Bill Kirchen is one of those cult figures whose fame will never match the reverence in which he is held by those who know his work. Fortunately, he has never allowed his lack of commercial success interfere with his productivity, an admirable stance that has bequeathed this fine album unto the discriminating public. Tied to the Wheel is a fully-realized Bill Kirchen production, one which highlights his strength as a singer, instrumentalist and bandleader par excellance.
Kirchen has been a favorite son of the roots music scene since his early days as the guitar slinger for the revered hippy-country group known as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. He is best known for the inspired licks he conjured up for the classic “Hot Rod Lincoln”, a classic that remains a staple of his live shows. Following his stint with Cody, Kirchen launched a solo career that has found him alternating solo albums with session work for luminaries such as Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello. Regardless of the setting, Kirchen continued to develop a sound that he refers to as “dieselbilly”, a country-rock fusion marked by countrified rhythms coupled with lightning-fast blasts of rock intensity. He is one of the singular instrumental stylists of American roots music, and to hear his sound once is to have it indelibly etched on one’s musical memory.
The trucking songs that comprise the core of Tied to the Wheel have been one of the foundations of Kirchen’s particular brand of music since his Commander Cody days. In the wrong hands this genre could become one continuous caricature or novelty, but it is a testament to Kirchen’s taste and artistry that they never devolve into such tedium. His gift is to be able to put across songs with just the right touch of ironic detachment when necessary, while still imbuing the more emotionally direct numbers with blunt and moving sincerity. Making the right call in this respect is a tough thing, but Kirchen’s familiarity with the material and love for the music help guide him through unerringly.
In addition to his sensitivity to the material, Kirchen’s work on this album (and in his career in general) is characterized by scrupulous unselfishness, and a complete commitment to the songs as a whole. Few virtuosi of his caliber are so willing to place their skills at the service of the songs. Kirchen does so time and time again. In addition to his willingness to lay out and allow the song to breath, he is magnanimous in his sharing of the spotlight with his “sidemen”, who are supporting in name only. He willingly gives both instrumental and vocal space over to his bandmates, and the material is much stronger as a result. The sense of camaraderie and teamwork on the album is palpable, and it makes for a much more powerful record.
The show begins with an old, unreleased Commander Cody number, “Truck Stop at the End of the World”. Kicking off with a trademarked “dieselbilly” riff, the song is a prime example of Cody’s cosmic hillbilly style. The narrator is calmly relating his plan for trucking through the post-nuclear apocalypse. “Fishin’ for nuclear fission” and other such activities are catalogued with glee as Kirchen plugs away on this Telecaster.
“Quit Feelin’ Sorry For You”, penned by Kirhcen and his wife, showcases the band’s western swing chops. Bobby Black, another cohort from the Commander Cody days, supplies some classic steel guitar, and Kirchen answers with beautifully clean licks straight out of the Scotty Moore playbook. In true Bob Wills fashion, all of the major instrumentalists get their in their shots.
Kirchen and company shift gears with “Roll Truck Roll”, a classic Bakersfield-style lament. Kirchen’s soft, easy vocals on the chorus are matched by verses in which he delivers a spoken monologue concerning the ultimate trucker nemesis of loneliness. The lyrics focus on the narrator’s weariness at being an absentee father, and the mellow, melancholy instrumentation gently draw the listener into the cab along with the trucker.
“Dim Lights, Thick Smoke”, “One More Hour of Blues” and “Tryin’ to Turn Her Memory Off” all feature straightforward honky-tonk instrumentation and powerful, gut-wrenching vocals. The first track in particular, featuring a duet with Dudley Cornell of alt-country stalwarts the Seldom Scene, is a bruising barroom ballad that practically demands a sing-a-long. Throughout these tracks, Kirchen a master of economy and spacing, adorns the proceedings with tasteful, stinging guitar fills.
The atmosphere is lightened somewhat by the tongue-in-cheek “Hillbilly Truck Driving Man”. Again demonstrating his flawless judgment in deciding the proper approach to his material, Kirchen tears into this Hank Williams-styled shuffle with verve. As a rubbery bass-line bounces along in a leisurely groove, Kirchen lays in some Hank-like vocals complete with yodeling. The chorus affords him an opportunity to drop his voice into the very bottom of its range for dramatic power and good fun.
The title track is a terrific example of what makes Kirchen’s music work so well. Kirchen trades the ironic detachment of the previous tune for an earnest approach and total commitment to the lyrics of this mournful tune. In doing so, he delivers a song that transcends the truck-driving metaphor by virtue of the topic’s familiarity. Hackneyed though it may be, the metaphor of the truck driver on the road resonates because of its very simplicity. Other images may be more elegant or elaborate, but few match the lonely truck driver for flexibility and timelessness. When Kirchen’s trucker mutters to himself, “Sometimes it’s hard to see/if I’m driving it or if it’s driving me”, he’s echoing thoughts that have crossed the mind of every working person at some point or another. It may be superficially silly, but at the same time, it’s hard to deny.
Kirchen closes the album with a trilogy of tracks that pull out all of the instrumental stops. “Poultry in Motion” is an aptly-named showcase for his dexterous chicken-pickin’, as well as a testament to the sheer brilliance of his core trio (often billed as Too Much Fun). At times they manage to make their three humble instruments sound positively orchestral. “How Mountain Girls Can Love” is a bluegrass meltdown that features Kirchen’s most incendiary playing, as well as a nice harmony vocal from the rhythm section of Johnny Castle and Jack O’Dell.
The final track is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, and it really shows the full range of the group. The tune kicks off with a raunchy, driving riff a la Keith Richards before segueing into a galloping rhythm that is somewhat more spry than Dylan’s version. Kirchen’s ringing guitar replaces the rollicking piano of the original as the primary instrumental motif, and the bass line is exaggerated to powerful effect. The band is in full-throated power trio mode here, and Kirchen’s playing reaches a succession of frenzied crescendos. At the same time, the band’s tremendous dynamics showcase the powerful lyrics by bracketing them with varying degrees of silence and sonic wash. The end product is a powerful and chaotic statement serves the themes of Dylan’s composition while simultaneously casting the alienation and confusion of the lyrics in an even harsher light.
At first glance the inclusion of this track might seem like a departure from the thematic arc of Tied to the Wheel. However, this is truly not the case. While Dylan’s character may express it arcanely, he is wrestling the same demons that afflict those men in all of the rest of the album’s songs: loneliness, alienation and general existential dread. The unusual angle from which Kirchen approaches these themes is the unifying factor that binds these songs together, and when combined with the staggering level of musicianship and passion on this album, makes for a moving listening experience. Tied to the Wheel is a great example of a living, breathing roots music album made without sacrificing a single element of musical or thematic creativity at the alter of authenticity. It is irreverent, insightful and fun. Now go ahead, pop it into the CD player and hit the road, even if you don’t have a big rig. You’ll be glad you did.