’m dedicated to these Kickstarter folks who helped fund this album and that’s a large undertaking to fulfill for people from everywhere from Stockholm to Toronto to Tokyo to New Zealand! But I am very grateful for them all.

I’m a musician and a songwriter and a producer and a singer, and although I am not really a businessman, I also have to run the business of it, and get myself through borders and airports, and know how to use ProTools and be a shipping department, and play many instruments, and make sure the things that sound a certain way in your brain get out there onto a CD or a download! So yeah, I am diversified. (Laughs)

AH: What’s on the horizon for you?

WK: I’ll be out playing and I hope people will give a listen to the new record.

AH: We really enjoyed the album! And thank you for talking to me!

WK: Thank you!

https://www.willkimbrough.com/

 

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