Folk Tales: Bill Edwards Channels Different Characters on “Thirteen Stories” Album
Bill Edwards prefers to keep his songwriting in perspective—though not necessarily his own.
The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pens sentimental narratives from different viewpoints on his new Americana album, Thirteen Stories.
“Sometimes [people] listen to or see a singer, and they assume the song you’re singing is from your own perspective. It doesn’t always have to be; that’s very limiting I find,” Edwards said.
“You can use your imagination and sing from somebody else’s perspective. It’s all colored by my personal experience, and some of it’s very personal, but not all of it.”
Throughout Thirteen Stories, Edwards channels the mindset of a hall of fame baseball player, a seasoned songwriter, a nostalgic boater, a distraught wife, and other compelling characters.
“I want [listeners] to get outside themselves a little bit and experience emotion from somebody else’s point of view,” he said. “Can you identify with this even though it’s not necessarily my point of view or their point of view? Do the songs communicate well enough what somebody else might be going through?”
Edwards thoughtfully conveys each character’s experience within its own Thirteen Stories setting. Reflective lyrics, timeless country sensibilities, and seamless acoustic and electric instrumentation span from one track to the next.
“I had a whole bunch of stuff recorded, and I kept sliding them into place and seeing how they fit together. Six months ago, this sounded entirely different,” he said. “Then I’d be writing something new and say, ‘Oh, you know what, that would fit in there.’”
Edwards’ first “story” starts with the wistful opener, “Hit It Where They Ain’t,” as pensive fiddle, piano, and electric guitar echo his perseverance. He sings, “You’ll never catch me complainin’ / I’ve been mostly fairly umpired / I’ll show up if it’s blazin’ hot or rainin’ / But I doubt my number will ever be retired.”
“It’s a metaphor comparing an aging ballplayer to an aging songwriter,” he said. “That title comes from Willie Keeler, a hall of fame ballplayer, who famously said, ‘Baseball’s simple; you just try to hit them where they ain’t.’ That really stuck with me, and it seemed like something that I could work with.”
Next, Edwards becomes a Midwest small-town lifer yearning for a change of scenery on “Sure Could Use a Train.”
Alongside melancholic lap steel and acoustic guitar, he sings, “Still the same old rusty slios / Still our same old Tastee Freeze / There’s nothin’ different ‘bout these corn fields / But man if you ask me.”
“It was something that seemed ideal a minute ago, but now seems kinda worn,” he said. “The porch could use some paint, and everything is the same as it was, but it just doesn’t seem that great anymore, and I’d love to get out of here.”
With his escape route ready, Edwards ventures to the “boaty” days of his childhood on “7 ½ Horse Outboard Evinrude.”
Nostalgic dobro, fiddle, piano, bass, and drums propel Edwards as he sings, “His boat was small, just 12-feet long / She rode on the roof, seaworthy and strong / All three of us kids and him could fit in her just fine / And that motor pushed us faithfully through freshwater and brine.”
“My dad could take that motor apart, and he kept it running,” said Edwards, who relished family boat trips to Cape Cod and the St. Lawrence Seaway as a child.
“He enjoyed taking us out on the water and showing us how to fish. It was just a great memory when it showed up, and I thought, ‘That’s kinda who he was.’”
After revisiting childhood memories, Edwards assumes the mindset of a distraught coal miner’s wife on “Hard, Cold Light of Day.” Hopeful fiddle and acoustic guitar try to comfort the wife as she awaits her trapped husband’s rescue.
He sings, “You dream your dreams / You plan your plans / Until one day it’s too late / You can hold on to those dreams / Until you find yourself prayin’ / Outside some rusty chain-link gate.”
“Years ago, when I was traveling for my day job, I was somewhere in Georgia sitting at dinner next to this guy from West Virginia. He was talking about mining and what hard work it was,” Edwards said. “That got me thinking a little bit … I got a closer perspective from somebody who lived among it.”
“I had another six or eight songs that were possible, too,” he said. “They were all recorded and jumped into and out of.”
Edwards retreated to his basement studio to record and produce the 13 tracks for Thirteen Stories, his third album in over a year. He also played several instruments—guitar, fiddle, lap steel, dobro, mandolin, bass, and keys—and programmed a few others.
“I think my recording and mixing chops have improved dramatically over the past couple years,” said Edwards, who mixed, mastered, and released the album via Regaltone Records.
“I hear things now that I wouldn’t have heard when I was working on Whole Cloth. I’ve gotten some critiques on it from professional engineers that I bounce stuff off of.”
“I’m definitely gonna play the whole album. It’s a 45-minute album with some introductions and stuff, so that will probably be enough,” Edwards said. (Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Rod Johnson opens the show.)
While Edwards will be alone on stage, the audience will get to hear full-band versions of the songs on Thirteen Stories because he’ll play along to a stripped-down version of the album.
“Since I played and recorded all this stuff, I’ve been using tracks. I take the recording, and I take out the vocals and the acoustic guitar. That leaves me with tracks directly from the record. It fills out the songs, and people get to hear them the way they would hear them on the record.”
After the show, Edwards will turn his attention to new material, including a concept album called Troublemaker.
“I wanted to write from a totally different perspective than myself. It’s from the standpoint of a ne’er-do-well,” said Edwards, who plans to release the album in 2023. “The great thing about a concept album is that you’ve got an arc of a story across the songs, and it can lead you to the next song.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.
Bill Edwards performs November 11 at Canterbury House, 721 E. Huron St. in Ann Arbor, with Rod Johnson.