Many years ago, a session musician in Nashville gave Will Kimbrough the key to a career: “If you’re going to survive,” he said, “say yes to everything and sort it out as late as possible.”
That’s how the Alabama-raised singer-songwriter came to stare down a donkey recently.
“We’re at this cool, country horse farm,” he said last week, his phone set to speaker. He was behind the wheel of a 1965 Ford Thunderbird with a V8 and “big old push-button everything.” He was helping a friend shoot a video outside Nashville, a day after he’d gotten back from a recording session at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Not long before that, he was playing the 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida.
He still had gigs in Tennessee and Alabama before heading west with singer-songwriter Brigitte DeMeyer for a run of shows that includes a stop Friday at Harlow’s. The two co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on DeMeyer’s latest record, last summer’s “Savannah Road.”
And Kimbrough continues to work his most recent solo record from last year, “Sideshow Love,” a diverse, funny and moving work focused on love’s many joys and complications.
Which was entirely different from the 2013 record he put out with his Gulf Coast pals in the group Willie Sugarcapps. That had more of a back-porch picker feel, and they have a new record “that’s finished and not out yet,” Kimbrough said. He’s also got a live DVD he recorded in San Francisco last year “that’s finished and not out yet,” he said. A call (and work) from pals like Rodney Crowell or Emmylou Harris or Jimmy Buffett could come at any time.
He’s got a bunch of new songs, too. Another record’s worth, probably.
So the question for Kimbrough isn’t so much about the mysteries of process, of how inspiration sparks and turns into something as magical as a song. It’s how he finds the time. What does his Google calendar look like?
“Kind of like a black square,” he said.
What he figured out – and what’s a good lesson for a lot of us – is this: There’s a time for taking in material, and there’s a time for turning that into music. “Every time you play somebody else’s song,” he says, “you’re taking in ideas for songs.”
He plays with a lot of people. Every time he sets out alone on a drive, the mind opens up and the voice memo function on his phone fills with scraps of lyrics and ideas. He spends a lot of time alone on the road. The rest comes naturally.
“If I say something like, ‘Will, I want this to sound like 1892 back-porch Louisiana,’ he can summon those flavors through his fingers,” DeMeyer said in a separate interview.
The two met in 2010 when DeMeyer moved to Nashville from Southern California. They played a show together in some bar and afterward he gave DeMeyer his card. She was getting ready to make what would become her 2011 record, “Rose of Jericho,” and she asked him to play some guitar. “The next thing you know, he’s asking me to open shows for him,” she said.
Kimbrough’s talent had been ringing out around Nashville a good deal longer. He arrived from Alabama’s Gulf Coast with his band Will and the Bushmen in the 1980s. They put out three records. His next band, the Bis-quits, put out an album in 1993 on John Prine’s label. Then Kimbrough got hooked up with Todd Snider as a member of the Nervous Wrecks. Kimbrough released the first of his seven solo records in 2000.
In 2004, he was the Americana Music Association’s instrumentalist of the year, and those are the chops that get a guy gigs with Crowell, Guy Clark, Rosanne Cash, Prine, the Jayhawks, or the rest of the musical stars on his résumé. Kimbrough can, and has, taken on Johnny Cash’s role in Crowell’s “I Walk the Line (Revisited)” as easily as he can fly to St. Barthélemy and cut surf guitar tracks in Buffett’s living room.
Just as easily, he and DeMeyer settled in and wrote the bulk of “Savannah Road,” which rolls out like a tour of Southern music’s best destinations. She calls it acoustic soul, and the collaboration sounds effortless. “Some of the songs are actual cuts from the day we wrote the song,” DeMeyer said.
The recording process moved fast, or at least fast enough. And it moved within Kimbrough’s hectic schedule. “Being creative isn’t a problem for me,” Kimbrough said. Work means time away, time away means missing what’s at home. That stirs up emotions. Emotions make the best work. He gets to do what he wants to do, and he’s learned to maximize the moments.
“Get on the guitar when you can,” he said. “Or just enjoy the time, and the good people you’re with.”
Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer
What: A mix of country, blues and Southern-soaked Americana from the singer-songwriters
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Harlow’s, 2708 J St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 441-4693; www.harlows.com