Bill Kirchen: Turning on a Dime
Sun Valley Center presents legendary guitarist
By DANA DUGAN
Express Staff Writer
Bill Kirchen. Photo by Amy C. Elliott
Once upon a time, a band called Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen owned a genre by itself: truck stop dieselbilly country rock. Guitar-ist, singer, songwriter Bill Kirchen helped form the seminal truck driving rock music that Commander Cody played, he appeared on 10 of their albums and created the notorious recognizable guitar licks in ?Hot Rod Lincoln.?
As part of the entertainment for the Sun Valley Center Arts & Crafts Festival this weekend, Kirchen and his trio Too Much Fun are headlining on the festival?s stage on Saturday, Aug. 14, at 7:45 p.m. At 1:30 he?ll also do a Rockabilly workshop for kids. ?I?ve done school and children and workshops before,? he said by phone from Virginia. ?I?ll do what I always do, get them excited.?
Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., Kirchen was hooked on music early. ?I went to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1964, graduated in ?65 and went then, too. I?ve never been the same. It sealed my fate, I saw Dylan go elec-tric, gospel groups, the New York guys, Son House, unbelievable quan-tity music, all the great blues guys. I wanted to be Mississippi John Hurt at the time, he was my idol. Still is.?
His trio is unofficially known as Too Much Fun (Kirchen says he was conflicted about the tag). It was formed in 1986 and now features bassist Bryan Smith and drummer Jack O'Dell. He has released six al-bums with the trio, including ?Tied To A Wheel? and ?Raised A Ruckus.? Kirchen and his wife Louise now live in Austin, Texas, after 18 years in Washington, D.C., and 18 before that in California.
?I like it a lot. We recorded there in the 70s with Commander Cody,? Kirchen said, and then side lined into a bit on how Austin is the only place in Texas where being a Democrat won?t get you lined-up and shot. ?I just saw ?Fahrenheit 9/11? with my daughter in Crawford. The college girls took their dads. It was on a big inflatable screen. I?d say there were 3,000 people there. We very much out numbered the counter protesters, who grew very quiet as the movie went on. Maybe it gave them something to chew on.?
Kirchen has high regard for his fellow musicians. Along the way, he has played with some of the most notable musicians of the past 30 years, (they would say the same about hanging with him, no doubt), such as Elvis Costello, Lowe, Ralph Stanley, Mickey Hart, Taj Mahal and Merle Haggard.
Every locale he mentions brings him to another laundry list of places he?s played, genres, influences and music he loves.
?Texas is a great land unto itself. I?ve been playing Bob Wills since we discovered him in the 60s. Also, Doug Sahm (who died in 1999). I played on his last record with him, He was going back to country. I always had a love affair with Texas music, swamp pop, West Side San Antonio music.?
He vividly remembers playing at the old Ketchum club, Elevation 6,000, back in the day.
So, is he still playing dieselbilly? The moniker was kind of a joke, he admitted, but it stuck.
?I decided to start my own genre, I can claim anything is dieselbilly. Nick Lowe is just the greatest, he used to introduce me with his fancy British accent, ?and now Mister Die-selbilly,?? Kirchen drawls with his raspy hard rockin? voice.
?I was enamored of truck driving songs when I was young. I just loved that. There was a sound involved,? he said. ?I don?t like trucks particularly. It starts and ends with the music.?
Things are decidedly different between his years with Commander Cody, a notorious renegade eight-piece band and his life now. He signs off notes with the wish, ?peace and twang.?
?I was living a life style that wasn?t sustainable at that pace, you might say,? he said laughing. ?It?s funny, some things are so much the same and I love doing the songs I did back then. But that was a big band and this is small band, the demands on myself are interesting and enjoy-able. A trio is just more flexible. I can turn on a dime. I?m the master of my own destiny. Louise and I are like the owners of our own mom and pop twang factory.?
Peace and twang, indeed. Kirchen is still a big deal in the music indus-try. He is on the road constantly.
?I?m a lifer here, my job opportu-nities after this are like, ?Would you like fries with that?? That?s been my whole thing, a third of a century,? he said amazed. ?Who knew a childhood prank would turn into that?I love what I do.?
What prank was that?
?Picking up a guitar!? The guy who still plays distinctive twangy notes on his vintage 1950's Telecaster laughed and laughed.