Sound Observations: Will Kimbrough’s ‘I Like it Down Here’ reflects his conflicting views about his home state

By Dan Armonaitis
Arts & Entertainment Writer, Spartanburg Herald Journal
Posted Apr 9, 2019 at 4:00 PM

A few years ago, I spoke by phone with musician Will Kimbrough for a story I was writing about Greer-based singer-songwriter Angela Easterling.

The Alabama-born, Nashville, Tenn.-based Kimbrough had produced a couple of Easterling’s albums, and we mostly spoke about that working relationship. Among other compliments, he said that Easterling “writes great songs, and I think she’s got a really cool vision that’s not just your average everyday thing.”

But, in addition to that part of the conversation, we also talked a little about baseball, and what I remember most is him telling me that he had a vintage baseball card of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente on a shelf that he sometimes looks at for inspiration. Clemente, whose career ended with exactly 3,000 hits, famously died in a plane crash at age 38 on Dec. 31, 1972, while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid from his native Puerto Rico to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

Now, I’m not sure if that card played any role in inspiring the songs that comprise Kimbrough’s new solo album, which will be released by Soundly Music on April 19, but I certainly like to think it did in some small way.

“I Like it Down Here,” after all, is a solid all-star worthy effort that comes across to my ears as the sonic equivalent of Clemente gracefully chasing a deep fly ball and then turning to make a canon-like throw to third base to nab a runner trying to advance.

In other words, Kimbrough makes things look easy throughout an album that’s a reflection of his conflicting views about his native state that he loves dearly despite its problems.

While the album includes some fantastic, instantly catchy tracks such as “Hey Trouble,” “I’m Not Running Away” and “When I Get to Memphis,” it’s the more pensive material that packs the biggest punch.

Similar to Easterling’s song, “Isaac Woodard’s Eyes,” which she wrote about an African-American World War II veteran who, in 1946, was savagely beaten by police in a small South Carolina town ”’til they’d robbed him of his sight,” Kimbrough tackles an example of his own state’s racist history in a song called “Alabama (For Michael Donald).” Written from the first-person perspective of the victim of one of the last lynchings in the U.S., which occurred in 1981, the song tears your heart out emotionally.

And then there’s the gospel-tinged “It’s a Sin,” which contains a recurring line about it being a sin to kill mockingbirds that comes across as much more than a veiled social commentary concerning race.

Kimbrough, who is one of the Music City’s most revered contemporary musicians, recently produced and played on Shemekia Copeland’s latest release, “America’s Child,” which is up for Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards to be announced on May 9. One of the tracks, “Ain’t Got Time for Hate,” was co-written by Kimbrough and earned a nomination for Song of the Year.

On Kimbrough’s new album, Copeland provides backing vocals on “Alabama (For Michael McDonald).”

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