“I’m in a big row of semis in the Allegheny Mountains,” Bill Kirchen tells Feedback when we ring him up. “Let me get over in the right lane. It’s kind of gnarly but I think we’ll be all right.”
It’s not surprising to find Kirchen on the road, as he’s been there for most of his adult life. Starting with his days as guitarist for country rockers Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in the ’60s and ’70s and continuing straight through to his recent solo endeavors, one of Kirchen’s main themes has been truck-driving songs, so much so that he coined a new genre for his tunes: dieselbilly. “I figured, hell, if I’ve got my own genre I can play anything I want, you know?” he says of the word. On Friday, June 6, Kirchen and his Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods band, named after his latest album and featuring Claude Arthur on bass and Jack O’Dell on drums, will roll into Crozet to play a gig at Uncle Charlie’s Smokehouse.
Bill Kirchen and the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods will bring plenty of twang and talent to Uncle Charlie’s Smokehouse in Crozet on June 6.
What we’re listening to
“Unfair,” by Pavement (from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain)—Squealing, distorted guitars wind this tune up until it explodes with Stephen Malkmus’ increasingly loose-cannon screams.
“Puppets,” by Atmosphere (from When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold)
“Please Stop Dancing,” by The Magnetic Fields (from Distortion)
“Perfecting Loneliness,” by Jets to Brazil (from Perfecting Loneliness)
In addition to being a highway man, another essential characteristic of Kirchen is his Fender Telecaster. In 1968 he moved from Michigan to San Francisco, where he got a job as a motorcycle messenger and began helping the rest of Commander Cody relocate to the West Coast. “I decided that I wanted a Telecaster. I was just starting to get into that honky tonk music, specifically Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and early Elvis, and all of those three people either played Telecaster or all had a notable Telecaster player in the band. The guy sitting next to me on a bench had just seen Pete Townshend come though town and smash up a Gibson SG. He had a Tele and I had an SG. I wanted a Tele, and he wanted an SG, so we swapped.”
Today, almost all of the sunburst lacquer finish has worn off of Kirchen’s trusty axe, due to a mountain of playing and equally elevated skills. Kirchen has earned the nickname “Titan of the Telecaster” and, in addition to his extensive solo career, has taken the stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Emmylou Harris, Gene Vincent and Link Wray.
He has fond memories of everyone that he’s played with, but Kirchen says that some of the best moments are hard to describe. “The funny thing about music is that the ones that are maybe my favorites are the ones that are hardest to even remember, much less tell, because they are just magic moments on stage musically,” he says.
One moment that he does remember is when Commander Cody opened Led Zeppelin’s final two shows in the U.K. (until their recent 2007 reunion) in 1979. “That was the biggest crowd I’ve ever been in front of,” Kirchen says.
|Bill Kirchen performing Commander Cody’s hit "Hot Rod Lincoln."|
Earlier moments on Kirchen’s musical path include his trips as a teenager to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965, where he soaked up the diverse selection of gospel, blues and folk acts and, in 1965, witnessed the infamous performance when Bob Dylan “went electric.” “He made a big impression on me,” Kirchen says. He even brought a tape recorder along to capture the set, but was busted by security, who confiscated his equipment. “I had to wait at the gate and sheepishly get my tape recorder back,” he says. “And who should come strolling out past me but Bob Dylan. I looked at Dylan and I don’t know what I said, but it would have been something like, ‘Hey man!’ and he probably said, ‘Hey man’ back to me or something.”
“So that was the sum total of my conversation with Dylan,” Kirchen says with a laugh. No matter, though, because Kirchen has spent the following decades hitting the road, having fun and making a name for himself as a renowned guitarist, singer and songwriter. The next time he saw Dylan was in 2002, when the two were both nominated for Grammy Awards, Kirchen for his song “Poultry in Motion” and Dylan for the album Love & Theft.
“Uh-oh! Did I just miss my exit?” Kirchen exclaims towards the end of our interview. “Christ on a crutch!” Thankfully, he hadn’t. After breathing a sigh of relief, Feedback started looking forward to Kirchen’s upcoming show.
Another guitar hero
If you can’t make it out to Crozet, Nels Cline, another top-notch guitarist (and recent addition to alt-country all-stars Wilco) will be performing with his free jazz group The Nels Cline Singers on June 6 at The Paramount Theater. Whereas Kirchen rocks his ’59 Telecaster, Cline usually opts for a Jazzmaster from the same year.
Nels Cline and his Nels Cline Singers don’t actually sing, but they will wail away with improvisational free jazz at The Paramount Theater on June 6.
Check out C-VILLE Publisher and resident Wilco/jazz enthusiast Frank Dubec’s interview with Nels Cline from when Wilco came to town last fall.
Last week we wrote about The Dawning’s search for a new home after leaving Outback Lodge at the end of May, and they found one! The goth and industrial dance night will hop over to ourspace, below the Tea Bazaar on the Downtown Mall, on Saturday, June 7, and keep things up and running without even missing a week. Congrats to the Dawning crew for keeping the beat going.
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