Robert Kimbrough Sr., the youngest son of the Blues legend Junior Kimbrough, has a Blues birthright written into his most formative childhood experiences:
“I grew up in the Blues field man, I grew up around it, you know. When Pop was playing it, I was there. You know I was a Gospel guy, always a Gospel guy, but coming up I had to go to church and play that Gospel. But, in the household, my dad played Blues. He played Gospel before Blues, but he turned it over and he start playing Blues. So I grew up around it and I always wanted to play it. Every time my dad would play he would have house parties and all this good stuff, I’d be right there with him. I always said I want to play Blues, I want to play with my father.”
Robert Kimbrough Sr. is an expressive and emotive Bluesman. The torch bearer for a style of Blues his father created called Cotton Patch Soul Blues, Robert plays guitar with a hypnotic rhythm and rips lead work out with a savage edge. He sings with plaintive R&B gusto and writes relatable songs about love, loss, and the hardships of life. An easy going man, Robert is quick to laugh and easy to relate to. Like so many people during the COVID crisis, (and especially so many musicians and artists), Robert is struggling to make ends meet. Talking in the evening on his drive home from working a day job, Robert took time to delve into his music and inspiration and his deep familial roots in the Blues.
“First of all, Cotton Patch Soul Blues style, is the style that my father played, brought up on, back in the day. You know I can’t just explain the full details to it all, I’m sure if he was livin’ he could. That style is a style that only Kimbroughs play. Cotton Patch Soul Blues that was just a totally different style than from all Blues. Hill Country Blues that’s a name that was brought on through by Dave Stevens, I think that’s his name, I may be wrong. He brought Hill Country in and gave it to them guys, you know what I’m saying? It’s just a different style of Blues. Hill Country is totally a different style of Blues than Cotton Patch Soul Blues, cause we play Soul Blues, we don’t play Country Blues. I mean we can play it, but we don’t play Country Blues, we play Soul Blues.”
Robert is referring to Colorado film maker and photographer David Stevens who in the late 90’s traveled and reported with writers Michael Dixon and Andrew Cody for the sadly long defunct Blues magazine Blues Access. These pilgrims met, wrote about and worshiped the Blues musicians of Northern Mississippi and Western Arkansas. What Stevens apparently referred to as Hill Country Blues is a hypnotic pummeling music often played without a bass with a hard hitting straight forward beat. This is the music of R.L Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill and T-Model Ford. It is also the style that R.L.’s grandson Cedric Burnside is carrying on and the North Mississippi Allstars have used as a springboard for their Blues-Rock.
“(R.L. Burnside’s) music is totally different from my father, our style of Blues. Yeah that’s a name that his family rides with, Hill Country Blues, that they style I guess. I don’t speak much on they style of what they do, more than that’s what they ride with. Yeah but, Garry (Burnside) he played Soul Blues with my father, he got some soul in him, Duwayne Burnside also. But they tight with them Hill Country Blues players, that what they do.”
Junior Kimbrough’s Cotton Patch Soul Blues is just as it’s name describes: Soul Blues. Kimbrough music has a bass, it has that low end throbbing, creating a visceral hypnotic groove. Cotton Patch Soul Blues is also highly syncopated. The clarion blasts of the Hill Country snare is shaded and more rhythmic in Cotton Patch making the music funky and dance-able. Often taking reference from Soul musicians like Otis Redding, Junior Kimbrough’s Cotton Patch Soul Blues pumps and has connection to the long form music of James Brown and Parliament. Robert’s father developed his music inventions…
“…from his brothers. Yeah his brothers would always play guitars and pick ‘em and put them in the attic and stuff. Once they put them in the attic, him and his sister would go up there get ‘em and just start playing. You know Pop, he carried it on and brought it on to the light. It took a while, you know he was a lot older when he did get to come out and start playing this music.”
The Kimbroughs and the Burnsides were kindred clans. There was no family rivalry between the two Blues camps, only kinship and community.
“Sometime, my father, he met R.L, and R.L.’s family and our family connected. And we all got along. Families begin to blend in. It all came together man, you know. They had they style and we had our style, yeah. We grew up and just kept doing the thing. Right now, I tell you what, it’s just blowin’ up, it’s good.”
