Bill Edwards intricately designs a nostalgic roadmap to childhood.
The Ann Arbor Americana singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist revisits his carefree days of growing up in rural Princeton, Illinois on his reminiscent new album, 61356, via Regaltone Records.
“I was eight when we moved there, and I was 13 when we left. Most of my childhood memories are from there. I don’t remember a whole lot before that, but I remember a ton about Princeton,” said Edwards, who lived there from 1960-1965 and named the album after the town’s zip code.
“It was a great place to be a kid. And sort of like I say in the first song, you’re just so unaware of what’s going on in the larger world beyond your handlebars. There was so much to explore, and you could just ride your bike anywhere you wanted to go.”
In his 61356 mind’s eye, Edwards pedals to hardware stores, community pools, patchwork fields, county fairs, neighborhood homes and other memorable locales. He quickly transports listeners to a pastoral era filled with vivid tales, multiple perspectives and complicated relationships.
“I just kept writing away, and some of the new ideas kept coming to me. Some of them are reminiscences and others are completely made up with different characters. All of them though involve some personal connection, like the one from the point of view of the farmer,” Edwards said.
“My parents went out of town one time, and they had us kids stay with this farm family for a weekend. We got to see pigs being born in the middle of the night, and we got to learn something about farm life a little bit.”
Edwards distinctly recalls 61356 life as a happy 10-year-old in the youthful opener, “In 1963.” Reflective acoustic strums, sunny electric guitars, bouncy bass, calm drums and grateful piano cycle from one buoyant childhood recollection to the next.
He sings, “The public swimming pool/Is just a few short blocks/You can ride your bike to school/You never need a lock/Hogs, cows and sheep/Corn higher than your head/And man you fall asleep/One second into bed.”
“The process of writing about it evoked more memories, and that first song, ‘In 1963,’ wasn’t the first one I wrote. It was just sort of as I got going, and I said, ‘Well, how am I going to open this record?’ And I thought, ‘Well, let’s do something that reminiscent of where I was at that point,’” Edwards said.
Next, Edwards shifts to another townperson’s viewpoint on bluesy, revelatory, “Motel Peru,” which chronicles a bored housewife’s well-known affair and segues into two other related tracks, “But I Know” and “Your Good Name.”
Throughout “Motel Peru,” cautionary electric guitars, solemn acoustic strums, contemplative drums and driving bass unravel deception within an unstable marriage.
Edwards sings, “She wakes up all a-tingle/Knowin’ what’s ahead/Her husband softly snoring/As she swings out of bed/She’ll have one Lucky Strike, coffee, Life Magazine/Then pack him off to work/The usual routine.”
“I felt like there needed to be some drama, and I wanted to look at something from a lot of different perspectives. I’ve got the housewife, and I’ve got the husband. There was a bar on Main Street that I used to go by as a kid, and it was the place with the neon lights and the musty smell from the first song,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll put him in there on Thursday night when his wife’s out running around.’ That gave me an opportunity to do a ‘60s Merle Haggard-like country song because I love that era. I wanted to look at it from his point of the view and the next was looking at it from her father’s point of view.”
Edwards also shares the poignant perspective of a Union soldier on the tender, historical ballad, “We Don’t See It Yet.” The soldier stands on a local statue that pays homage to those who fought for the Union during the Civil War.
Sentimental acoustic strums, respectful whistles, steady drums, ticking cymbals, thoughtful piano and deep bass reveal a growing chasm of inequality between our nation’s past and present.
He sings, “Since nineteen hundred and thirteen/I’ve stood in my place on this stone/In the middle of my Bureau County/But I haven’t stood here alone/Above me, a guardian angel/To my right, left and back, over vets/We watch the horizon for justice/Alas, we don’t see it yet.”
“That statue was put up in 1913, and it was about that time that all the Confederate statues were being put up, too. In 1963, my dad was a minister, and he took the family to a congregational convention in Chicago,” Edwards said.
“We stayed in the hotel, and one night he took me down to the ballroom, and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke. I didn’t really have a sense of what was going on at age 10, but I knew it was an important thing.”
Recording and Honoring 61356
For Edwards, 61356 serves as his second release this year. In August, he dropped his ambitious 30-track double album, Whole Cloth, which provides a countrified glimpse into personal growth, lessons learned and cherished moments.
“Particularly during the pandemic, I’ve been working at it every day, and it’s a labor of love. It doesn’t feel like work; I just get lost in it. I had some stuff on the way, even at the time the previous record came out,” Edwards said.
“And I was thinking, ‘Well, this is crazy. I can’t release another record right on the coattails of the other one.’ And I posted something on Facebook and said, ‘Am I crazy?’ and a lot of people said, ‘Get it out there. We’ll check it out.’”
Throughout the pandemic, Edwards wrote and recorded a bevy of fresh Americana tracks in his basement studio and experimented with Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) software.
He also played all the instruments on both albums, including guitar, fiddle, mandolin and Dobro, and programmed drums and bass.
“Everything on the record again is me playing or programming. I’m able to do it all myself, which is great. It means I have complete control over it, but it also cuts the expense down dramatically,” he said.
To accompany 61356, Edwards shot and included photos of Princeton landmarks and landscapes on his website to provide listeners with vital points of reference across the album’s 10 tracks. He recently visited his old stomping grounds with his wife to reflect on the past and process the present.
“I’d only been back once since we moved in ‘65. We went and stayed a couple of nights and just wandered around talking pictures,” said Edwards, who also has a QR code for the photos on the back of his CD. “There are so many things that are still the same, but some things have changed.”
As for the future of 61356, Edwards will celebrate it Thursday with an album release show at the Chelsea Train Depot. He’ll be joined by Mark Jewett, who will open the show and perform tracks from his latest album, The Lucky One.
“I’m gonna do a couple of songs from Whole Cloth, and then I will play all 10 of the songs on the new record. It’s not a 30-song album,” said Edwards with a laugh.
“I’m able to play the tracks from the CD. I just take out the lead vocal and the acoustic guitar, and I can play along to it, so you can get the full-band sound of it. I’ve also got a couple of Christmas things that I’m going to do, too.”
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 9
Chelsea Train Depot, 125 Jackson St. in Chelsea
Proof of vaccination and masks required