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  • Jonathan Widran

JIM "KIMO" WEST, Of Wood and Spirit: American Guitar Stories

With a 25-year discography as one of the world’s foremost and influential “ki ho’ alu” or Hawaiian slack key guitarists, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Jim “Kimo” West also has probably the coolest musical “day job” in the world - recording with and playing live behind “Weird Al” Yankovic.

While his work with the master parodist and bestselling comedy artist of all time has earned Kimo four Grammys, these accolades are mentioned as a secondary considering in his official bio so as not to distract from the deeper and expansive artistry he showcases on his 16 solo albums, most of which have Hawaiian titles and themes and reflect his mastery of the slack key. Since the streaming era began, Kimo’s songs have earned over 75 million spins.

In 2016, tucked between Ki’Ho’alu Christmas and Slackers in Paradise: Slack and Steel Guitar Duets featuring Ken Emerson, Kimo released Guitar Stories, which expanded his usual repertoire beyond slack key and Hawaiian music to include global styles like West African guitar, Middle Eastern music and Americana. Five years later, Kimo earned his first solo Grammy (Best New Age Album) for More Guitar Stories, released in 2020.

His latest collection Of Wood and Spirit: American Guitar Stories – the third installment of this fascinating series – is the one most rooted in a full immersion into the raw, down home organic joys of Americana. With many tracks tapping into key locations reflecting different aspects of the American experience, it’s a deep, surprise filled journey into the heart and soul of American music – almost like an infectious, engaging soundtrack to a documentary about the musical spirit of these places that needs to be made.

With open-tuning acoustic guitar as the sonic focus, Kimo incorporates a wide variety of axes, including acoustic slack key, electric, Weissenborn (Hawaiian style guitar), mandola, acoustic, baritone and soprano guitars, Moog guitar, six string banjo, Martin tenor guitar, and electric baritone guitar. He also features ensembles with veteran, globally renowned musicians, from fretless bassists Jimmy Johnson and Michael Manring and percussionist MB Gordy to violinist Charlie Bisharat, fiddlers Gabe Witcher and Craig Eastman and harmonica players David Naiditch and Robert “Bobomatic” West.

Kimo’s longtime collaborator Ken Emerson is also on board, adding his dynamic resonator slide guitar and electric lap steel guitar to the sly, exotic and bluesy New Orleans styled romp “Under the Voodoo.”

In less than 40 minutes, Kimo taps into his vast sonic arsenal to share colorful expressions that help us listeners feel the transcendent beauty, history and mystique of each place he draws inspiration from – with brief but insightful liner notes helping point and spark our imaginations in the right direction. He opens with the relaxed, soulfully lilting “Ghost Town Waltz (which opens our heart’s door to visions of spirits of the American West dancing gracefully in those physical locales) before taking a sweetly nostalgic, meditative ride with Bisharat up Highway 395 to the Eastern Sierras on “One Sierra Morning.”

After stopping and stomping in NOLA, Kimo darts playfully from the gentle rush of “Wind in the Canyon (a stark haunting infused with Native American vibes via Korb’s native flute and Manring’s amazing fretless bass stretching) to a festive banjo picking romp with “A Griot In Memphis” – truly a history of the instrument captured in a single provocative tune.

The remaining tunes are less rooted in specific places than in feelings of community, including the folksy, fiddle and harmonica laced adventure “Circle of Friends”; a gentle acoustic ballad (“Emryn’s Song”) improvised for a birthday party for the toddler daughter of some friends from Hawaii; and the haunting, reflective, socially conscious closing piece “A Love That Forgives,” whose title Kimo drew from the name of a Sunday School service held at the Birmingham church that was infamously bombed later that day in 1963. The guitarist also taps into his passion for nature, exploring the fascinating crystallizations of snowflakes on the charming, slow simmering solo tune “When Water Dreams.”


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