The high point of a Bill Kirchen show is the tour of guitar-hero riffs the guitar hero takes the crowd on in the middle of "Hot Rod Lincoln," a rock 'n' roll rave-up Kirchen recorded in 1972 as a member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Riffs from The Beatles, The Ventures, Merle Haggard, Albert Collins, Link Wray, The Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others are shoe-horned in with Kirchen's own lightning-fast contribution.
Kirchen is the master of the Telecaster, the "kang" of twang. When he's not traversing the endless black ribbon across the country with his trio, Kirchen is the go-to guy for pros in the know, like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. His mixture of rock 'n' roll, boogie woogie, hardcore country, honky-tonk, and rockabilly make him a godfather of the Americana idiom. Kirchen simply calls it "dieselbilly."
There's no spandex or cape, no x-ray vision. Kirchen prefers the Clark Kent approach and balks at the word "hero," even though the cat renders riffs faster than a speeding bullet, and can jump tall... you get the picture.
Kirchen is currently touring with his show "Bill Kirchen's Honky Tonk Christmas," has another album in the can, and looks forward to playing cello on his porch...eventually. He called to explain. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
CITY: In the pantheon of the guitar heroes, where do you fit in?
Bill Kirchen: I'm kind of a reluctant — I hate to say the word — guitar hero. I've just thought of myself as a journeyman.
But with "Hot Rod Lincoln," you're the father of one of rock 'n' roll's most signature riffs.
When we cut that record, I don't think I could have got through the rhythm part of a whole Chuck Berry song without stopping. I wasn't like an all-around cat back then, I'd been trying to play Doc Watson flat-picking so I had a good right hand. I guess I just always served the song. It's only been the last 10 years that I've been doing trios and agreed to do solos that last more than just one chorus. I'd always done songs where you do your little bit and get out of the way.But you don't overdo it. You never steamroll the song.
I love melody, I'm a melody guy. I don't have the most blazing chops. I've been in bands with both Danny Gatton and Redd Volkaert, and let me tell you, those guys can play circles around me in some ways. But I like what I do and have value up there with my own picking style and sense of melody.
What do you have to work at?
I struggle with technique still. My mind hears things my fingers can't do. I tend to do my practicing on stage. I'd be better served if I stayed at home and worked on guitar. But I tend to use music when I'm at home as relaxation, or to learn new songs. I never get out the scale book. I think if I did, I wouldn't have to work around the holes in my technique. That's what's most difficult for me; playing what I hear.
What first lit your fuse?
I didn't grow up as a rock 'n' roll kid, I grew up a classical nerd listening to Broadway show tunes. At home there was some folk music in the house we used to hear on Canadian radio growing up in Michigan. I liked folk music, but I wasn't focused on the guitar at all. I listened to some rock 'n' roll in high school. I remember seeing James Burton with Ricky Nelson on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Then I kind of backed into it through folk music. I learned to play the banjo from Pete Seeger records. The next thing I discovered Mississippi John Hurt — that's kind of who I wanted to be when I grew up. I went to the Newport Folk Festival in '64 and '65, where I got to see Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Skip James... I also got to see Mike Bloomfield light up the stage.
I also got to see Dylan go electric in '65. Contrary to the myth that developed after the fact, he wasn't booed; everybody loved it. He already had "Subterranean Homesick Blues" out with electric guitar on it, so it wasn't a surprise.
Then I hooked up with the Cody bunch and got the crash course.
Has Fender ever approached you to do a signature model?
Nah, I'm too old. They want the young heavy-metal Strat players. I went over there once with the Telecaster I'd played for 40 years. When I retired it, it had a hole about half an inch deep by the bridge where I used to rest my little finger. The paint's gone, it's got rounded edges, and I said, "Look you guys, this is how you relic a Tele, you wussies."
What's it like working with someone like Elvis Costello?
I don't know if Elvis knows how hard it is to learn his tunes. I'm used to Merle Haggard songs, but it opens up my ears to work with someone of his caliber.
What's something you haven't done yet that's on the horizon?
Re-learning how to play the cello. I'm 64 now so I thought at this point I'd be sitting on my back porch playing "Maidens Prayer" or "Faded Love" on my cello. Right now I don't even have one. Someday I'm going to get me a cello. And I'd love to play with Bob Dylan.
What are they going to say about Bill Kirchen?
I know exactly what they're going to say. They're going to go, "Who?" And then maybe one guy in some remote colony will go, "Oh yes, Bill Kirchen. He invented a style called 'dieselbilly.'" You know what I hope they'll say? I want them to go back and listen to one of my tunes and say, "Wow, it sounds like he was having fun."