Cotton Patch Soul Blues is subtle and requires a deep understanding of rhythm and group improvisation. It is hard music to get proficient in and difficult to master. Musicians like Jimbo Mathus and Alvin Youngblood Hart have tried. Buddy Guy’s seminal Northern Mississippi album Sweet Tea leans heavily on Cotton Patch Soul Blues and the compositions and arrangements of Junior Kimbrough. Robert and his brothers, guitarist/singer David who passed away in 2019 and Kinny who plays drums in Robert’s band, inherited the Cotton Patch Soul Blues. He says it’s a “family legacy brought about by my father and my uncle.” It was passed down to the Kimbrough boys by their father, their birthright. But, these young aspiring Bluesmen had to pay their dues.
“No, no Pop he don’t teach you how to play the guitar (laughs). You gonna pretty much learn on the floor you know. That’s why I learned to play, to get as good as I was, because I am an original bass guitar player. I play lead because I carried the sound on, you know I run my own band now. One of my brothers passed away on me in 2019, David Kimbrough Jr., so I carry it on. But, you know I had to learn a lot of my stuff on the stage, man (chuckles). Pop never, he didn’t teach, no, all he did man, in the house my father had a band room, him and Soul Blues Boys, they would come in there, rehearse or practice, do their thing then they would leave. Once they leave he would leave the instruments or everything in there. Once he leave, me, Dave and Kinny we run up in the band room. Yeah you know we go up in the band room, shit, man we play us some Blues, you know, yeah. We go up in that band room and break some strings, all that different kind of stuff. Pop, he come back, you know he be a little upset about us going in there and breaking the strings and all that different kind of stuff. But he was glad we were learning that, because he wanted us to play with him, to play for him once we got older. Sure enough, grew up, we got older, we started to play with him and go on tours with him, all that good stuff.”
Even though Robert had the Blues coursing through his veins and imprinted in his mind, he still heard the call of adolescent rebellion.
“I left Mississippi at a young age, once I had graduated from High School, yeah I left Mississippi. I went to Illinois where my sister was, my younger sister, she had passed and gone to, rest her soul. I went there man, when I left, I left my Pops behind and also my brothers too. You know I left the Blues behind too. The City you know I was running wild; young and buckwild. But, when I did finally come to my mind of sense I realized, man, that I really really screwed up. I could have been a lot farther down the road you know if I would have stayed there. And my father, I would have been there to kind of look out for him on different things. Cause my father didn’t really understand a lot of stuff that was written and stuff like that, you know what I mean. So it’ve been good to have been there for him and to, you know, walk with him through it. But I didn’t. You know he got screwed in the game, but it’s all good, it is what it is.”
Junior Kimbrough had an undeniable sound. There was no mistaking his guitar playing. Vibrato laden, Junior played with his fingers, no picks, in an orchestral style; thumbing bass notes and pulling warbly melody lines with his pointer and ring fingers. The slightly mumbled wails of Junior’s singing were another atmospheric layer in service of the groove.
Robert Kimbrough Sr.’s music builds off of his father’s. Like all great modern traditional Bluesmen, Robert creates within a tradition, the tradition in this case just happens to be his inherited family business. Robert has mastered his father’s finger picking style. But, he adds a modern depth of knowledge adding distortion, wah effects and a diversified pallet of riffs. Robert also sings with clarity and passionate abandon. He also tells stories over his grooves that have an almost Q-Tip laid back spoken/rap vibe. Writing most of his own material and often playing many of the instruments, Robert has made a statement about the future of Cotton Patch Soul Blues.
Robert’s four self released studio albums are superb masterpieces. Starting with 2016 Willey Woot (the nickname his father gave him) Kimbrough refined his father’s Cotton Patch style writing his own songs and covering the senior Kimbrough’s “You Better Run.” 2017’s two records What I’m Gon’ Do? Where I’m Gon’ Go from Here? and My Frog push the style farther into the Soul and update it with a bit more edge. 2018’s I Been Fixed fully realizes a modern understanding of Cotton Patch Soul Blues. Recorded in Austin, Texas at Janky Studios with the help of Scott Lindsey, I Been Fixed is a dark, brooding hypnotic surge of deep Blues. There is a new album on the horizon this Fall in which Robert is taking full control of his guitar playing and realizing his music. Robert’s goal is to put his own flavor into his father’s style.
“I do that, put a little bit more flavor to it. I get out there and I do things. Now, in my new CD about to drop, I’m playing everything. You know where my brother Kinny’s playing drums, I’m playing chords and lead guitar and I got a bass player playing the bass. I normally play the bass on all my CDs but this time I let my bass player play bass. Now if you listen to it, I’m playing all the lead. This one’s called Pain Won’t Stop. I’m hoping by the end of September it’ll be ready. I’m taking it to another level.”
