INTERVIEW: The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson Says “This Music Is Not for Kids”

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

As the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ founder Kim Wilson ages, he changes his perspective on where he takes chances and where he plays it safe. On one hand, he gave up drinking 25 years ago and is on a healthy diet that’s caused him to lose 35 pounds in the last several months. On the other hand, he says he will undoubtedly call out some songs at Thursday’s Alive at Five concert (June 6) that his band has never played before.

“It’s not like you’re pushed down the expert slope, you’re just starting and you’re gonna kill yourself,” he says, paying respects to himself and his band for their decades of experience. “It’s all about being
comfortable in your own skin, (but) it’s also all about just making it exciting.”

For Kim, it basically boils down to a realization at age 62 that life is precious, and that the value of what he’s learned in 39 years as the founding bandleader of the T-Birds is that it’s worth taking extra care of yourself to be able to experience the thrill of creativity hammered out in a job – he refuses to call it a career – that is more fun than living life as if it were a bungee jump, as so many artists do. “In ’88 I stopped drinking. That really helped me get on this thing where I really started learning stuff,” he says.

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Now he carries a rice cooker with him on tour, and he laughs about other touring musicians like veteran bluesman Jimmy Rogers who never got the message about eating properly. “All you could do was follow the smell to his motel room. They had a deep fryer in there, and he came down to the lake and caught a bunch of fish. He goes, ‘Oh, you just missed it, man.’ They were flushing the carcasses down the toilet.”

Wilson founded the Thunderbirds in Austin in 1976 with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother Jimmie. They broke into the mainstream in 1986 with the crossover hits “Tuff Enuff” and “Wrap It Up.” Kim Wilson laughs at my
suggestion that he’s the American John Mayall for having employed a number of guitarists who have become important contributors to the American blues canon: Duke Robillard, Doug “Kid” Bangham, Kid Ramos, Kirk Fletcher, Nick Curran and, of course, Jimmie Vaughan.

Kim sees himself in a different light than all his former bandmates, whom he hired as employees rather than making them partners in his band. They may have been building careers, but he sees what he does as a job. “I don’t have a career anymore. I have a job. This is a job for me, okay? But it’s a job that I love. A career is just a lie. As you’re pumping yourself up, somebody’s trying to make you larger than life. You’re trying to make yourself larger than life. When you have a job, your talent is what makes you larger than life. That’s why I’m just learning things now. I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m comfortable in my own skin, and I’m still a work in progress.”

His current band consists of Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller on guitars, bass player Randy Bermudes and drummer Jason Moeller. In March, the band released On the Verge, their first for Severn Records, the label that positions itself as “roots music for the 21st century” and includes on its roster several artists who’ve played our area including the Nighthawks, Nora Jean Bruso and Darrell Nulisch. The CD in general sounds more like a Malaco deep southern soul group than a band of blues guys from Austin. The standout feature remains Kim’s writing, harp playing and rough hewn vocals.

While Kim is a realist who sees records as mere promotional tools to create a buzz for the artist, he does admit the title On the Verge is a reflection of optimism over what he hopes this new release does for the band’s career. And he’s taking good care of himself because he loves his job. “I’m tired of enhancing my chances of things fucking up. I’ve gone another whole mile in the direction of straight and narrow.”

What we’re going to see on stage is another story. This guy has always performed without a net, and even an average set with his band – regardless of who else he employs – is free form at its best. “I just call it off – a lot of stuff off the new record, some classic stuff. You get a little bit of everything. During the set you’re probably going to get one or two that these guys haven’t even heard yet. I’m just gonna start playin’ ’em ’cause that’s what I like to do. I like that kind of spontaneity.

“A lot of times I’ll just start it because I don’t even want them to get in a pre-concept of what the original version of the song was ’cause that’s not where I go, either. I think you gotta make it interesting for yourself, right? No one knows I’m doing that.”

Kim Wilson leads the Fabulous Thunderbirds into Albany’s Riverfront Park at the Corning Preserve on Thursday (June 6) to kick off the 2013 Alive at Five concert series. Troy’s own blues-rockin’ power trio Super 400 launches the evening’s festivities at 5pm. Admission is, of course, free.

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