Bill Kirchen – Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods


In 1994, Nick Lowe released his best album in 10 or 15 years, the country-slanted The Impossible Bird, featuring ex-Commander Cody guitarist Bill Kirchen. After stellar albums for Black Top and Hightone, Kirchen essentially reunited the Impossible Birds, as Lowe’s studio and subsequent touring band was dubbed, for his Proper American debut. It not only outstrips Kirchen’s previous solo efforts, it is at least the equal of the Lowe album that brought this aggregation together – which is saying a lot on both counts.

The main lineup alterations are that bassist Paul Riley is engineer and co-producer (with Bill) here, with Lowe moving from rhythm guitar back to the instrument he played with Rockpile and Little Village, the bass. And Austin DeLone (the Moonlighters, Eggs Over Easy, Elvis Costello) joins Geraint Watkins in the keyboard section, with Robert Trehern still on drums.

Even though the self-proclaimed King Of Dieselbilly is arguably the best country picker of his generation, Kirchen has always been faithful to the genre without letting it hamstring him. This, however, is his most eclectic release so far, as well as the most accurate freeze-frame of his personality, with his best songwriting to date.

The opening title track is an ode to the Fender Telecaster – something Kirchen knows a thing or two about, having played the same now-weathered axe for 35 years. “It was born at the junction of form and function,” he sings over a floor-tom rumble, while paying tribute to Tele-masters from Luther Perkins and Don Rich to Albert Collins and Chrissie Hynde. If Fender doesn’t adopt this as its theme song, it’s crazy.

The mood shifts to the eerie, melodic “Rocks Into Sand” – its poignant lyrics and spare lead lines riding atop a subtle cowboy clip. A honky-tonk two-step finally arrives in the form of the catchy “Get A Little Goner,” featuring the pedal steel of Hacienda Brother Dave Berzansky.

Longtime Kirchen cohorts contribute fine tracks with “Skid Row In My Mind” (the ultimate barroom ballad by Blackie Farrell) and “Heart Of Gold” (a swinging boogie by Tony Johnson). Kirchen’s “Working Man” falls somewhere between Johnny Horton country, doo-wop, and a chain-gang holler, and the set concludes with a beautiful reading of Arthur Alexander’s “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way” – like much of the composer’s work, equal parts Nashville country and Southern soul.

Longtime Kirchen fans will revel in this dream-team offering, while newcomers will discover an American treasure in full stride.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Mar ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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