The COVID crisis has significantly impacted Robert’s life and his art. Speaking about his writing process:
“Well, you know it comes to me man, a lot of my music comes to me in the weary hours of the night when I’m laying in my bed. That’s when it comes to me. When my music and my lyrics come to me, I immediately get up and go in my band room and record it. Just enough when I wake up to go ahead and finish it out. And then some of the times I can just be sitting up and I can just write my songs. It varies, but I stay writing. Now I don’t write as much as I used to. Because of this COVID thing I have to do other things to try to make ends meet man because of this COVID. I don’t get to spend as much time with my music as I want to. But it don’t phase me. I still get my guitar (chuckle), I plays my guitar, don’t get me wrong. I go in there and I still write, I do my thing, but not like I used to.”
Robert has a favorite guitar. It is a unique white stratocaster styled solid body with two golden humbuckers straddling a single coil. When asked about his “Kimbrough Guitar,” Robert lit up and the weariness of the day seemed to be shed for at least a moment.
“So my story with that guitar, let me tell how this come about. First of all this guy Brian Burton, I met this guy a long long time ago in Tutwiler Mississippi. I was on break and he was out there on the train tracks. And I was wondering what he was doing, I was like ‘what that man doing out there on the train tracks?’ You know so I call him over, he come over started talking, say: ‘what you doin’ out here?’ And he say ‘oh I’m on vacation and I used to be an engineer and all this, I dealt with the trains and all this different kind of stuff,’ and he say ‘I’m down here to go to the Blues festival,’ I say ‘oh so you like Blues? You know Junior Kimbrough?’ and he says ’yes I know Junior Kimbrough, I’m a huge fan of him.’ And I say ‘you are talking to Junior Kimbrough’s youngest son, Robert Kimbrough, yeah.’ Oh man he was tickled pink. He told me ‘I want to build a guitar for you to play.’ So this guitar I got is a Kimbrough Guitar. It is hand made by Brian Burton out of Eugene, Oregon and man let me tell you, it is a nice guitar. It is great. I play it everywhere I go, let me tell you.”
Robert continues to invoke his father and his brother every time he plugs that Kimbrough Guitar into an amplifier. But, he still adds his flavor.
“I play through the same kind of amp my father played through. That was a Fender Super Reverb. I play through that and my brother also played through that. I do have the gain up sometimes with a distortion box, you know an Ibanez Tube Screamer. So sometimes I do turn it up add a little flavor to it. Growing up you know you play your father’s music or whatever, but you always add a little flavor to it (haha) yeah.”
Junior Kimbrough does not only loom large on Robert as a musical North Star. Robert’s love and admiration is ever present for his father. It is clear that not a day goes by that Robert doesn’t miss him. Robert’s Blues are in honor of his dad but he also wanted to do more. Four years ago he started the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival.
“I started that festival, me and my wife started that festival, man, I wanted to do something to honor my father. So I started it and we went from there with it man. I got some more friends to come in from New York and some more sponsors from around the town and some that’s not from around the town that kind of chipped in. We trying to build it man and make the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival groove man in honor of my father and now my brother. This was the 4th annual year man and this COVID came. (It’s kicking everyone’s ass) sheew, oh man, you hear me, I’m talkin’ about kicking some tail.”
The 4th annual Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival will be held virtually this year on September 26th and 27th. Live streaming from Robert’s night club The Hut in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which he only opens sporadically for events such as this, the festival will feature some of Mississippi’s finest Blues musicians, most of whom are named Kimbrough or Burnside. These men and women are keeping the Blues of Northern Mississippi alive.
“The Blues is here forever. You know I carry the legacy on. My Dad’s gone, my brother David’s gone, me and Kinny the last two left of my Dad and Mom, may baby sister she gone to. You know we carry the music on and try to keep it alive. My festival will be jumping May, what a second, September, I had to move it from May to September cause of the virus. September 26th to 27th of this year. And hopefully it will take place and it will be online.”
Robert Kimbrough Sr. is a modern day Bluesman who honors his past while expressing his artistic perspective and his life. A man who has suffered great loss – his father, brother, sister, so many of the old timers who created the music of Northern Mississippi. Through it all, Robert keeps alive his birthright, his legacy. The COVID crisis has hit his life and his community hard. Robert is again fighting to preserve something so dear, his music – his way of life. “We dying everyday, I just pray we can make it through.”
Check out Robert Kimbrough Sr. and support the music of Northern Mississippi: