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Nashville Scene More Than This

After years as a sideman, Will Kimbrough emerges with solo album

By Michael McCall

JULY 31, 2000:  Will Kimbrough used to talk about leaving the music business quite regularly. He never stopped loving music; he just got tired of being led down the golden road to success, only to run smack into a brick wall each time. After all, this is a guy who once belonged to a band named The Bis-quits--so called because each member was at the point of quitting the business when he joined. And even that group, started solely for fun, ended up in a promising deal that turned sour. So maybe no one would have blamed him if he'd left, but many would have missed him.

Fortunately, that's no longer an issue. "It seemed like every time I tried to get out, something happened," the singer-songwriter-guitarist says. "After a while, I realized it was happening for a reason. I mean, this is what I do. I'm supposed to be playing music."

As it turns out, Kimbrough not only stayed, he flourished--but in a way no one would have predicted. For the last six years, Kimbrough has toiled largely as a guitarist, becoming one of the most in-demand rock and roots sidemen in town. And now, at long last, he's emerged with his first solo album, This. The new disc shows that he has not only maintained the gifts for melody and clever songcraft that once made him such a promising young rocker, he's also matured into a songwriter of depth, a record-maker who realizes that there can be more to rock 'n' roll than bar-room anthems and winking hilarity.

For many of his fans, the album fulfills a desire to see Kimbrough return to where they think he belongs--center stage. The onetime boy wonder had been a lead singer since his first club gig at age 12 in Birmingham, Ala.; he'd been leading bands ever since, including a long stint with Will & the Bushmen, a crisp rock band that had been immensely popular throughout the Southeast in the 1980s, until a major-label deal went rotten and broke their spirit. But in 1994, weeks after The Bis-quits split up--and as a 30-year-old Kimbrough once again contemplated alternate career paths--he got a call from singer-songwriter Todd Snider. Newly signed to a major record deal, Snider wanted to form a rockin' roots band, and he asked Kimbrough to play guitar.

"I thought, 'What the heck?' " Kimbrough recalls. "His music was great, and it sounded like it would be fun to play. I thought it would be a nice diversion for a little while."

The job lasted four years. As a member of Snider's band, The Nervous Wrecks, the agile Kimbrough gave the bandleader the opportunity to be as eclectic as he wanted to be, playing everything from delicate acoustic tunes to scorching pub rockers. Others took notice, and before long, Kimbrough was among the most in-demand guitarists in Nashville's rock community. Like Kenny Greenberg, Doug Lancio, and Kenny Vaughan before him, he began juggling a calendar full of dates with various Nashville bands, all of them offering something interesting and something different. Over the last few years, Kimbrough could be seen and heard playing with Matthew Ryan, Tommy Womack, Garrison Starr, and, more recently, Josh Rouse, Kim Richey, and Allison Moorer.

"At some point it just felt refreshing for me not to be the singer," says Kimbrough, a soft-spoken fellow who comes across with the thoughtfulness of a professor rather than the boisterousness of a rock 'n' roller. "It was interesting to watch it from the other side for a while. I needed to do that, I think. I thought I could learn from it, and I could do good work. And for a while there, I really wasn't ready to make my own record again."

At a certain point, however, that changed. And now Kimbrough has returned with This, a fresh reminder of his long-held strengths: strong melodies, clever tunes, bristlingly energized playing. Kimbrough also reveals some lessons he's learned in the past few years; his songwriting has more depth and personal revelation, and his arrangements feature more expansive textures.

"I came to realize that a record is something you listen to in a different way than when you hear a band in a bar," he says. "In the past, I always wanted the record to reflect what we did onstage. If someone wanted to put strings on a record, I would have been against it, because it wouldn't have been how we did it at the bar. Well, those things work in a bar for a reason. But a record is purely for listening. So now I have strings, and I know people who play trumpet and tuba and violin, so I put them on there too. It's still important to me to have a record that has soul. But there can be something there listening-wise too."

Indeed, some of the album's strengths come from its sonic flourishes. Songs like "I'm on Your Side" and "We're All for Sale" are old-styled Kimbrough rockers subtly embellished with moody textures. Those are rounded out by ballads and mid-tempo tunes, such as "Goodnight Moon," "Chimayo," and "Dream Away," suffused with a newfound atmospheric quality. Just as appealing, though, is Kimbrough's lyrical introspection. From the pointed commentary to a burned-out friend in "Closer to the Ground," to a series of songs that explore love and the loneliness of being away from home, Kimbrough reveals his growth as a songwriter.

"I'm over being angry at the system," he says. "I realized that music has led me to a good place. I get to play and to travel with people I like and respect. I am part of this underbelly community in Nashville, this pop scene that's really thriving and has all these inspiring, creative people in it. I guess I've just learned to take music for what it is: this thing that I love."

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