Last Man Standing

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Any way you look at it, Wilson's contribution to "High Water" is the finest thing to come out of any Thunderbird in quite some time. And Wilson, for one, isn't about to argue the point.

"Not to toot my own horn here, but I think 'High Water' is a classic song," says Wilson. "It's so fuckin' heavy."

Putting it mildly, Kim Wilson isn't an easy person to track down. Last year, Wilson estimates, he lived out of pocket no less than 246 days. While on tour, his lifeline is a voice-mail pager with an 800 number. And even if you do manage to get a message to him, there's no guarantee he'll return the call any time soon, especially if (as in my case) the T-Birds' tour bus happens to be battling a blizzard in Cleveland.

Once he's glued to the phone, though, it's all anyone can do to pry him away. On this particular December morning, Wilson is keeping the rest of the Thunderbirds -- guitarist Kid Ramos, bassist Willie J. Campbell, keyboardist Gene Taylor and drummer Jimi Bott -- waiting while he ponders High Water's dreary commercial performance thus far. Released in May to raves from the press, the CD has yet to show signs of life outside critical circles.

"It's all a moot point if it doesn't get to the radio," says Wilson. "It's kind of up in the air; it's a jump ball."

But then Wilson quickly turns philosophical. "No matter what you give, sometimes it's just not the time," he says. "If it truly pans out that High Water just kind of flies by people, [Kortchmar and Jordan] are the ones who are going to be disappointed, and that's what disappoints me."

It's not as if Wilson hasn't had letdowns before. He actually prides himself on his ability to bounce back from just about anything; his keeping the Fabulous Thunderbirds rolling along all these years is a testament to that. Lord knows, the T-Birds have seen their share of rocky terrain since they exploded out of the Austin scene in the mid-1980s, feeding off the good-time charge of the hits "Wrap It Up," "Stand Back" and their Top Ten breakthrough, "Tuff Enuff." Come 1986, the T-Birds were one of the leading beneficiaries of a roots-rock revival sparked a few years before by so-called New Wavers such as Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and Jason and the Scorchers. Thanks in large part to the Edmunds-produced Tuff Enuff CD, the group's fan base ballooned. It was all the reason Wilson and the others needed to stay on the road until their bodies gave out.

As a result, the band was showing signs of burnout by the end of the decade. Co-founder Jimmy Vaughan gave his notice in 1990, and his departure might have signaled the beginning of the end if it hadn't been for Wilson, whose stubborn resolve has willed the band along ever since. Only rarely has he allowed anything -- lineup changes, label and money issues, what have you -- to impede the Fabulous Thunderbirds' pursuit of roadhouse rock and roll.

"Little ups and downs don't faze me," says Wilson, "because whether they're ups or they're downs, I'm going to dig in just as hard."

Now, as the only original T-Bird left, Wilson is the sole arbiter of the band's fate. For what it's worth, he has long since left Texas, returning a few years ago to California, the state in which he was raised. By most indications, everyone else in the group seems to have little problem putting their faith in Wilson. Touring behind High Water, the other T-Birds were given the unenviable task of re-creating -- or rather, reinterpreting -- what went on in the studio between Wilson, Kortchmar and Jordan. According to Wilson, they've responded famously.

"They were very cool about the whole thing," he says. "[They knew] I couldn't take the music out of the hands of the guys that invented it. And to be honest with you, I didn't think the band was ready to do a record at that point."

Once he gets back home to Orange County, Wilson plans to assemble the road band for a studio release. And the music on this T-Birds CD, he adds, promises to be a far more accurate reflection of its billing than was the case on High Water.

"I had it in my mind that I was gonna make the T-Birds something different every time out. I still think that theory could work," Wilson says. "And who knows? Down the line, maybe High Water will sell itself. That would be beautiful. Then I could thumb my nose at a lot of people."

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Hobart Rowland