WILL KIMBROUGH'S 'ALABAMA'
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Nashville songwriter laments modern-day lynching, finds family in blues and Americana
"Picked up by some folks
Took to me to the woods
Beat me bloody, begged them for my life
They cut my throat
Put a noose around my neck
Hung me from a tree
For all the world to see
I died for you
-from “Alabama (for Michael Donald)” by Will Kimbrough and Dean Owens
People in Mobile, Alabama, awakened on Saturday morning, March 21, 1981, to the ghastly sight of Michael Donald’s body hanging by a noose from a camphor tree. The scene at 112 Herndon Avenue, then a vacant lot in an integrated neighborhood, brought the horrors of Alabama's past into the terrifying present.
The night before, latter-day Klansmen had kidnapped and brutally murdered Mr. Donald, who was only 19 years old, author Laurence Leamer writes in his 2016 book, The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan.
Nashville singer-songwriter-guitarist Will Kimbrough was in the 11th grade at Mobile's Murphy High School at the time, where Mr. Donald also had gone to school. The campus had seen a major desegregation battle in the early 1960s.
Kimbrough began reading Leamer's book in more recent years, while visiting his mother and sister in Midtown Mobile, the same section of town where Mr. Donald’s body was discovered.
Reflecting on Alabama's final lynching, Kimbrough produced the stunning new track on his new record. (See lyrics above, video below.)
There was “no redemption for Michael Donald, but in his name the largest Klan organization was bankrupted,” Kimbrough said over coffee in Nashville's West End, where he and his family have lived for more than two decades. “I’m from the South, and I love it, but it’s crazy … especially if you’re not a white man,” he said.
So, how does a a white man write artfully about such a tragedy, or most any race-related topic, even in today’s South? How to be respectful while bringing lessons of history forward?
“I understand the divide” and the “destruction and potential” of Alabama and much of the South, Kimbrough said.
Kimbrough points out that even during George Wallace’s first years as governor, during the peak of the civil rights movement and the vicious retributions that followed, some of the world’s most inspired music happened in Alabama: In the Muscle Shoals area, American soul, rock, and country music made by black and white musicians together proved subversive in their own down-home way, much like Stax Records up the highway in Memphis.
A rock 'n roll soul: The music that first moved Kimbrough was the menagerie that was pop radio in the 1970s. Growing up, he listened to stations in Mobile and New Orleans. “You’d hear the O’Jays and Ted Nugent… Donna Fargo and The Stylistics,” on the same stations, he said.
Then he found his way to Cream, Zappa, The Who, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Sea Level, and John Prine. “I’m omnivorous when it comes to music,” Kimbrough said.
He really found the fever in 1975 when he got a guitar for his 12th birthday and saw Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run tour in 1976. “It was my second concert ever,” he said.
In college, Kimbrough formed the band Will and the Bushmen, inspired by Athens, Georgia, greats R.E.M., "who made being Southern cool,” he said. By 1987, he got interested in the slide guitar and the Allman Brothers, Keith Richard’s solo work, and the great Ry Cooder.
Kimbrough moved to Music City in 1988 for session work, married in 1992, and started playing with the odd and wonderful Nashville singer-songwriter Todd Snider.
“People ask me, when did Nashville get so cool? I say 1945,” Kimbrough said, “when Cash started working here, Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark. … And there’s always been something cheesy going on here, too.”
Kimbrough organically met some of Nashville’s next generation of musicians and songwriters, many of whom knew and were influenced by those earlier masters. He began to play on dozens of others’ records and now has eight albums of his own. Jimmy Buffett even covered Kimbrough’s “Piece of Work” for the 2004 hit album License to Chill.
Kimbrough joined Rodney Crowell for session work starting on the 2003 modern-Nashville classic, Fate’s Right Hand, and began one of many tours with the Texas-born singer-songwriter. A bit later, Kimbrough joined up with Americana music goddess and Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris, a close musical partner with Crowell over the years.
It was Harris, a Birmingham, Alabama-born folkie who fell in love with country and bluegrass as a young performer in Washington, D.C. (and then became the duet partner of visionary cosmic-country singer Gram Parsons) who helped Kimbrough see he could write and perform delicate material about the South.
