A chat with Will Kimbrough of Willie Sugarcapps about Americanafest, collaboration, and the drive to make music

By: Chris Griffy Sep 6, 2016

 When the Americana Music Festival rolls into Nashville Sept. 20-25, fans will find some familiar faces waiting for them at The Family Wash on Sept. 23.While many may not know the name of the band performing, Willie Sugarcapps, most will know some if not all of the core players in this Americana supergroup made up of Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, the duo Sugarcane Jane, and instrumentalist Corky Hughes. Kimbrough especially has been an integral part of the Americana Music Festival almost since its inception. AXS reached Will Kimbrough by phone to chat about the band's upcoming Americanafest show, the group's formation, and the history of South Alabama music. 

AXS: Before we talk about your upcoming Americanafest performance with Willie Sugarcapps, I wanted to reach back to your history with the Americana Music Association because you've been part of nearly every aspect from performing to sitting in with other artists to moderating Conference panels. 

Will Kimbrough: Well, I've been a part of that world since it started. I was playing with Todd Snider in the '90s, then with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. I won an award in 2004 for Instrumentalist of the Year, which was a major honor. My records have been on the Americana charts since the early '00s and Willie Sugarcapps is another part of that. It's an ongoing relationship. As it's grown my role shifts and changes as my career goes on. 

AXS: People may not be familiar with the name Willie Sugarcapps, but this is a bit of an Americana supergroup with you, Grayson Capps, Sugarcane Jane, and Corky Hughes who may not be as familiar a name but has played with practically everybody. Can you tell me a little about how you came together as a band? 

WK: We're all from Alabama and in particular lower Alabama and we met at a wonderful concert series called The Frog Pond in Silverhill, Alabama. A great promoter and music lover named Cathe Steele put us together in the round, which is never “in the round” unless you're at The Bluebird but in a line and we swapped songs between Grayson, who had Corky with him, Sugarcane Jane, who is Anthony and Savannah Crawford, and me. Grayson started singing the first song and everybody joined in singing harmony on the chorus even though we'd never played the song together before. Then I did a song and the same thing. And on and on all day until we had this thing going on that felt like a band. 

I had met Anthony a few times over the years in Nashville but never gotten to know him and I had never met Savannah or Grayson, and I knew Corky but we hadn't seen each other for a while. But there was an instant chemistry and an affection and empathy for each other because we'd had a lot of the same experiences. We just had this instant bond and instant team and then we recorded one day which turned into our first album which did really well for us. People started to like the band and what we were about, which was being very organic about it. Then we made a second record at FAME in Muscle Shoals. Trina Shoemaker mixed and co-produced both records. We've been really delighted and happy to have each other's company as a band. After a little break in the summer, we're about to hit it hard again and Americanafest is part of that. 

AXS: You spoke about all of you being from South Alabama and in recent years producers like Dave Cobb and John Paul White have really brought the sound of Muscle Shoals back into style, but people are probably less familiar with the music of Lower Alabama. Can you talk a little about that? 

WK: In our band, the influences are coming from the individual people. Grayson brings his own Southern Gothic storytelling style that he got from living in New Orleans for years. 

I grew up in the rock and roll world, although it all had a Southern tinge to it and that Southern tinge has gotten more pronounced over the years. Which is, I think, the combination of things that make up Americana which is country and blues and bluegrass and gospel and a traditional form of rock and roll from the likes of Elvis and Chuck Berry. Then there's the Chicago blues, which traces back to Delta blues. And we think of Delta blues as the only kind of traditional blues but everybody had it. It was just an easy stamp to say a guy with an acoustic guitar and a slide is “Delta blues.” So all of that seeped in. Then that music influenced a lot of rock and rollers like The Band, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, or The Rolling Stones. And you delve back into those influences to get Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Etta James, The Staples Singers. I think the Gulf Coast sound is from many of the same influences as most other rootsy American music. It's that mixture that everyone's been mixing up since the blues singers rode the train to Chicago or Elvis moved to Memphis. The Gulf Coast never had a recording scene that made a splash like Muscle Shoals, but it has great musicians throughout. 

AXS: When you have a band made up of successful solo artists, how do you approach songwriting? Is it individual or a collaborative effort? 

WK: It starts out individually. For example, I had written a song for our new album Paradise Right Here that I sent Grayson a worktape of, and it was called “The River Breaks My Heart” and was more of a song about going back home and that flood of memory in your heart. And because I was traveling so much at the time, he said “man, as much as you're on the road, you should call it 'The Highway Breaks My Heart!” So that was a bit of collaboration. 

The biggest collaboration comes when it's played live. Most of our songs have been worked up on stage at someplace like The Frog Pond where the atmosphere is so relaxed that we'll just say to the audience “hey, I've got a new song I'm going to try out on these guys.” So our collaboration is learning and improvising until we find what we like best. Then it continues to evolve as we tour it, which is a bit of an influence of someone like The Grateful Dead, trying to find a new path every time we play while trying to keep the songs recognizable. Our one band rule is that if a band member asks a yes or no question, the other members are almost required to say yes. If that's what you want to do, we'll try it. Grayson put it well one time when he said it was “like a vacation from your solo career.” 

AXS: Your show is coming up at Americanafest on Sept. 23 at The Family Wash, which is not a new venue in Nashville but is one for Americana. Can you tell folks who might not be familiar what to expect when they come to see you? 

WK: Well, if you're not familiar with us I'd say that if you like four part harmony, country, blues, bluegrass, rock and roll, multiple instruments, and great songs, I think you'll be happy you came to see us. It'll be lively and it'll be interactive with the audience. The Family Wash is a great venue. It's really a fixture of the East Nashville music scene. The stage is great, the sound is great, the food is great, they've got great beer. I'm happy about it. I'm going to eat and have a beer and play music with my friends. 

AXS: Do you have any other appearances at Americanafest? 

WK: Yeah! I'll be playing a few songs with Phil Madeira's Mercyland on Sept. 22. I participated in both of those albums and Phil and I played together with Emmylou Harris. So we'll be doing the songs we did together for Mercyland. 

AXS: You mentioned that you guys are getting ready to hit it pretty hard with Willie Sugarcapps, but what else do you have going the rest of the year. 

WK: I'll be doing a lot of solo shows as well as shows with Willie Sugarcapps. Then I have some dates with Brigitte DeMeyer. We have a duo record coming in 2017 called Mockingbird Soul. I'm always doing session work and working on records. I'm working on a Sam Baker record and a Dean Owens record. I just finished a world music project with this artist from the Arctic named Sami. All kinds of stuff. I've been collaborating with Tommy Womack in our band called Daddy. I'm not afraid of multiple collaborations because life is short and why put it off? The state of the music industry today is that I don't have to satisfy a big record company, I just have to service my fans with new music and that keeps me on the road and not sitting home twiddling my thumbs! Most people who write novels have other jobs too. They write novels because they need to write novels. I need to make music. 

You can see Will Kimbrough with Willie Sugarcapps at the Americana Music Festival on Sept. 23 at Family Wash. The Americana Music Festival as a whole will be held Sept. 20-25 in venues throughout Nashville.