Every once in a while, there comes a record you want to play for everyone you can. Will Kimbrough's This is one of those albums. This has everything the alienated rock fan desires: intelligent songs addressing stuff that matters, and tuneful and infectious melodies garnished with imaginative touches. It's the sort of record Neil Finn might have made if he'd been raised in Alabama rather than New Zealand. Like another album that came out the same year, U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, This offers reassurance that modern rock isn't all trickery, flash and poseur attitude, and that heart, eloquence and a broad musical palette still offer the lasting rewards.
Yet This -- which was released on Waxy Silver Records, the tiny Nashville label in which Kimbrough is a partner -- didn't set the world on fire on its release. It wasn't for any lack of effort on Kimbrough's part. "I've managed to tour more than most people I know who have record deals, because I can go and do it," he says.
Kimbrough has always gone and done it. He spent most of the 1980s fronting Will & the Bushmen, one of the most popular bands on the Southern college bar circuit. Looking back on the experience after another decade of national touring, he can appreciate the achievement. "Where the Bushmen did well, no one does well," he says. "No one does well in the Deep South."
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The Bushmen landed a major-label deal at the end of the 1980s with SBK Records. But as so often happens, their label output failed to capture their live magic. Kimbrough's next band, the Bis-quits, which he co-fronted with Tommy Womack, put out a disc on John Prine's Oh Boy Records that piqued ears attuned to pop-rock smarts. But by that time, the mid-'90s, Kimbrough the band guy was ready to go solo.
As soon as he made that decision, he got a call about a sideman job: playing guitar with Todd Snider. Kimbrough had a family to support, so he took the gig. And after a number of years with Snider, he had become the hot hired guitar gun on the hip side of Nashville, and the calls continued to come in for tours with Allison Moorer, Matthew Ryan, Josh Rouse, Rodney Crowell and others. Not the ideal way to launch your own career.
"Being somebody's sidekick and having him throw you a couple of songs a night or open the show is probably not the ultimate self-serving career boost," notes Kimbrough. "But at the same time, if you look at who's out there and playing, and how expensive it is to be out there doing it, I'm out there selling records and playing shows. And Rodney has been incredibly supportive. And then as soon as he stops touring, I can continue on my own."
What Kimbrough has proven at the age of 37 is that even a relatively unknown music veteran can still thrive. When it comes to commercial success, he has "managed to avoid it altogether," he says with a chuckle. Yet with little promotion or press, he has sold 6,000 copies of This, which, it should be noted, happens to be 400 to 500 percent more than some albums with far more money, muscle and buzz behind them. For example, it was recently revealed that Carly Hennessy, an Irish pop singer whom MCA spent over $2 million positioning as the Emerald Isle's Britney Spears, had sold a grand total of 378 CDs.
Not for nothing has Kimbrough come to the conclusion that the music business "is just insane." Yet his love for music and making it hasn't dimmed. To get involved in the star-making machinery, "you really have to want to do it," he says. "In a way, it's just like the desire to play music. If you don't really want to do it, then by God, don't do it."
And that desire to play music still drives Kimbrough. "It's just that same old corny reason: I just like doing this a lot. And I haven't gotten sick of it yet."
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Kimbrough is well aware that he doesn't fit current trends. "I don't know what rock and roll is anymore. I know what it is to me," he says. "I'm definitely the kind of artist who just barely fits in a lot of categories and doesn't really fit in any. The pop-rock thing is almost nonexistent, because everything is so separated out into specialties. I'm not a power-popper, but some of that's in there. It's not all country, but it's Southern, and some of that's in there."
Kimbrough has a new record coming this summer that he thematically likens to John Hiatt's Bring the Family, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, and Cuba by the Silos. "It's a record about home and your family. And traveling and being away from that," he says.
It probably won't hit the top of the pops even if it sounds like it should. Yet Kimbrough seems more satisfied than many artists with far greater sales and public profiles. After all, he gets to make the records he wants to make -- try that on a major label -- and he's making a living.
That's the sort of success that promotion money can't buy. "I was talking to my Waxy Silver partner this afternoon, and we were kind of bitching about something," Kimbrough says. "And then we laughed, and remembered that four years ago we were bitching about something, and then we decided to start a record label. And here we are four years later, and I still own my house, the kitchen's been remodeled. So we decided that if after another four years we're still bitching and I'm still living in this house and I'm not missing meals, we're doing okay."