Paradise Found: 5 All-Americana Dream Team Players Reach for the Sky as Willie Sugarcapps

04/14/2016 12:12 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

In Field of Dreams, the best movie ever to connect baseball with the hereafter, Shoeless Joe Jackson asks Ray Kinsella the immortal question:

"Is this heaven?"

Kinsella's most memorable reply: "No. It's Iowa."

It might seem impossible to mistake one for the other, but that exchange came to mind for the second time in less than two years during my phone interview earlier this month with Will Kimbrough and Savana Lee, two of the five talented members of Southern Alabama supergroup Willie Sugarcapps.

Kimbrough, the most valuable player of this consummate quintet, was asked about the title song he wrote for Paradise Right Here. The splendid 2016 follow-up to Willie Sugarcapps' 2013 self-titled debut album will be released Friday (April 15) on Baldwin County Public Records.

A prolific songwriter and hard-working artist who's had many musical lives as a solo performer, producer, recording session player and featured touring multi-instrumentalist to roots heavy hitters such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Kimbrough remembered dictating lyrics onto his iPhone's Notes app during a drive through the Deep South. Writing his own "Paradise" by the dashboard light seemed perfectly logical.

Even though he left his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in 1988 to pursue a career in Nashville, Kimbrough was on the road, thinking about his parents on the golden Gulf Coast and his four Willie Sugarcapps partners who still make Lower Alabama their home. When asked if "Paradise Right Here" is his life story told in a song that lasts 7 minutes, 25 seconds, Kimbrough laughed but his words presented undeniable truths:

Right here -- by the warm inviting water
Right now -- with your bare feet in the sand
Right here -- share it with your sons and daughters
Paradise -- in the palm of your hand

"It hit me that the idea of paradise for me is where you take the music with you and wherever you go, you can find a little bit of ... a moment of paradise," Kimbrough said, offering more poetic slices of life on Interstate 59 in Mississippi during an afternoon drive home that started in New Orleans. "Especially singing with my friends in the band. I don't take it for granted how much joy it brings to me."

Kimbrough (left), Lee and the band's other co-founders -- Anthony Crawford, Grayson Capps and Corky Hughes -- found paradise in the places they play as Willie Sugarcapps, their spirited and spiritual act that blends blues, folk, country, rock and soul into a congenial collective full of colorful camaraderie.

Specifically, there's one heaven-sent location -- the Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm, a venue in Silverhill, Alabama, that brought this fab five together for the first time on Feb. 4, 2012. Less than a year later, their debut as Willie Sugarcapps took place at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

Neither Lee, who shares with Crawford a family and a second rootsy act known as Sugarcane Jane, nor Kimbrough dared to take credit for the idea of forming Willie Sugarcapps, a name that references four of its members. But Lee, who lives with Crawford and their three children in Loxley, Alabama, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and only about 50 yards from her childhood home, didn't hesitate to recognize Frog Pond owner Cathe Steele for making this all-Americana dream team come true.

"It's just a venue that hosts songwriters in a round and she picked all of us to put together in a round, and it was when we first played together that we kind of somehow decided to continue on and keep doing shows together," Lee (right) said. "So ultimately, had she not done that, I don't know that we would be in a band."

Supplying the instrumental gravitas is Hughes on electric guitar, lap steel and bass, a former member of Black Oak Arkansas whom Kimbrough admired and yearned to emulate. Hughes, called "a guitar hero in Lower Alabama ... and a lot of other places" by Kimbrough, has collaborated with Capps' band, the Lost Cause Minstrels, and often performs as a duo with him.

Capps, who earned a degree in acting from Tulane University and lived in New Orleans until he was uprooted by Hurricane Katrina, is considered the Frog Pond's musical host. A native of Opelika, Alabama, he now lives with his wife, producer and recording engineer Trina Shoemaker and two children in Mobile. He also could double as the voice of God, his baritone bringing deep impact to Willie Sugarcapps' glorious four-part harmony.


