Bill Kirchen

Word to the Wise

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If a guest list of marquee names is what it takes to finally bring Bill Kirchen the attention he deserves, then so be it. This Telecaster master has never made an album that's less than outstanding, but hopefully the presence of Elvis Costello, Dan Hicks, Nick Lowe, Maria Muldaur, the late Norton Buffalo, Paul Carrack, and others on Word to the Wise will do the trick. Kirchen began his career as lead guitarist for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in the '70s, and the ol' Commander himself, George Frayne, returns to engage in some fancy boogie-woogie ivory tickling on "I Don't Work That Cheap," a Kirchen original (co-written by guitarist/vocalist Blackie Farrell, who also guests) that posits an alternate universe historical travelog. Costello's star turn comes in the blues-infused "Man in the Bottom of the Well," and it's one of the more riveting vocals he's laid down in some time. Dan Hicks co-wrote and co-sings the title track with Kirchen, and it could easily have been a prime-era Hot Licks staple. Chris O'Connell, former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist, engages in a weepy duet with Kirchen on Roger Miller's "Husbands and Wives," Muldaur's trademark bawdy blues style lights up the barroom shuffle "Ain't Got No Time for the Blues," and Lowe and Carrack team up Everly Brothers-style on "Shelly's Winter Love," borrowed from the Merle Haggard songbook. The set ends on a semi-sad note with Kirchen's "Valley of the Moon," not because there's anything gloomy about the song itself, but because it's one of the last times the always-stellar harmonica of Norton Buffalo would be heard in a recording studio. So much for the guests -- what about the host? As always, Kirchen's guitar work is faultless. He's a player who always knows exactly what to play when, never overstays his welcome, enjoys the element of surprise, and keeps things invitingly simple and clean. As a vocalist, he's never going to be Sinatra, but he embraces his material and delivers it with panache and assuredness, just as he's done for the past four decades, and that's more than good enough. A word to the wise: if you've yet to fall prey to the proto-Americana charms of Bill Kirchen, this is as good a place to start as any.

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