For those of us who don’t live in the American South, and have only visited it occasionally, it’s the place of good greasy food, sing-songy vocal accents, a troubled Civil Rights history, and ignorant folks. Southerner Will Kimbrough would probably agree with the first three traits, but his insightful tribute to the region, I Like It Down Here, suggests that what is taken for ignorance is just a pose to fool others. That has been a Southern trope since the end of the Civil War, if not earlier (think of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories). Kimbrough sometimes might act like a dumb hick on his latest album, but as its title suggests he loves the South, flaws and all, and is smart enough to recognize its failings as well as its charms.
And perhaps “flaws” and “failings” are too mild descriptions for murder and other troubles that Kimbrough addresses. The most poignant track on the album concerns the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald Herndon in “Alabama”. Kimbrough bitterly retells the story through the ghostly voice of the victim. “They cut my throat / Put a noose around my neck / hung me from a tree,” he sings in a plaintive tone. Whew. The simple words say it all.
The narrator of “Alabama” noted that the men who did this to him were caught and tried. The song that follows, “Buddha Blues” is narrated by a man in prison—maybe not Herndon’s killer, but a murderer nonetheless. He’s angry but learns to reflect instead of just react. The song ends with the lines “Alabama here we rest / Live in Light and Peacefulness.” The capitalization is Kimbrough’s as printed in the liner notes. Redemption exists.
Kimbrough produced the record. He sings and plays guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. He’s joined by a small combo (Chris Donahue on bass, Bryan Owings on drums and percussion) and guest stars such as Shemekia Copeland, Brigitte DeMeyer on individual cuts. Kimbrough has a pleasant voice that’s frequently conversational in tone. He’s a great player, as evidenced by winning the Americana Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year award in the past. He has toured with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Todd Snider and his songs have been recorded by Little Feat, Jimmy Buffett, and Jack Ingram. Kimbrough is also the other half of the cult band Daddy with Tommy Womack. I Like It Down Here is Kimbrough’s first solo recording in five years, and it’s clear that he’s saved up a bunch of excellent songs.
There are upbeat songs as well as the more serious tracks. The title cut sultrily captures the working class joys of everyday living on the rural route. The story of one of life’s down-and-outers, “Anything Helps”, offers a clear-eyed view of one’s lot in life with a whistle and a smile. “It’s a Sin” recapitulates the story of To Kill a Mockingbird with its theme of empathy. The South may not be a perfect place, but Kimbrough displays its riches through these tales of life.
Kimbrough paints the South as he sees it with compassion and fellow feeling. He identifies with it; all ten songs are written and sung in the first person. He’s saying in essence, if you like me you have to love the South, like a date who demands affection for their pet. That’s cool, but Kimbrough will not be enticing tourists. I Like It Down Here is a blues record. The songs may not contain the word in their titles, but the blues elements are clear when listening. Kimbrough may love the South. I’ll enjoy the record and stay here.