Life is beachy keen for Willie Sugarcapps (from left): Anthony Crawford,
Savana Lee, Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough and Corky Hughes.

Contributing acoustic guitar and harmonica, he's also a superlative songwriter, his epic "Mancil Travis" an album highlight along with Kimbrough's title track and "Dreamer's Sky" and Crawford's "Intentions of My Heart," "Love Be Good to Me" and "Faded Neighborhood," the latter co-written with Steve Winwood's wife Gina, a native of Trenton, Tennessee.

"Faded Neighborhood" sounds like classic country topped by a gospel chorus, with Lee's impressive pipes taking the phrase "Burlap swings, getting high" from Gina Winwood's demo to an insanely divine level.

The first time Willie Sugarcapps performed it live, at WorkPlay in Birmingham, Alabama, Lee, who also plays snare drum, said, "We hadn't rehearsed it or anything, but that's what's magic about this group. Everybody's so talented they can just come up with things on the spot."

Crawford, taking a break from cooking hamburgers and babysitting 5-year-old Loretta, 3-year-old Levon and 4-month-old Dusty, joined the informal interview to tease Lee about those lyrics, saying, "What are you talking about there girl?" before good-naturedly adding, "People seem to misunderstand that (line) every time. That makes for great crowd participation."

The song "just kind of fell in my lap," said Crawford, a humble and versatile musician (acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, violin, kick drum) born in Birmingham who has been on stage or in the studio with the likes of Steve Winwood, Neil Young and Rosanne Cash. "It was developed kind of when we got together and then Savana sang it with Willie Sugarcapps and it seems to be a little bit of a favorite of everybody that comes to see us."

Lee, whose lead vocals are also heard on "Love Be Good to Me," identifies with the lyrics of "Faded Neighborhood," having met Crawford in the Music City. She also lived in New Orleans, Slidell, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast community of Diamondhead before making her way back home.

"I love that song," she said. "I've been looking into Anthony's catalog of songs and that one always stood out to me. Living in Nashville for about eight years, I would come home and ... everything would start changing. Every time you'd come home, you'd see something new. It really makes you want to hang on to the memories you have of how it used to be."

New memories of Alabama are certainly part of Willie Sugarcapps' recent past and will be created in the not-too-distant future. With gear strewn across the dining room table, they recorded their self-titled debut in about eight hours on the porch of Crawford and Lee's home in the middle of 2,400 acres.

For Paradise Right Here, the group went north -- to FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals -- and spent three days last year making the 11-song album they co-produced with Shoemaker.

"We just decided we were on the road and had a couple days off, so we just pulled in there and got a couple of rooms up the road and then just recorded what became the record," said Kimbrough, who played acoustic guitar, resonator guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukelele and harmonica on the album. "And the experience was great. The (Studio) A room at Fame is a wonderful-sounding room and the ghosts in there are like all your favorite musicians and singers.

"I's got a nice vibe to it. The room where you make coffee ... the whole place hasn't been redecorated since about 1962. Everything's avocado green and harvest gold and the little coffee room where you make coffee and wash the dishes is covered with 8x10s of Otis Redding and Bobby Womack, the Swampers, Duane Allman," he said (as Lee broke in to add other legends like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett). "It's like, you know, the hair stands up on the back of your neck just walking in there if you're a music fan. And we all are."

By the sounds of it, Alabama is filled with plenty of spiritual Shangri-Las for musicians and lovers of live music. Willie Sugarcapps haven't ventured too far outside their heavenly haven, but are "looking at all offers," Lee said. Meanwhile, they will stick close to home this spring with tour dates that include an April 23 appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It all begins with a CD release show on April 17, two days after Paradise Right Here drops, at -- where else? -- the Frog Pond.

Saying the venue follows in the tradition of Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble, Lee believes first-time visitors will discover "a real social event," with "like-minded people" who build relationships within their community.

