With a career that reaches across five decades, Kim Wilson has never tired of playing the music he loves. While his solo excursions are far less frequent these days, his singing and top-flight harp playing always take you deep into the real blues traditions. His primary musical vehicle continues to be the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the band he founded along with guitarist Jimmie Vaughan in 1974 in Austin, TX. Over the years, the band has gone through numerous line-up changes, with Wilson being the lone constant along with a musical approach that serves up blues, flavored by doses of soul and rock-&-roll.
He has received an amazing twenty-one nominations for the Blues Music Award in the Blues Instrumentalist – Harmonica category, receiving the award three times, most recently in 2017. Other recognition came in 2004, when the title track from hisLookin’ For Trouble album was recognized as the song of the year, and in 2006 when he received the Contemporary Male Blues Artist award. Wilson has also garnered three nominations for theB.B. King Entertainer award, in addition to seven nominations in the Contemporary Blues Male Artist category, plus nominations for three solo projects and two other releases where he shared billing with Barrelhouse Chuck and Mud Morganfield, theFor Pops (A Tribute To Muddy Waters) record which was named the 2015 Traditional Blues Album.
Wilson received a 2018 Blues Blast Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category for his last solo project, Blues And Boogie Vol. 1 released on Severn Records. It is a record that he is particularly proud of on several levels. “My thanks to the Blues Blast readers for that recognition. That award meant a lot to me. I am always thinking about getting music on tape. These days I am really into mono analog recordings. To me, especially when you are talking about traditional music, mono is the only way to listen to it. It will eventually go to digital but you want to start in analog. One day I got a call from Nathan James, asking me if I wanted to come down to his studio in Oceanside and record some tracks. The price was right, so I decided to give it a try and, if I didn’t like the way things turned out, I just wouldn’t go back”.
“Well, I went down there and ended up cutting twenty-five tracks in one day. We started with a lot of different gear, including a Webcor tape recorder that you can’t even use to rewind the tape. If you do, it will strip the coating off the tape. We got some pretty good stuff with Nathan on guitar, Marty Dodson on drums, and “Big” Jon Atkinson on guitar. No bass. Nathan and Jon added a little bass on a couple of things. After that, I just kept going back….and going back. We added stuff with Billy Flynn, Barrelhouse Chuck, Richard Innes, Larry Taylor, Kedar Roy, and Troy Sandow. Once I started listening to the stuff, I thought it was pretty damn good. So I kept going and going, until I had hundreds of tracks. We were cutting more tracks in a day than most people cut in a couple weeks to a month. It was a great experience for me”.
Additional tracks were cut with Atkinson in San Diego, some of which have been released under Atkinson’s name on his Bigtone Record label. Wilson is glad that those tracks were released. “He put a few of the tracks. I wish he had put out a few more. Jon wants to develop his sound in the studio. My opinion is that document the stuff as you go. We did a great version of “Take A Little Walk” on the Webcor that is basically unmixable. That hasn’t been released yet. We did some recording on a Teac deck that Nathan had, which had eight tracks, but we would always end up mixing everything down to mono. “Big” Jon had a two or three track machine that we also used. When Jon moved up to Hayward, I took everybody up there for sessions. Now Jon is in Virginia, so I will probably make a trip there to record, although that is more difficult”.
“I also have done some recording with Bob Welsh, who is a joy to record with. He plays excellent piano, the most complimentary piano player I have worked with since Barrelhouse Chuck. He really knows how to accompany, which is so important in blues, or any kind of music. That Is what I tell my son, who is a guitar player. You have to learn to accompany before you even think about taking a solo. You have to know how to create that sound that sets up the person who is singing or soloing”.
“Steven is my step-son. His father is Greg “Fingers” Taylor, the great harmonica player. Steven has a very healthy attitude, and I am very proud of him. His technical approach to playing is very, very difficult. He picks with his fingers, like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown or Magic Sam. He is a work in progress, not just a blues guy. But he has listened to all of the correct stuff all of his life. I made sure of that. To me, “Gatemouth” might be the greatest blues guitar player of all. He got a little country in his old age. But he had unbelievable sound and technique, plus he was a great singer. When it comes to accompaniment, you know who I like – Luther Tucker, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and all the guys from Chicago who were just great at it, like Eddie Taylor”.
