Bill Kirchen earned his epithet, “Titan of the Telecaster” primarily due to his stalwart duties in Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, the infamous Austin based longhaired hippies who roared into life in the late ‘60s. Their mix of boogie-woogie, trucking songs and wild country swing wig outs, fuelled by various substances, reinvigorated country rock with Hot Rod Lincoln, from their first album, even hitting the US charts. Mid seventies, the band broke up and Kirchen moved into a successful second chapter which continues to this day. Oddly enough, many of the highlights of this career have seen him closely involved with UK artists, a liaison which grew from Nick Lowe producing Kirchen’s band, The Moonlighters in the early eighties.
The Proper Years comprises three albums Kirchen recorded in London for Proper Records (Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods, Word To The Wise and Seeds And Stems) from 2006 until 2013, all crammed into an excellently priced two CD set. Aside from Kirchen’s Telecaster wizardry, there are appearances from a host of luminaries including Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Commander Cody, Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur and Butch Hancock. As he did in the Cody band, Kirchen barrels from rip-roarious honky tonk workouts to tear filled beer fuelled country laments, all the while injecting a healthy dose of humour as he delivers what he calls “Dieselbilly.”
With 38 songs to choose from we’re not going to do a blow by blow account. Suffice to say that there’s oodles of Kirchen’s picking skills from the opening Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods to the turbo charged and refuelled version of Hot Rod Lincoln (where he can be accused really of just showing off as he mimics several guitarists’ styles). He also revisits his Lost Planet Airmen days on grand versions of Down To Seeds And Stems and Mama Hated Diesels and digs into the well of country despair on Skid Row On My Mind, a song which could give Willie Nelson a run for his money. The songs from Word To The Wise, essentially a duets album, are particularly joyous as Kirchen parries with his collaborators in fine style with Elvis Costello glowering on Man In The Bottom Of The Well and Dan Hicks on great form on Word To The Wise. We do have to give a special mention to the magnificent Rockabilly Funeral which slouches along as if The Fabulous Thunderbirds were the pall bearers as Kirchen gets increasingly absurd and lascivious as he details his demise.
It would be remiss of us not to mention Austin de Lone, once of Eggs Over Easy, progenitors of pub rock and the one musician (aside from Kirchen) to appear throughout the cuts here. He’s the conduit from Austin to London for Kirchen’s voyage and the set ends with three bonus songs from their 2016 Transatlantica album which is well worth investigating.
All in all, The Proper Years is the best retrospective release we’ve heard this year and it really should reside in any self respecting album collection.
Proper Music Distribution · Bill Kirchen – Rockabilly Funeral