Kimbrough first played with Harris on her ambitious rock, country, folk, and soul record Hard Bargain in 2011. The album featured Harris' somber, self-penned “My Name is Emmett Till,” about the 1955 murder of the 14-year-old boy in Mississippi:
"The awful desecration And the evidence of hate You could not recognize me The mutilation was so great
There came a cry for justice then To be finally fulfilled All because of me, a black boy My name is Emmett Till."
Kimbrough remembers overhearing a young person of color sharing how they'd been moved by “Till” after a show in Milwaukee. That stuck with him. More recently, Kimbrough has returned to Harris’ touring band, the Red Dirt Boys.
“Emmylou is a lot of emotion,” he said. “She’s got soul, there’s no doubt it.”
'Alabama' and the blues: Last year, Scottish songwriter Dean Owens, a regular writing partner with Kimbrough (using digital files sent across the sea by e-mail, now a common practice for some songwriters) sent him a melody, with the word “Alabama” at the end of each verse.
Kimbrough added the direct, disturbing lyrics, the guitar parts, and later the bridge. “Then I started thinking about, what if we released this?” he said, pondering how audiences might respond to such a heavy song. Thus far, the reception has been good.
Lately, the Nashvillian also has become a bluesman, producing and playing guitar on Chicago singer Shemekia Copeland’s recent album, America’s Child. At the time of our interview in May, Kimbrough had just returned from Memphis, where Copeland’s record won Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards.
Copeland, who sings with Kimbrough on “Alabama,” also duets on her own record with legendary folkie and songwriter John Prine, whom she’d met at music festivals. To Kimbrough, it all seems part of the same soulful musical stew.
“The blues world is a beautiful, diverse world,” Kimbrough said. “Young kids with tattoos” helped fill the blues awards' audience and played alongside soul and blues legends Bobby Rush and original Stax Records singer-songwriter William Bell.
Copeland and Kimbrough played “Ain’t Got Time for Hate,” her album’s lead track, at the awards program. Co-written by Kimbrough and Copeland’s manager-songwriter John Hahn, it opens with Kimbrough's churning guitar riff. Then Copeland sings:
"It’s the law of the jungle, it’s the law of the land
We hold each other’s hearts in the palm of our hands. …
Rich or poor, gay or straight, we ain’t got time for hate."
How he likes it: Kimbrough’s own new record, I Like It Down Here, covers both serious and lighter Southern musical ground, beyond “Alabama.”
His Byrds-influenced rockers “I’m Not Running Away” (see video below) and “Hey Trouble” (the latter written with Rich McCulley) are catchy and tongue-in-cheek, and seem to pay tribute to Tom Petty, the gone-too-soon native Floridian. The songs also recall some of Kimbrough’s work with the side projects Daddy (with songwriting pal Tommy Womack) and the band Willie Sugarcapps.
Alabama soul also has sunk into Kimbrough’s music. He’s worked with Muscle Shoals legends Spooner Oldham, David Hood, and other white players famous for their sessions with R&B greats Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers and countless others. Those styles inspired one of Kimbrough's best new cuts, “It’s a Sin,” referencing To Kill a Mockingbird. Kimbrough said the idea for the lyric came from a visit to Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee and Truman Capote.
“Daddy says it’s a sin to kill mockingbirds. I think one just fell at my feet,” Kimbrough sings, backed by his own organ, Chris Donohue's bass, and Bryan Owings on drums (who also has played with Emmylou Harris).
As a waltz, the song “can go three ways: country, soul, or country-soul,” Kimbrough said. “I decided to do country-soul,” adding horns from Jim Hoke and some stand-up piano.
“Buddha Blues,” written with Kate Campbell, on whose 2012 album the song appears as “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues,” was inspired by a documentary on how prisoners are soothed by practicing meditation while serving life sentences in Bessemer, Alabama.
Alabama may never cease to be a treasure of songwriting and literary inspiration, but Kimbrough hopes for still waters ahead after the near-election of bigot Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate and the state’s recent intrusion into women’s rights.
As described in the lyrics to “Alabama,” Michael Donald’s killers were convicted in the end, and the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued and held the modern-day Klan responsible. The city of Mobile later renamed Herndon Avenue as Michael Donald Avenue.
But as the song says, Michael Donald’s still gone, and craziness in Alabama and the South continues on.
“Please,” Kimbrough said of recent events in his home state, “let’s not keep doing this.”