“What I love about Chicago blues, and the records from labels like Duke and Peacock, is how dark most of them were. I’m not here to be telling jokes. I want the mood to be dark. Of course, depending on how you play it, the music can have a sense of humor. But what always attracted me to the music is that it was f**king heavy! When Nick Curran was in my band, he could swing. He played an unbelievable version of “Okie Dokie Stomp”. And I really liked Lightnin’ Slim and a few other Excello Records guys, but that was more R&B, lighter blues music. That stuff is appealing but I prefer the darker edge, like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). Oh boy, Sonny Boy wrote some comedic lyrics, but he sure didn’t attack that way. This isn’t elevator music. The mood is everything. It is about life, and that is how you have to play it”.
There will be a Volume 2 of Blues And Boogie coming out in 2020, compiled from the multitude of tracks that have already been recorded. Wilson is excited that more tracks will finally be heard. “It will be all Big Jon stuff. It is pretty heavy. I have picked the tracks, and it will be released on Severn Records. David Earl already has everything. The next album may be even better. So we will see what happens”.
“Honestly, I was very disappointed that the first one didn’t win Traditional Album at the Blues Music Awards. I don’t care about harmonica or awards for entertaining. I thought if it deserved anything, it was the award for Traditional album. In my opinion, it was by far the best traditional record of the year, if not the last decade. So that was very disappointing. Real blues is not going to sell millions of records no matter what. . And if it is heavy and dark, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I mean, Muddy Waters and Little Walter never won Grammy awards, and Walter had a number of hit records.”.
Wilson continues to play festivals with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, a band that has undergone a number of line-up changes over the years. One common thread is the list of stellar guitar players that can claim membership from Jimmie Vaughan to Duke Robillard, Kid Ramos, Curran, Kirk Fletcher, Mike Keller, and for the last twelve years, Johnny Moeller. “We are writing songs right now for the next T-Birds project. It will be mostly original songs that will feature a lot of big-name guest artists. We have things in place and will probably be recording in Los Angeles at a future date”.
Over the years, comments have been made about changes Wilson periodically makes to the the band’s line-up. He feels that those remarks are unfair. “People have commented that I must be an asshole or difficult to work with. If you know me, you know that is not true. I make changes because I have to do it until I get it right. I mean, I posted on Facebook that Johnny Moeller is the most under-rated guy in music. He is an incredible musician. The current band also has two great veterans with Steve Gomes on bass and Kevin Anker on keyboards. The newest member of the band is Nico Leophonte on drums. He is from France, moved to Austin, TX in the 1990s, and I have been very pleasantly surprised with his contributions”.
“You don’t want players that need coaching. You want to be able to share your experience with everyone. One of the problems that I had in the past is that I wasn’t getting the accompaniment that I wanted, especially before Johnny came abroad. It is a very difficult job to be able to play blues, rock & roll, and a little bit of R&B. These guys are very sympathetic to who is ever out front at any given moment. They are all great, great musicians. We are getting lots of great response from audiences. When you play a festival, you might have a rock band on before your slot, a band that claims to play blues. That means we have to get aggressive to compete with the loud, million note, no-tone bullshit that seems to be the current trend. It almost becomes a search-and-destroy mission. But it is important that we do that in a cool musical fashion. You can mix in some subtlety, and this band is good at playing the music a lot of different ways”.
“The band is getting better all the time. I am very optimistic about the band’s prospects. We just played the Lucerne Blues festival. We hit them hard, and got a great response. Amazingly, I just got a letter through my manager from the fest staff thanking us for playing their event! It is an incredible blues fest. They really take care of you. As far as the treatment, it is the best of any festival I have ever played. And I have played just about all of them. And it is such a beautiful place! It had been sixteen years since I played the fest, and never with the Thunderbirds. They had a European all-star band that was quite good, with Steve “West” Weston on harmonica, Raphael Wressnig on organ, Andreas and Michael Arlt from B.B. & the Blues Shacks, and Nico Duportal on guitar. They played real blues. And the audience was proud of their guys. They had a better feel for the blues than a lot bands in the states”.
The last two Thunderbirds discs.On The Verge and Strong Like That, veered away from the blues into a more soulful style. When asked about those releases, Wilson had a blunt response. “It was a mistake. Severn was trying to make me into a soul singer, which I am not. I am a blues singer. I did go along, thinking it might work out. They are good records, but I think they went a little too far away from what I do well. One thing about audiences, they aren’t real crazy about change. Now we are coming back to featuring blues with rock-& roll, which is a lot more comfortable for me. We have to enjoy what we are doing. That neo-soul and R&B stuff is more dated than the blues stuff. Amy Winehouse was great at it. But that is a very, very sad story. All her fans wanted to hear was “Rehab”. She wanted to be a jazz singer, probably didn’t want to be in the limelight like she was”.
