by HAP MANSFIELD
The name of Bill Kirchen will not ring familiar to some when finding it listed in the pantheon of great guitar players. Neither will his industry nickname, dubbed “Titan of the Telecaster” by Guitar Player magazine. Nor will many remember his first band of note, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
However, there are three words that will make people of certain generations remember who Bill Kirchen is: Hot. Rod. Lincoln.
If you go
Who: Bill Kirchen
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19
Where: Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels
Buy Bill Kirchen’s latest album, “Seeds and Stems,” from the San Marcos Mercury’s Amazon store. Buy the album and get a $1 Mp3 credit.
All of Kirchen’s earlier work is also available on Amazon.
While Kirchen and the band did not write the tune, Kirchen’s signature guitar riffs have become synonymous with the Johnny Bond song (penned by Charlie Ryan) and it took Commander Cody to the top of the charts in 1971. The band played a kind of music the folk-hippie generation had not encountered; a kind of western swing, boogie, rock ‘n’ roll, hard-core country mix often referred to as diesel-billy. The sound garnered praise from Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings just to name a few. The band started out in Ann Arbor, Michigan but when it relocated to California, it blew minds in Haight-Ashbury. The Grateful Dead loved them.
After putting out ten albums, the Airmen disbanded and Kirchen started another band, The Moonlighters, collaborating with Nick Lowe. Kirchen later formed Too Much Fun with Dave Eliot and John Previti while putting out solo albums of his own and appearing on the albums or on the stage with some pretty talented company including Elvis Costello, Gene Vincent, Link Wray, Hoyt Axton, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Hornsby, Tito Puente, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Redd Volkaert, Doug Sahm and more.
Kirchen has continually toured, written songs, guested on albums and put out his own work for the last twenty some odd years. His catalog glitters with songwriting gems like “Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods”, his tribute to the Fender Telecaster which he describes as “born at the junction of form and function.”
He has released more than a dozen albums since 1993, racked up a load of awards and just keeps on amazing audiences with his mastery. Not bad for a kid from Ann Arbor who started out playing the trombone, rescued his mom’s old banjo from the attic and subsequently hitch-hiked, at 16,. to the 1964 Newport Folk Festival where he saw and was inspired by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Johnny Cash and Mississippi John Hurt. Kirchen plays as though still inspired by that list. The list that Kirchen has inspired over the years is legion.
“Stems and Seeds” is Kirchen’s new release and will be commercially available on June 18. Kirchen and his band Too Much Fun, will play a free show with his band Too Much Fun at Gruene Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19.
He is as enthusiastic now about music as he was at that inspirational Newport Folk Festival. We chatted with the ebullient Kirchen about his work, his life and his influences.
San Marcos Mercury: I often ask this of musicians: Is music your vocation, your avocation or both?
Bill Kirchen: You know, that’s exactly it! I feel fortunate that I get to do it, music, live music. It’s both. I’m gonna use that– it’s my vocation and my avocation.
Mercury: I have a personal memory of your work. It’s 1972 and your version of Hot Rod Lincoln was played on the radio all the time. I liked it, my dad liked it and my little brothers liked it. it was the first time I remember all of us agreeing on anything musical.
Kirchen: [laughs] That’s great! How old were your brothers?
Mercury: I was starting college and one was in grade school and the other in junior high.
Kirchen: So it was a cross-generational hit?
Mercury: Exactly. Why do you think it was so popular?
Kirchen: Well, you’re from the North aren’t you? Like me? You don’t sound like you’re from Texas.
Mercury: I wish I had the Texas accent – I love it. No, I grew up in the Midwest.
Kirchen: Well, see, that was the band bringing the music of the South to the North and the West, more or less.
Mercury: So you were country music and western swing fans? Who did you like? Merle Haggard? Buck Owens?
Kirchen: Yes. Merle Haggard is so great. He’s my guy. He was nice to us. We (Commander Cody) covered some Merle Haggard tunes. And we opened for Waylon [Jennings] once, too.
Mercury: I saw a YouTube video where you played with Redd Volkaert, another Telecaster master.
Kirchen: Redd Volkaert, yeah! Isn’t he something? He’s a force of nature!
Mercury: Speaking of YouTube, I have to mention the amazing thing you do when you cover “Hot Rod Lincoln”. Right in the middle of the song, you imitate a variety of guitar styles and it’s incredible, Johnny Cash to Ray Orbison to Iggy Pop to Link Wray and on and on. It goes from funny, to amazing, to amazingly funny to breathtaking. How did you come up with this?
Kirchen: Well, it started as kind of a joke. We’d cut up on stage or in the studio. We’d call out a name and try to play it. The cut on the record (Stems and Seeds) is pretty much exactly as we did it, spontaneous, with Austin’s (de Lone) piano. We do it live, too.
Mercury: And you’re always playing- just this month alone, you’ve been all over.
Kirchen: Yes, we just came back from the Northeast. We did a Dylan Festival in Warwick, New York and a song workshop in Ohio. After Gruene Hall I’ll be in Minneapolis at Lee’s. I love it. I’m doin’ what I really love.
And I love the crowd at Gruene Hall- it’s like what you said about your family and Hot Rod Lincoln. Talk about cross generational– people bring their kids, there are young and old and everyone in between– it’s always a fun crowd.
Mercury: I love your work on Stems and Seeds. There are new songs and a really fine re-working on the older tunes.
Kirchen: When we record, it’s pretty much just as it is when it’s live. I’m really enjoying working on these songs.
Mercury: One of my favorite guitarists Leo– uh- I just the lost his name– (laughs) you know “6 and 12 String Guitar”– with the armadillo on the cover…I hate it when I go up on a name.
Kirchen: Leo Kottke?
Mercury: Yes, of course! Anyway, what I was trying to say was that when he was young, he was a hotshot and “Vaseline Machine Gun” was like a gymnastic show stopper. But now, he plays it a bit slower but with more depth and a clearer vision of the song. I think you’ve done that, too. The songs are more organic to you.
Kirchen: Thank you, that’s a nice way of putting it. I’m having a good time with the songs.
Mercury: You’ve worked with a lot of remarkable people. Any one of them stand out?
Kirchen: They’re all great– everyone’s pretty exciting to work with. But, you know, I played on Doug Sahm’s last record in 1999. I really wish I could have gotten to know him. He was amazing.
Mercury: I forgot to ask you about “Stems and Seeds”, the saddest song ever. And the marijuana reference.
Kirchen: [laughs] Well, We’ll have to talk again sometime about that. It’s a whole other chapter.Email | Print