(Proper Records, CD)
Honky-tonk guitar hero Bill Kirchen is one of the most respected axe men in America, but he's never become a household name. Born and bred in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Kirchen first appeared on the national radar as a founding member of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, one of the earliest acts to fuse traditional country music and hairy rock 'n' roll.
Since then, he's appeared on others' records, from pop-rockers Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello to rockabilly gods Gene Vincent and Link Wray. Kirchen has also released several albums of his own, the latest of which is the terrifically titled Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.
The disc finds Kirchen in fine form, both vocally and instrumentally, and also features a crack band including Lowe on bass and backing vocals. Hammer covers a lot of musical territory - feisty rockabilly, broken-down balladry, Western swing, even a bluesy number or two. To his credit, Kirchen sounds like he's having a blast in each and every style.
The album opens with the title track, which not only serves as a declaration of intent but also a mini-history of early rock guitar. "It was born at the junction of form and function / It's the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods," Kirchen drawls before launching a volley of white-hot, blues-tinged licks.
A cool desert vibe pervades "Rocks into Sand," which features campfire strums framed by somber electric passages. "So we went to the hill and built us a town / With beautiful views from miles around /When the mountains shook and tumbled down / We knew we built on shaky ground," Kirchen sings on this countrified ode to impermanence.
"Skid Row in My Mind" slows things down even further, with Kirchen offering a lament for a broken family. The song features aching piano and minimal percussion, underscoring the overall feeling of grief. "I got proof of my success on my office wall and desk / But in this frame of mind, I'm barely half alive / Tomorrow I'll run over, try to see the kids at recess time / And I'll hide so they don't run to me / I'm on skid row in my mind," he dejectedly sings.
Things pick up again with a smoky cover of "Devil With a Blue Dress On," on which Kirchen gets more than a little diabolical with his six-string. The swing-infused "One More Day" - an effervescent hybrid of Django Reinhardt and Chet Atkins - immediately follows.
If you like your twang served straight up with a side of rockabilly dazzle, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods will no doubt hit the spot. Hear Kirchen alongside local barnstormers Starline Rhythm Boys and Rhode Island zydeco act Slippery Sneakers in a benefit for the Cancer Patient Support Program at the Sheraton Grand Emerald Ballroom this Saturday.