“People need to hear music on the radio to be able to relate to it. But that kind of radio is over. If you want to hear Taylor Swift, knock yourself out. My favorite guy these days is James Hunter. He isn’t playing soul, it is more old-time R&B. He is great, you can’t take him out of his game. I had a chance to interact with him last year. He is a great talent that really stands out. Blues is blues, soul is soul. Rock & Roll is Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and all those guys. Rock music is just that – it doesn’t mix with anything. It does have some blues influences but they are so bastardized, most of it. For me, rock music was born and died with Jimi Hendrix, period. Everybody else is trying to be Hendrix when they play. When Eric Clapton was with Cream, he made a pretty good effort. I liked those guys back in the day when I was a kid. Other than Clapton, it has been a feeble attempt that I don’t think has worked out”.
“Guys like Albert King and Little Milton help bring about greatest modernization of blues music. That first James Cotton record on the Verve Record label was the first blues album I ever listened to, and that became the template for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It had “Knock On Wood,” which Cotton sang like a blues singer, as did Albert and Milton. Albert Collins played with a lot of funky beats. When the major labels started putting these kids out there playing rock music but calling it blues, that was the final nail in the coffin. I love listening to people like Jontavious Willis. He is very traditional. I see that he is nominated for a Grammy Award in the Traditional Blues category. From what I could see, that is the only traditional blues in the category. I don’t know how it happened. But he has talent”.
“There are several reasons why rock keeps slamming into the blues. One is that the people who allegedly play real blues are disappointing. That is why rock has crept into the music. So there is a lot of wanking going on, and when it is played a loud volumes, it attracts listeners. The people that are supposed to know how to play blues have not come through. That’s why it is great to see Willis get recognized. I don’t know of too many musicians out there doing the “thing”. I am a harder nut to crack than most people when it comes to playing the music right”.
While Wilson has had six releases under his own name, starting with Tigerman in 1993, the Thunderbirds remain his primary focus these days. His solo excursions are limited to a couple of brief tours, usually sticking to California venues. “I put out solo records, but I don’t really have a solo career. I did do a couple of festivals in Europe after Blues And Boogie Vol. 1 came out, and that worked out fine. I have my annual Christmas ten day thing coming up here in California. That is about it for the year. The rest is all T-Birds. The traditional stuff is very satisfying for me, which is why I am doing more of it with the band”.
“If I could make a living playing Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and Kim Wilson, I would gladly do it. I would do nothing but that. I’m sorry, but clubs are not the answer. Clubs are very satisfying musically but they are not the answer financially. Before my heart surgery, I had been on the road with guitarist Dean Shot. I love the way he plays. We were playing tiny places, fifty to maybe a hundred people. The band was great and we filled the rooms. If you can’t fill those kinds of places, something is really wrong! Without mentioning names, when my booking agent for the T-Birds went back to one of those clubs, looking to book a date for more money, the club owner’s response was, oh no, I can get Kim Wilson for a lot less than that. That is when I realized that I probably wouldn’t be playing those clubs any more. I am having a hard time figuring out how to negotiate the solo traditional stuff. I got great response after the last album, so maybe when Vol. 2 comes out some things will open up. The thought was to play clubs that I will never be able to play with the T-Birds. But it does not make sense at this point to go backwards financially. Like everyone else, I have bills to pay. If I stuck to playing traditional music all the time, I would have to be working 300-plus days a year to support myself and my wife here in California. So, with the T-Birds, you get rock & roll, the so-called “hits,” but also a healthy dose of traditional blues. That will satisfy me for now, at least until I win the Lotto. Than I will be playing Jimmy Reed every day of my life!”
Wilson still feels the loss in recent years of several of his musical compatriots, musicians who shared his passion for traditional blues and were fixtures in the bands that backed him on his solo tours. “Barrelhouse Chuck, Richard Innes, and Larry Taylor were among the greatest blues musicians of their time. Larry played with Tom Waits and, of course, Canned Heat. He was the best blues bass player for years. Then if you talked to Barrelhouse, the first thing he would tell you is that he is a blues piano player. And I am a blues harmonica player, so we got along just fine. He was the greatest blues piano player of several generations. I wish I had started working with him sooner. We had our time together and I miss him dearly. Richard was the real thing. He was at the top all-time, with guys like Fred Below, S.P. Leary, and Sonny Freeman. I heard it, so I know. When you put the three of them together, you’ve got some serious shit going on. And it was just as dark as you wanted it to be”.
