Kim Wilson can’t remember the last time he brought The Fabulous Thunderbirds to East Tennessee, but he remembers one of the first, back in 1982.
The band, which had been together for several years by that point, rose up out of Texas and put a Lone Star State shine on the blues. Over the course of those first four records, the Thunderbirds — which in those days featured Jimmie Vaughan, brother of Stevie Ray, as part of the lineup — began to slowly move toward a more popular R&B-based sound, and in 1982, they wound up in downtown Knoxville at the World’s Fair, on a bill with rock ‘n’ roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis.
“I remember I had a Neville Brothers T-shirt on, and we asked someone where we could get some Mexican food, and they sent us to the Mexico pavilion,” Wilson told The Daily Times recently. “But there were no Mexicans in there! I remember the guy at the counter said, ‘Man, you’ve got the Neville Brothers all over your back!’”
Such non-sequiturs are a dime a dozen for Wilson, who’s been rocking as the frontman for The Fabulous Thunderbirds for more than four decades now. He’s been to the big dance and had a platinum record or two — notably, 1986’s “Tuff Enuff” — and while it would be easy to coast on a routine set of the band’s greatest hits, that’s not Wilson’s style. If anything, he said, he’s still looking for ways to make a unique racket.
“I love to play, and I’ve still got a lot of things to say,” he said. “I’m no spring chicken, but I can out-rock the rest of the kids. Right now, I’m trying to figure out exactly what I want to do with this band. I used to be into the contemporary thing, and we took a shot at that for several years, but those days are kind of over. I think I’m ready to play a little more blues.
“Rock ’n’ roll will always be there, but as far as trying to fit it into a contemporary vein, I don’t know about that anymore. It’s never been my thing anyway. I don’t even really call it pop music, because pop means ‘popular,’ and contemporary is a little better explanation of the music that I’ve never really liked.”
In a way, Wilson concedes, he’s bringing the Thunderbirds — which will rock the stage at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville on Saturday — full circle. In the mid-1970s, the guys started out rocking Texas juke joints and honky tonks with a mixture of rockabilly and the blues. Although the group’s first two records weren’t bestsellers at the time, they’ve gone on to become regarded as benchmark blues records, but gradually the band began to incorporate more horns and R&B until, in the mid-1980s, they headed to England to record with Dave Edmunds. Edmunds pushed the boys in a more popular direction and was successful: “Tuff Enuff” became the band’s biggest album to date, spawned a couple of popular singles and landed the Thunderbirds on a number of film soundtracks.
“It went pretty far, and the next couple (1987’s “Hot Number” and 1989’s “Powerful Stuff”) went pretty far also,” Wilson said. “But once we had a hit record, we started trying to make hit records, and that was a mistake. I think that, for me, in order to have a really good time, I have to stick to my original guns. Yeah, I flirted with pop music, and we were in that arena for a few minutes, and that was fine, but it wasn’t a great life to lead, to be honest with you.”
It did, however, lead to greater respect among Wilson’s peers — artists like Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler and even the Rolling Stones invited The Fabulous Thunderbirds to share a bill, and once they started digging through the band’s back catalog, they gained a newfound appreciation for the guys’ respect for tradition.
“We were out there playing for all these people all over the world for many years before we had a hit record, so when ‘Tuff Enuff’ hit, it was just time,” he said. “People wanted to hear it. I think we might have lost a few fans because some people thought we had sold out, but we gained a whole bunch as well, and I think we gained way more fans than we lost.”
Even during the height of the band’s popularity, however, Wilson held his “Bible” close: James Cotton, a blues harmonica player whose 1967 release on the Verve label was Wilson’s template for everything the Thunderbirds have done.
“This guy’s my hero, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me,” he said. “He did a lot of cool things. He was doing R&B, down blues, a lot of different kinds of music, and when I listened to it, that’s when it kind of became the Thunderbirds’ Bible from the beginning.”
The band is working on a new studio album that will include more originals, Wilson added. (East Tennessee music sidenote: Wilson has a new solo record coming out soon that he recorded with Knoxville expatriate “Big” Jon Atkinson, former bandleader of the local blues band Big Jon and The Nationals.) And while the emphasis will definitely be on the blues, he’s still got a soft spot for rock ‘n’ roll.
“But it’s the kind of rock ‘n’ roll we played in the beginning after a few years,” he said. “I’m talking about Chuck Berry and Guitar Junior and Bo Diddley and all those people. If we throw a soul-sounding kind of thing in there, it’ll be more blues than soul, I think. Because that’s what you’ve got to do to stay in the business: You’ve got to keep it fresh for you. If it’s not fresh for me, I’m not going to want to do it anymore.”
He’s not had a desire to throw in the towel yet, he added. Having hit records can be a burden as well as a blessing — no matter how much the band’s popular phase might be in the rearview, fans will always expect to hear “Tuff Enuff” when they come to a show. And, for the most part, he doesn’t mind playing it.
“People are going to be calling for them, and they want to hear them,” he said. “We’ve whittled it down to two or three of them, but everything else, I like to mix it up — old, new and in the middle. I can indulge people with ‘Tuff Enuff’ and ‘Wrap It Up’ and ‘Twist of the Knife,’ but you have to satisfy yourself. If you can’t do that, you can’t satisfy anybody.”