"It's kind of an idyllic little old-fashioned sweet situation. But it's also based around music," added Kimbrough, who cites Russell Carter's 30A Festival and Callaghan's Irish Social Club in Mobile as other places responsible for developing musical appreciation along the Gulf Coast. "Cathe is a big personality and energetic person, to say the least. And so like a lot of people who do house concerts, they become pacemakers of their community and they turn a lot of people on to the idea of ... sitting in a chair on the lawn and focusing on music for three or four hours."

Of course, that's easy to do when a band as entertaining as Willie Sugarcapps is onstage. They're easygoing but passionate, resourceful but a party's best friend, eager to squeeze every ounce of jubilation out of each song until there's nothing left. They draw from performers like Janis Joplin, the Band and NRBQ, the latter one transfixing Kimbrough in his 20s and early 30s, especially when Big Al Anderson was a member.

"They had three lead singers, they had a lot of different styles and they had a lot of joy in their music," Kimbrough recalled. "And they weren't afraid to try something and fall flat on their face. I think, for the audience, that was just as entertaining as when they just absolutely nailed something."

As leader of Will & the Bushmen during his 20s, Kimbrough fondly remembered a hungrier time that involved rehearsing for eight hours a day with his pals in Mobile "just because we wanted to and didn't have anything else to do except smoke dope and rehearse."

Members of Willie Sugarcapps take a bow at AmericanaFest 2014
in Nashville (from left): Corky Hughes, Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough,
Savana Lee and Anthony Crawford.

My first chance to see Kimbrough perform was in 2000, when he opened for singer-songwriter Allison Moorer on a snowy night at the Soiled Dove in Denver, then stood out as the electric guitarist in her touring band. As impressive as he was that night, it was a challenge keeping up with his every move (the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2011 with Emmylou was another highlight). But Willie Sugarcapps' own midnight ramble on Sept. 18, 2014, at the Basement in Nashville during AmericanaFest might be as good as it gets -- worthy of that first heavenly Field of Dreams allusion.

While most showcases there before crowds in cozy clubs lasted 45 minutes to an hour, Willie Sugarcapps doubled the audience's pleasure with a marathon session that no one -- including them -- wanted to end.

It included songs from the first album ("Trouble," "Willie Sugarcapps," "Oh, Colorado") and this latest album ("Dreamer's Sky," "The Highway Breaks My Heart," "Magnolia Springs" and a 9-minute version of "Mancil Travis" that was so powerful, one may never look at a white carnation the same way again).

Then there was another involving "a bag of weed, a case of beer" that Capps seemingly taught them on the spot, saying, "Sometimes as a songwriter you write songs out of desperation when you know you can't rehearse with your band. So it's four chords over and over."

That this "instant band" (Kimbrough's term) could rely on each other's energy and intensity without putting in a lot of practice made such a show seem even more remarkable, yet Lee found a simple reason for their instantaneous and spontaneous combustion.

"I think we just all generally are having a good time together," she said. "Part of that is not practicing for eight hours a day and we only see each other when we have shows. So it is fun. We like each other, we're cutting up, we're playing. But of course everybody that you've seen in your past rubs off on you a little bit."

Kimbrough reflected on his rich musical upbringing, producing records for Todd Snider, singing harmony with Kim Richey and looking down from the stage in Telluride with Emmylou Harris and seeing Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and Robert Plant, there to close the festival as Band of Joy, watching them near the front of what's called the Poser Pit. Plant, in particular, had his eye on Kimbrough.

"Emmylou did 'Boulder to Birmingham' or something, and Patty was just out there bawling her eyes out," recalled Kimbrough (with Harris at right). "And then when I got off the stage I thought Robert Plant was gonna come back and tell me I just sucked. But he told me I had a nice guitar sound."

That moment certainly is hard to top, but being able to retire from touring as a sideman to focus on making music as a solo artist and with a group of Lower Alabamans that share a common bond is "the best thing that's ever happened to me (professionally)," said Kimbrough, a husband and father of two daughters.

Is this paradise? Close enough, as long as the folks in Willie Sugarcapps are playing there.

Publicity photo by MCE Photography. Concert photos by Michael Bialas.