Review: Will Kimbrough Writes a Warts and All Love Letter to the South on 'I Like It Down Here'
Songs about the South typically fall into one of two categories. There's the unabashed love song to all things Southern, think “The South's Gonna Do It Again”, or there's the equally one-sided criticisms like “Southern Man.” Any objective person living in the South knows the truth of the region is somewhere in the middle. The South has made immeasurable contributions to the music, food, and culture that has formed the American experience. But it has also brought us Jim Crow laws, public lynchings, and the worst kinds of atrocities committed in the name of religion. One person who gets that balance is Will Kimbrough. Raised in Alabama's Gulf Coast region and a resident of Nashville since the early '80s, where he was a formative part of that city's early rock and roll scene, Kimbrough's new album I Like It Down Here deftly mixes love letters to the place he calls home with an acknowledgment of the less than savory elements that also exist.
I Like It Down Here is less openly political than Kimbrough's 2006 anti-war masterpiece Americanitis, but the singer has made no secret that the 2016 election, and the rise of white nationalist rhetoric in the South, were on his mind when he wrote the album. Rather than directly attack current events as he did on Americanitis, Kimbrough instead pulls inspiration from history, especially on the album's standout track “Alabama (For Michael Donald).” The hauntingly spare song told from the first person, from the grave, perspective of Michael Donald, the victim of the South's last public lynching, in the depressingly recent past of 1981. Kimbrough's take on Donald's tale is an interesting one because, while an obvious stain on the state's reputation, Kimbrough doesn't finish with the lynching but rather lets the story play out to its much more satisfying conclusion, the bankrupting of the organized Ku Klux Klan via Donald's mother's multi-million dollar civil judgment. It's the album's best job of balancing the South's worst and best tendencies, and the choice to tell it as if being watched by Michael Donald's spirit is inspired. It's hard not to get a chill when Kimbrough drones “I hope you won't forget... Alabama.”
Another album highlight is the title track. It's another first-person narrative, this time of a man who is proud of his “white trash” label, reveling in waking up in the mid-afternoon and cracking a cheap beer before going to catch “really fine trash fish off the peir.” There's a braggadocio that will be familiar to any Southerner who has known someone like this, an assurance that “if I had a job, I would get 'er done” but there's just so much more interest in “a homemade wine from a scuppernog.” The song also features some of Kimbrough's best blues riffs on the album.
For those looking for more up tempo songs need look no further than album opener “Hey Trouble.” The Tom Petty-inspired song is a winking nod to a person who seems to find trouble so much that he has embraced it. Early in the song, Kimbrough sings “a black cat crossed my mind.” It's hard to think of a more succinctly, or brilliantly, written bit of musical poetry to describe those with a talent for finding trouble, so much so that he ends with “hey trouble, let's go for a ride.”
“Salt Water and Sand” is the most unabashed love letter to the South on the album. Unsurprisingly, considering the pair's long history of collaboration, there's an element of early Jimmy Buffett to the song, channeling tunes like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” or “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, before the Parrothead Empire became a marketing tool and every song had to be a four minute party. On “Salt Water and Sand”, Kimbrough tells of the soul cleansing properties of his birth home on the Gulf Coast, where the salty air can sweep away your cares.
There are plenty more gems where those came from, from the distorted guitar wail of “Buddha Blues” to the r&b undertones of “When I Get to Memphis” to the slice of life feature of a homeless man whose “only list is this here bucket” in “Anything Helps” or the nod to Alabama's most famous author, Harper Lee, on “It's a Sin.”
Of course, no Will Kimbrough album would be complete without collaborations galore and the man who is a member of at least four bands or duos at any given time has plenty. Shemekia Copeland, the blues vocalist whose award-nominated 2018 album was produced by Kimbrough , guests, as do his Willie Sugarcapps bandmates from Sugarcane Jane, long time duet partner Brigitte DeMeyer, and some of his fellow bandmates in Emmylou Harris' Red Dirt Boys.
Also unsurprisingly from one of Nashville's best producers and instrumentalists, the production is near perfect and the guitar work on I Like It Down Here is sublime. While a past Americana Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year, Kimbrough is still underrated as a guitarist. This is primarily because he forgoes flashiness for function. He's an artist who can play rock, country, blues, soul, and pretty much any genre he puts his mind to but always does so with the exact number of notes needed to serve the song.
While all of his various bands and collaborations have been satisfying, it's good to have Kimbrough back in the saddle as a solo artist for the first time in five years. Times like these need singers like Will Kimbrough. He's one of roots music's best historians while never feeling like a throwback artist and I Like It Down Here is just what Americana needed in times like this.
Kimbrough has an album preview show at Nashville's Radio Cafe on Apr. 15 before his official album release party on Apr. 19 at Eddie's Attic in Atlanta. He will then hit the road for a series of solo shows, both as a headliner and opener for longtime pal Todd Snider. You can see his full run of dates here.