By Blair Jackson
I can hear the muffled thumping of a bass line coming from inside the house. I knock on the door, but no one answers.
A cat sidles up to my ankle and begins meowing. I kneel down to pet the animal, and as I run my fingertips through her short black fur, I notice she has only three legs.
I stand and knock again.
The cat meows, louder.
The lace curtain draws back, then the doorknob rattles. A tall thin man introduces himself as David Kimbrough’s manager.
The cat leaps over the threshold and disappears. I follow suit.
Inside David Kimbrough’s home, there is a familiar sense of the Deep South. In the living room, David sits on a bed that serves as a sofa. An acoustic guitar lies in his lap. In a green bassinet, next to the bed, lies a baby boy. A man with long blonde hair sits across from David, a bass slung around his neck.
I am introduced to bass player Bruce Bennett and 2-month-old David Kimbrough IV, nicknamed “Bug.” Bug’s father appears relaxed, wearing a ski hat and a sleeveless shirt that reveals tattoos — Emmanuel and June June on either arm, the names of his other two sons. He also has a tattoo on his chest in honor of his eight daughters.
That day, Jan. 3, is David’s birthday.
“I have two birthdays,” he says. “Half my body was here at 11:59, and they couldn’t get the rest out until the next morning.” David says the hospital staff was unsure how to record it, so two dates are listed on his birth certificate. Born to blues legend Junior Kimbrough, David’s life has revolved around music.
At the age of 4, David would pull out his father’s guitar, which was often hidden out of reach in the rafters of their home in Holly Springs, Miss.
“I wanted to play the real guitar,” David explains. “I was bangin’ on it and breakin’ strings, but I never got a whoopin’.”
David says his father behaved the same way as a child, stealing his own father’s guitar, just to get a chance to pluck the strings.
“They called him ‘The Kang,’” says David, referring to his grandfather, the first David Kimbrough. “He was the one who was down in the Delta, with the Howlin’ Wolves and the Muddy Waters.”
The Kang was a legend in his own right. David tells the story: “My grandfather played the box guitar, but they wouldn’t let him play. He climbed up a tree and began to play, and when they found him, all the animals and rabbits were gathered around that tree.”
I ask if he thinks it’s true, and he says he believes it to be a semi-truth. “I think that it was true that he was up in that tree.”
The support and influence of his family encouraged David to begin performing at an early age. At 6 years old, David was singing on stage with local musicians. “People would stuff my pockets with money. My daddy let me keep two dollars, but that was a lot back then.”
At age 10, David began studying the guitar seriously, and at age 12, in the face of his parents’ divorce, he ran away from home, and landed in Albany, Ga. He joined a gospel group and a funk band, and found influence in Johnnie Taylor and the gospel group, The Soul Stirrers.
In Albany, David realized his capacity for music but it was in Chicago that he found a band.
“I walked by a house, and a sound was comin’ out of the basement,” recounts David. “And it was just so brilliant to me, that I just sat down to listen.”
Eventually, says David, one of the musicians saw him through the basement window.
“I can sing,” David told the man.
“You can sang?” replied the musician, mocking David’s Mississippi accent.
After a short “You-can’t”/“I-can” debate, the band invited David inside, whom they saw as a young country boy. “They said, ‘Let’s bring him down here and let him make a fool of himself,” recounts David. “When it was all over, the joke was on them because I hit the note dead on the money.”
The band came to be known as The Precise Band, gaining some notoriety in Aurora, Ill. It eventually disbanded due to tensions between band members.
Today, David is preparing for the International Blues Competition, which will be held in Memphis in early February. He and his band are practicing hard and often, nailing down the new material David has written since the birth of his son.
When David’s wife Stacy comes home, the musicians retreat to the back, where a keyboard is set up in the bedroom. When David sings, the muddiness of his accent disperses, leaving behind a clear, capable voice. He sings, at times, with his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He bends over, keeping time with his sneaker-clad foot.
In this Fayetteville bedroom, Delta Blues flows heavy, but it is layered with R&B, soul and funk.
One of David’s new songs, “Hard Times,” carries soulful R&B vocals. The tempo is more structured, and the notes are more polished and precise than the typical blues song. It seems that this is David’s own genre, a result of Johnnie Taylor, Sam Cooke and his father.
David’s father influenced a great number of musicians, including the Black Keys who recently released their ninth album. In an interview with online magazine “Pop Matters,” Dan Auerbach, vocalist and guitarist of The Black Keys, describes his fascination with Junior Kimbrough and his music.
“(Junior) was a huge influence on me and the way I play guitar, especially when I first started,” Auerbach says emphatically. “I first heard ‘All Night Long’ (Kimbrough’s debut album, recorded when he was 62 years old), possibly as a freshman in college… . It didn’t strike me as something I liked at first. … After I put it down for a while, all of a sudden I kinda got hooked on it … . Eventually, I was driving down to Mississippi to see the guy play.”
Auerbach never saw Kimbrough perform, but he still cultivated a distinct insight into the man’s music. “It’s not as obvious … It’s not blues music,” Auerbach says, “I definitely don’t like to call it that. He didn’t sound like anyone else. It was just this weird kind of soul music that was Junior Kimbrough.”
According to David, it was “Chulahoma,” the tribute album to Junior Kimbrough’s music, that launched The Black Keys into superstardom, and even if the album didn’t gain the notoriety of subsequent albums, the band certainly found inspiration in Junior Kimbrough, and even operated for a few years under the same record label (Fat Possum) as Junior.
Among David’s circle of friends and family, the blues is referred to as a musical language.
