Photograph by Amy C. Elliot
Titan of the telecaster: King of the Dieselbilly: Mr. Bill Kirchen.
By Greg Cahill
He’s the undisputed dieselbilly king, a master of the Fender Telecaster whose twangy guitar licks helped rocket Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen to the top of the pop charts in 1972 with the hit single “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
Bill Kirchen still packs plenty of punch, as evidenced on his latest album, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, released last week. The album, Kirchen’s first in five years, features longtime collaborator Nick Lowe on bass and Marin musician Austin DeLone on keyboards, among others.
It’s a catchy collection of tender ballads (“Rocks into Sand”), drinking songs (“Skid Row in My Mind”), rockabilly raves (“Heart of Gold”) and blue collar anthems (“Working Man”) that rival the best of the Blasters, all steeped in no-nonsense trash, twang and thunder.
And the secret of that twang?
“If I told you that, I’d have to kill you,” he jokes during a sound check at Sweetwater Saloon in Mill Valley. “Like anything else, twang is in the ear of the beholder, I guess. But I’m just hearing something in my head and trying to get it out into the airwaves. I like that big shredding crunch, but I also like the clean guitar sound when you hear the string go boiiiiing!
“I tend to spend a lot of time in the bottom quadrant of the guitar,” adds Kirchen, a lanky figure with a mischievous grin. “I get dizzy above the seventh fret and I get a nose bleed once I move past the 12th fret, so I tend to hang around down there on the fat strings.”
Kirchen, who brings his band to the Last Day Saloon next week, can sport a thick, bluesy tone that can rival Mark Knopfler one moment or he can echo the twanginess of the best Nashville pickers the next.
“I came up through classical music [as a trombonist] and then moved up through the folk scare–you know, figuring out Pete Seeger’s How to Play the Banjo book,” he says. “I liked that finger-picking style of Mississippi John Hurt and wanted to learn to play like him. When I first got into playing electric guitar, I discovered Buck Owens and Don Rich, and Merle Haggard and Roy Nichols, and James Burton with Elvis and Ricky [Nelson]. Those were the guys that really knocked me out, along with Gene Vincent and a bunch of other guys. So I really got a crash course in the late ’60s in the hillbilly, Western and rock ‘n’ roll guitar of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
“To this day, I know almost nothing about all of the mid-’60s English guys.”
Kirchen grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he attended high school with Iggy Pop and Bob Seger. In the late ’60s, after leading the hippie rock band the Seventh Seal in Ann Arbor, he helped form Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman and relocated them to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969. The band–a mix of rockabilly revival, Western swing and cosmic cowboy ethos–recorded seven albums before breaking up in 1975. Rolling Stone named their Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas one of the 100 best albums of all time.
During the 1970s, Kirchen met Nick Lowe, then a member of Rockpile and a pivotal figure on London’s pub-rock scene, while touring England with Commander Cody. He was later reintroduced to Lowe through DeLone, then an ex-pat playing in the seminal pub-rock band Eggs over Easy.
Kirchen became a regular fixture on the North Bay music scene, playing with the Moonlighters until moving his family to Maryland in 1987.
He reemerged in 1994 and has recorded seven solo albums, all critically acclaimed, and contributed his twangy Tele to Lowe’s smash 1994 comeback album The Impossible Bird.
“I learned a lot from him making that album,” Kirchen says.
But onstage, it’s all about those celebrated chops as evidenced by his perennial showstopper, a stylistic smorgasbord of classic guitar licks, from Chuck Berry to Duane Eddy to Link Wray.
“That’s my ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ medley,” he says. “I throw about 30 or 40 guitar quotes into the space of about eight minutes.
“It’s my big Wayne Newton climax.”
Bill Kirchen and his Buckshot Boys perform on Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Last Day Saloon, 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 4pm. $10-$12; all ages. 707.545.2343.