Bill Kirchen,
Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods
(Proper American, 2006)

Known by others as the "King of Dieselbilly," Bill Kirchen thinks of himself as a folk artist "who plays too fast and too loud." His musical persona owes to his mastery of the Fender Telecaster guitar and to his immersion in the gritty dance-hall rhythms of post-World War II America. To both fellow musicians and an international assemblage of civilians with ears tuned to roots rock and hard country -- not to mention Western swing, r&b and '50s pop -- he stands as one of the last of the ol' five-and-dimer honkytonk heroes. He hit the big time only once, when his muscular guitar riffs, in service to Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, propelled "Hot Rod Lincoln" to a top chart position in 1972, otherwise not a year remembered for music produced by humans.

By Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods Kirchen means the Telecaster. The song by that name honors its masters (name-checking Luther Perkins, Muddy Waters, Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins, Don Rich, Merle Travis, Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry, alongside other Olympian practitioners) as well as its sound -- "the honk and twang of the Telecaster tone ... born at the junction of form and function." "Hammer" opens Hammer in thundering celebration and never lets up, though the tempo does slow down here and there.

You'd think something like this would be fashioned in its entirety in a studio in Memphis or Austin or even Nashville, but a good chunk of this was cut in London, with British rocker Nick Lowe, a vocal Kirchen admirer, on bass and backing vocals. Five of the 11 songs are Kirchen originals or co-writes, effectively indistinguishable from the mid-century barroom rave-ups and beery weepers that provided their inspiration. Neither the originals nor his arrangements feel anemically revivalist, however. Like a radiantly natural artist so consumed in his subject that no distinction between him and it is visible or, arguably, conceivable, the music defines itself on its -- his -- own terms.

Besides all else, Kirchen is a rock-solid composer, in one instance almost literally so. "Rocks Into Sand" transforms "rock music" into geological metaphor -- a witty conceit, brilliantly thought up and pulled off. "Get a Little Goner" revs up some tasty Bakersfield-flavored beer-joint boogie, and "Working Man" resounds with the kind of rockabilly for which Johnny Horton is not famous. I take this as something close to personal vindication, since I have long held the (apparently eccentric) opinion that Horton's rockabilly records -- as opposed to the more famous saga songs such as "North to Alaska," "Battle of New Orleans" and their like -- are gravely underrated. "One More Day," a good-natured Western-swing talking blues, shimmers with the vibe you may recall from those old Commander Cody albums.

The covers all satisfy, not least the lovely r&b ballad "Soul Cruisin'." "Devil With the Blue Dress" usually recalls to memory the frenetic Mitch Ryder reading, but Kirchen's clearly takes its inspiration from the 1964 original by its co-writer, Motown soulman Shorty Long. The album ends on the grace note of Arthur Alexander's "If It's Really Got to Be This Way."

by Jerome Clark
7 April 2007

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