“Music is the ultimate form of communication,” says Bennett, the bassist. “It appeals to the biggest cross-section of people and musicians. Everything is based on the blues: rockabilly, rock and roll, country, rhythm and blues … The blues is like a universal language.”
David’s wife Stacy Mackey — also a musician and singer/songwriter — played in the band until the last stages of her pregnancy. Before meeting David, she had never heard of the blues or the Kimbrough legacy.
“It was like hearing a new language,” she said. “He was showing me one of his dad’s songs, and it was blowing my mind because he was making a whole lot of sound without a whole lot of effort.” The technique Stacy refers to is the method of playing chords and strumming a bass line simultaneously — a signature of David’s father.
Junior operated a juke joint, Junior’s Place, that attracted international artists such as Iggy Pop and U2. In 2000, two years after Junior’s death, the juke joint burned to the ground. Joseph Emel is a documentarian with the Little Rock company Filmore South, LLC. He is passionate about documenting the people and places that are continuing the blues tradition in the South. He has been filming David for two years, ensuring that the stories of Junior’s music and his family won’t be lost forever — whether in a fire or in a hospital bed.
The documentary aims to capture the beginnings of the blues and artists in Arkansas and Mississippi. During his filming, Emel has witnessed the increasingly rare dynamic of the juke joint. “It’s one of the most beautiful historical references, held in a neighborhood building or a warehouse. It can be very small, but the biggest thing about a juke joint is that it’s built for a musician, to carry the music,” he says. “It’s one of the things you need to see before you leave this planet.”
Unlike most modern music venues, the juke joint is designed to be family friendly. No alcohol or smoking is allowed inside the building. It is this family-oriented dynamic that allowed David to perform at such a young age with the support of his family and community.
Emel says that for many blues musicians, giving back to the community is part of the gig, but in the end some die alone in a hospital or live their last days in poverty, unable to pay their bills. Junior Kimbrough died of a stroke in 1998, surrounded by his family and friends. Written on his tombstone is, “The beginning and end of all music,” a quote from fellow bluesman Charlie Feathers.
With a reported 36 children, Junior Kimbrough’s lineage is far from over. David plans on teaching his youngest son to play the blues. “You’re going to be a bluesman,” he tells Bug, holding him overhead.
In its essence, blues is resilient, even without financial incentives or a family tradition.
“It can be beaten, beaten, beaten down and can keep the life in it. I’m gonna get it out there. I may be suffering, but I’m getting it out to you, and I’m loving it,” is how documentarian Emel describes the genre.
It’s Friday night, and the band is scheduled to perform a show at Legacy Blues. The entire crew is practicing in the bedroom.
Carol Reed, a used car dealer by day and blues pianist by night, has been playing for more than 20 years. When I asked him what the contest in Memphis could mean for David and the band, he mentions the Jaguar parked outside. If they win the International Blues Competition, he will give the car to David. It currently belongs to Carol’s wife, Loretta, who is stirring a pot of beans and rice in the kitchen.
David Gray Kimbrough, David’s nephew, is only 20. He is a professional drummer in Chicago and will be playing with the band through the competition in February. After dinner, he eats the last chunk of red velvet cake, and as he scrapes his fork against the plate, he flashes a grin and says, “My nickname when I was a kid was Fat Fat.” Presently Fat Fat is a handsome, fit young man, and the nickname is ironic yet endearing when claimed after a piece of cake.
Though David is the frontman of the group, behind the scenes, he tends to slip into the background. He makes sure each of his band members is interviewed; he’s quick to let someone else speak. His humility isn’t out of bashfulness, which I discover when I ask him about his stint in prison.
Carol, David and I are in the living room, watching the Cotton Bowl, when I mention the subject of David’s prison sentences.
“I wrote all my early music in the prison band,” he says and describes his first seven years in prison as easy time that was spent touring with the professional prison band, during which he played with B.B. King and Shirley Brown. He was released early when prominent music writer Robert Palmer and Junior Kimbrough intervened.
“My father’s album had just gotten four stars in The Rolling Stone. He went in there and told the warden somethin’, and the warden said, ‘You’ll be out in a week.’”
David’s second prison term began when he tested positive for crack cocaine — a violation of his parole.
“The second time was just depressing because I knew I didn’t have any business back in there, but if I hadn’t been locked up, I’d be dead now. I’ve been off drugs for over 10 years now.”
David’s candid, honest nature appealed to the filmmakers who are currently working to document his life. Emel first heard David at a lecture at the Clinton Library, when the bluesman paired up with poet-activist John Sinclair. “He was so honest about the time he spent in prison. He is someone who has experienced raw, real-life experiences. He’s done a lot of growing, and he’s never been at a stronger point … ” says Emel, leaning over the porch railing outside David’s front door. I take notes by moonlight because the porch light is broken.
During the show at Legacy Blues, the cameras are set up for the documentary, the lights are ready, and the stage is set. David wears a suit, with a gold waistcoat, and a fedora. He plays some of his old material, the classic blues; and what is really outstanding about the performance is David’s interaction with the crowd. He asks a friend to join him onstage. She invites another woman, and together they sing B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”
Later, a man named Todd kneels in front of the stage and asks David if he can sing with the band. Graciously, David complies and what evolves is a jam session featuring a solo from each musician. At the end of the evening, David invites Emily Cole and her band onstage to sing “Stormy Monday Blues” and then an encore performance of “Mustang Sally.”
The support that David shows not only to his fellow artists (aspiring and professional alike) is a testament it seems to the values he learned as a child, standing onstage at a juke joint in the Mississippi Delta, having his pockets stuffed with dollars. A leader, a frontman and a friend, this bluesman is sharing his legacy not only with his family, but with all those who fall under his wing.