"Shelly's Winter Love" / Bill Kirchen
with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack
File this away in my Wish I'd Been A Fly on the Studio Wall folder.
Bill Kirchen's new CD, Words to the Wise, really should be listed as Bill Kirchen and Friends, since just about every track features some "guest artist" who's a longtime musical pal of his. Considering Kirchen's eclectic career -- from the late 60s with Commandy Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, to the Moonlighters, to the Impossible Birds and countless other sideman gigs -- he's amassed impressive credentials as a triple-threat guitarist, songwriter, and singer. As one of the guys who "invented" Americana, he's been hung with the tag King of Dieselbilly, but in truth he is so much more.
Yet Bill Kirchen is such a generous guy, so modest about his own amazing talent, he graciously stands back and lets his guests take the spotlight on each track. And the line-up of guests reads like my iTunes: Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Dan Hicks, Maria Muldaur, Commander Cody (a.k.a. George Frayne), and best of all, the divine Nick Lowe. That roll call, however, doesn't fully convey the best thing about this recording: its mellow vibe. It's clear that everybody Kirchen invited was thrilled to sign on, and they simply had a blast in the studio.
Truth is, it was hard to choose which track to share with you today. (Which means this CD will probably soon make a return appearance on this blog.) The title track, a duet with Dan Hicks, is a delightful romp, as is his reunion with Commander Cody on "I Don't Work that Cheap"; then there's the rueful "Husbands and Wives," a cover of a Roger Miller tune, on which Kirchen duets with Chris O'Donnell, formerly of Asleep at the Wheel. (Kirchen doesn't get enough credit for his poignant numbers; check out my previous post on "Skid Row in My Mind.")
But flesh is weak, and in the end I succumbed to the obvious. C'mon, I haven't written about Nick Lowe in ages! And there's Paul Carrack too! How could I resist?
Considering what longtime collaborators Lowe and Carrack have been, you'd think there'd be more photos of them together on the InterWeb, at the very least group shots of Nick's Cowboy Outfit. No dice. The best I could do with this homemade video is to plug in separate shots of each guy at the point in the song where he's featured -- that's Paul with the shades, Nick in the white shirt, Bill in the blue. I should also add that the shimmering piano accents are courtesy of Austin De Lone, who originally brought them all together. Though De Lone is American, his band Eggs Over Easy launched the 1970s pub rock movement in London, in which Nick (via Brinsley Schwarz) and Paul (via Ace) got their start; later, when Austin and Bill played together in the Moonlighters, trans-Atlantic introductions were made, and lifelong bonds were formed.
As for this track, it's a cover of a Merle Haggard tune, from 1971's Hag. According to Kirchen's wonderful liner notes, "Nick and Paul tell me they had Merle Haggard's "Shelly's Winter Love" by the Osborne Brothers on a tape while touring the US, and would sing it together on the bus. Why reinvent the wheel, I thought? I just let 'em at it, and tried to not get in the way." By stripping away the pedal steel and adding harmonies, Lowe and Carrack give this tender ballad an Everlies-like plangency.
Forget the awful pun on Shelley Winters' name, which must have kickstarted this song in Haggard's imagination; this is no mere novelty tune. The conceit is that Shelly is a restless woman who never stays put for long; the singer hooks up with her every winter, but he knows she'll be flying away by spring. While he accepts that, it's clear from every lovesick yodel in this song that he'd rather have her to himself year-round -- but he'd rather have a little bit of Shelly than nothing.
I happen to love Bill Kirchen's voice, and I'm sorry he didn't take a verse himself, or at least chime in on the chorus. Still, we've got that middle eight, in which Kirchen twangs a lovely solo. If you've ever seen Bill Kirchen in concert, you'll know that he can rip up a guitar solo like nobody's business. Yet that would have been totally out of place in a wistful song like this, and Kirchen has unerring taste in such matters.
That's the virtue of having been in the business for forty-plus years -- Bill Kirchen doesn't have a dang thing to prove. Making a record is just a wonderful excuse to hang out with his friends -- and oh, what friends they are.