Bill Kirchen has become widely known for the trademark big-rig guitar riffs that powered the Commander Cody hit “Hot Rod Lincoln” into the Top 10 in 1972. Since 1993, he has recorded seven critically acclaimed albums of his own that have made him one of the musical elder statesmen of today’s Americana music, which in truth was pioneered by acts like Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen back in the ‘70s.
For his new album, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods on Proper Records, Kirchen puts the accent on songwriting, a talent that is sometimes overshadowed by his dazzling instrumental virtuosity. “I felt it was time to write some songs that cut closer to the bone,” he says. And on such moving numbers as “Rocks Into Sand” and “One More Day,” he succeeds admirably. All told, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods is the culmination of one very rich American musical life.
On Hammer, the man known as “The King of Dieselbilly” and “A Titan of the Telecaster” visits most every sonic landmark along the proverbial Route 66 of American music that he’s traveled for decades now as a player, songwriter and singer, and serves up a blue-plate special of such tasty and nourishing stylistic flavors as rock ‘n’ roll, honky-tonk, soul, rockabilly, Western swing, country, blues, boogie-woogie and more. The set captures the essence of Kirchen as “a devastating culmination of the elegant and funky,” as he’s described by his longtime friend and compatriot Nick Lowe, one of the noted musicians who plays on Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.
From his twanging title tribute to the Fender Telecaster guitar that he plays (and which he notes in song “was born at the junction of form and function”) to the soulful closing take of Arthur Alexander’s “If It’s Really Got To Be This Way,” Kirchen covers a home run of musical bases on his new disc. Recorded primarily in London with Lowe on bass, Robert Trehern on drums and Austin deLone and Geraint Watkins on keyboards, the album touches on Kirchen’s Michigan Motown R&B roots (“Soul Cruisin’” and a take of “Devil With the Blue Dress” that echoes the Shorty Long original), barroom blues (Blackie Farrell’s “Skid Row In My Mind”), doo-wop (“Working Man”) and Sun Records rockabilly meets Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie (“Heart of Gold”) in addition to the honky-tonk, Western swing and Dieselbilly, of which Kirchen is an acknowledged master.
Kirchen has appeared on record and stage with a who’s who of musical talents that includes Lowe, Doug Sahm, Ralph Stanley, Gene Vincent, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Hornsby, Hoyt Axton and fellow six-string heroes Link Wray and Danny Gatton. At the recent Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, Bill played guitar with Elvis Costello, who named his band for the event the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods after Bill’s upcoming release, and featured Bill singing the title song. Kirchen was nominated for a 2001 Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for his song “Poultry in Motion” and inducted the next year into the Washington (D.C.) Area Music Association Hall of Fame alongside John Phillip Sousa and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. He has lectured at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Smithsonian Institution and the 1998 International Conference on Elvis Presley in Memphis, and is featured in the TNN special Yesterday and Today: Honky-Tonk & Western Swing.
The Dieselbilly king is especially known for exhilarating live performances at festivals and venues across North America and Europe. The tour de force of every Kirchen show is his extended rendition of “Hot Rod Lincoln” on which “like an impassioned preacher in a souped-up convertible,” as Washington City Paper describes it, he cites the guitar styles of such six-string giants as Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins and Jimi Hendrix, while also referencing riffs by everyone from Merle Haggard to the Rolling Stones to Flatt & Scruggs to the Sex Pistols.
Kirchen began his musical journey in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he attended high school alongside Iggy Pop and Bob Seger. His first instrument was the classical trombone — which happens to share the same lowest note with the guitar — until a counselor at the esteemed Interlochen Arts Academy turned him on to folk music. “I said, this trombone has got to go,” Kirchen recalls. “I found a banjo in my mom’s attic and got the Pete Seeger how to play banjo book and 10-inch Folkways record and off I went.
”He soon picked up the guitar, initially emulating the finger picking of Mississippi John Hurt. Attending the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965, he received a master class tutelage in American roots music and, at the latter, witnessed Bob Dylan’s first appearance as an electric folk-rocker. “I was really lucky to hear many of the legends before they passed away,” he recalls, still reveling at the memories of seeing bluesmen like Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Skip James, Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipscomb and Furry Lewis at Newport and such bluegrass greats as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the Kentucky Colonels (with Clarence White) in Ann Arbor. To this day, Kirchen continues to consider himself a folk artist, albeit “one who plays too fast and too loud.”
After leading a hippie rock band called the Seventh Seal in Ann Arbor in the late ‘60s, Kirchen helped form Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, who revived and revitalized honky-tonk, boogie-woogie and Western swing for a rock audience. The group relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969, and recorded seven albums for Paramount and Warner Bros. Records before the original band broke up in 1975. Along the way, they became staples of FM radio and a popular concert attraction, cut a disc that was later named one of the best 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone (Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas), and were the subject of one of the first and still among the finest books about the inner workings of the music business, Star-Making Machinery.
Kirchen carried on, forming a new band, the Moonlighters, and recorded two albums, the second in England with Nick Lowe producing. In 1986, Kirchen relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, where he formed a trio, Too Much Fun, that became the musical toast of the Capital town. Over two albums with Black Top Records and three with HighTone, Kirchen solidified his reputation as one of the most thrilling roots music six-stringers today, as well as a singer and songwriter capable of everything from keen wit to poignant depth and insight.
In recent years, Kirchen recorded with Lowe on the latter’s Impossible Bird album and played on the subsequent worldwide tour and live album, and toured and cut a live album with the Twangbangers (in which he joined forces with fellow Telecaster master Redd Volkaert, singer and songwriter Dallas Wayne and steel guitar savant Joe Goldmark). He also reunited with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen for a 25th-anniversary performance on A Prairie Home Companion in 2001, and was tapped by the National Commission for the Traditional Arts to record an album, Dieselbilly Road Trip, for a Heritage Music Collection. Kirchen remains the consummate working musician, wowing audiences night after night at the scores of shows he plays every year.
All it takes is a spin of Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods or a night with Bill Kirchen as he tears the roof off any place he appears to agree with what the Austin American-Statesman says: “Bill Kirchen rules. It’s just that simple.”