“They are impossible to replace. You can’t think about that part, you have to think that this guy is great in his own way. Take somebody like Bob Welsh, who is an incredible musician, every bit the accompanist that anybody has ever been as far as I am concerned. He is quite a bit different than Chuck on the piano, but I am thankful that I get to make music with him at times. Marty Dodson on drums is fantastic in his own way. Then there is this younger drummer, Andrew Guterman, who I will be playing with this month, looks like the real deal to me also. There are some real good upright bass players out here like Kedar Roy, Mike Law, and Troy Sandow. And the guy playing bass in the T-Birds, Steve Gomes, is an unbelievable bass player. Don’t sell that band short! They are all fine musicians”.
“But the guys we are talking about were deeply skilled with a lot of soul. They were their own entities and are irreplaceable in the music world. I loved them all like brothers. It is still very sad for me to talk about them. There is nothing more that Richard wanted than to see Blues And Boogie Vol. 1 come out. He did not live that long, which just kills me. Luckily, we still have people like Billy Flynn, Big Jon Atkinson, Doug Deming, Rusty Zinn, and Junior Watson, all really fine guitarists. For me, Billy Flynn is the epitome of blues guitar playing. He is so improvisational. Big Jon has an great ear for the music and a fine accompanist. And there are other guys like Kid Ramos, another great blues player. But Billy is at the pinnacle of what a blues guitar player is supposed to be. Plus he is a sweet guy. I am very proud that I was able to play with Barrelhouse, Richard, and Larry, that they respected me, and thought I was the shit! They were all great guys. It is a sad state of affairs when you don’t see other musicians picking up the mantle to play like those guys, to have that kind of feel. I’m blessed to be able to play with the few guys out there that can generate that feel”.
Another aspect of Wilson’s artistry is the demand for him to make guest appearances on other musician’s recordings. His vocals and stellar harmonica playing have been featured on a wide range of recordings. “I have recently appeared on some Big Jon’s stuff, the latest Ronnie Earl, my son Steven’s disc, a Peter Frampton title, Doug Deming’s last one, and one by my brother, Brad Wilson. I can’t even count how many records I have been on. I am happy to be sought after. I believe I get the calls because I am able to harmonize with anyone without changing to much of what I do. That is why I got to work with artists like Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, or Little Feat. I enjoy doing my best to enhance other projects. It is a blessing to be in demand”.
“All of the masters of the music that I played with taught me to set it up, to create the mood. Lowell Fulson told me a long time ago, he said you don’t have to play all over this shit! Muddy Waters once told somebody to listen to Kim, because he knows how to get in and out of there. In a nutshell, that’s it. I learned from being up on the bandstand. I will say that they didn’t have to tell me much. I was in a band two or three months after I started playing. Within a year, I was doing gigs with guitarist Eddie Taylor. I played with people like Lowell, George “Harmonica” Smith, Pee Wee Crayton, Luther Tucker, Albert Collins, so many people in the first three to five years of my career. I was well versed in listening to people accompany other people. That is something I don’t get to do much any more as far as the older guys. My last one of those was probably the album that Rusty Zinn produced for Dave Myers (You Can’t Do That on Black Top Records). Then there’s the stuff with Big Jon as well as the last two discs that Barrelhouse Chuck did. Those opportunities are few and far between”.
“How nice a person is when you get into the studio means a lot to me. Do they respect you? Are they nice people in general, are they a fan? Not that I don’t always try to give my best. I thrive on compliments, like most people. The Mark Knofpler sessions were very cool. He is a wonderful musician and was a great, great leader in the studio. The rest of the band were top-notch musicians. I was very impressed by him. The session with Bonnie Raitt was another standout moment. I have played with everybody from Willie “Big Eyes” Smith to Paul Simon. The one drawback to playing on other artists albums is that you don’t have any control of the final outcome. There are times where you end up buried in the mix. You gave them your best work, and now it is up to them. I just don’t like leaving it up to other people very much! Most of the time, things turn out pretty damn good”.
When asked to sum his career, Wilson went straight to the point. “With me, what you see is what you get. When I walk into a place with confidence, people sometimes get the wrong impression. My ego is not so out of control that I am an asshole. You can come up and say something to me, then you can find out about who I really am. I have a lot of dear, dear friends in this business, which should say something. It is true that I don’t like everything or everybody. I might be bitter about losing my three friends not receiving the accolades they deserved while they were alive. But I am adamant that I love the music more than I ever loved it. I love the real thing, and the right thing. We are all human. And humanity is something that we are losing these days. That is something I do not appreciate. Hopefully we will soon be a lot more human”.
Check out the Fabulous Thunderbirds website at: http://fabulousthunderbirds.com