Bill Kirchen | The Proper Years | (The Last Music Company)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Get ready for almost 2 ½ hours of (too much) fun.
Telecaster master Bill Kirchen has been twanging his way through music he describes perfectly as “dieselbilly” for the better part of 50 years. That’s a lot of picking.
Best known for his tenure with the original Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen collective for about six years ending in 1976, Kirchen never stopped playing his combination of honky tonk, country, swing, blues and rockabilly despite the many musical phases that have come and gone through the decades. Although gaining little more than a cult audience, Kirchen has kept the musical faith; never bothering to commercialize or veer from his dogged dedication to his own brand of cosmic American sounds.
The bland but appropriately titled The Proper Years collects three albums recorded for that UK based label; 2006’s Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods (how’s that for a title?), Word to the Wise from 2010 and Seeds and Stems released three years after that. The double disc also tacks on three more tracks from Transatlanticana, a 2016 duo recording with longtime sidekick keyboardist Austin DeLone, bringing the set’s total to 38 tunes.
Since there is nothing rare or previously unreleased, hardcore Kirchen fans can pass unless they want to dig into the booklet’s 12 pages of detailed liner notes penned by the guitarist with his usual wit. That might be worth the price alone as Kirchen writes eloquently about all of his collaborators from Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe to Dan Hicks and of course Commander Cody.
There’s plenty of rollicking trucker songs (“Truck Stop at the End of the World,” “Mama Hated Diesels” “Semi Truck,)” some bluesy country (“Womb to the Tomb”), a handful of R&B (“Soul Cruisin’” should have been a summer hit), sweet Everly Brothers’-styled ballads (Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love” with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack sharing vocals) and a few re-recorded Cody chestnuts such as the classic “Seeds and Stems” and an eight minute “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The latter, a concert highlight, has Kirchen ripping into archetypal riffs of iconic tunes from Buddy Holly, Cream, Waylon Jennings and a dozen or so others.
There are swamp rockers like “Rockabilly Funeral” and few wonderful Dylan covers too. Kirchen doesn’t have a great voice, but his booming baritone is committed and his vibrant personality pushes the songs along with tinges of self-deprecating humor. Through it all he sounds like he’s having “too much fun,” the title of one of his most popular tunes and it’s impossible not to get caught up in that spirited vibe.
There is plenty more where this came from too; Kirchen has another half dozen solo albums along with everything from his Commander Cody years. So for those new to Kirchen’s frisky Americana charms, The Proper Years should entice you to follow his 50 years of dieselbilly, and experience one of the finest and perhaps most overlooked artists in America’s roots/country genre.