Bill Kirchen lays into his Big Tex
Guitars replica Tele at The Sunset
Grille in Annadale, Virginia, on
January 10, 2010. Photo by Chip Py
Since bursting on the scene with Commander Cody and
His Lost Planet Airmen in the late ’60s, Bill Kirchen has
been at the forefront of twangcore and hillbilly rock.
As one of the first to bring the spanky sounds of Tele
pioneers Roy Nichols and Don Rich to the Woodstock
generation, Kirchen has rightfully earned his “Titan
of the Telecaster” moniker by playing a soulful mix of
rockabilly, Western swing, blues, and honky-tonk.
Kirchen’s musical journey began in the early ’60s in Ann
Arbor, Michigan, where he was exposed to the burgeoning
East Coast folk scene. After forming a band with several
University of Michigan buddies, including George Frayne
(better known as Commander Cody), Kirchen convinced
his cohorts to migrate to San Francisco in 1969. The timing
was right for the Lost Planet Airmen, who quickly became
part of the musical mayhem that defined the era, joining
the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and other top
bands on the national concert circuit. The Airmen’s first
two albums—Lost in the Ozone and Hot Licks, Cold Steel,
and Trucker’s Favorites
—yielded several classics of the day,
including “Seeds and Stems Again Blues,” “Mama Hated
Diesels,” and the band’s Top Ten hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
Four decades later, Kirchen shows no signs of slowing
down. “Actually, I think I’m getting better,” he says,
“though I don’t take it as a badge of honor. I attribute
this to one thing: I’m an extremely slow learner. I woke
up at age 59 and went, ‘Oh yeah, I get it—that’s how
you’re supposed to sound.’”
Since playing with Commander Cody and
crew, Kirchen has released seven solo albums
and toured and recorded with such notables
as Danny Gatton, Emmylou Harris, Link Wray,
and Gene Vincent. For his latest album, Word
to the Wise
, Kirchen invited a handful of
musical compadres and former bandmates—
including Commander Cody, Dan Hicks,
Norton Buffalo, Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack,
Blackie Farrell, Maria Muldaur, and Elvis
Costello—to join him in the studio for a series
of duets. The result is a deeply satisfying mix
of originals and covers that runs the gamut
from twangy honky-tonk to gritty pub rock.
We recently asked Kirchen to tell us about
recording Word to the Wise
and what gear
he used to create his trademark Tele sounds.
With a seasoned storyteller’s dry sense of
humor, he delivered the goods.
Where did you get the idea for recording
an album of duets?
It was really the record company’s idea. I
was reluctant at first, because I didn’t want
to be the guy who drags other people into
his project simply to sell records. It got okay
in my mind when I figured out I’d only ask
people I’d worked with professionally to be
on the album. Once we’d settled on that
criterion, it became fun and I enjoyed asking
everyone to participate.
How did you choose your collaborators?
Some of them were musicians who inspired me
before I ever got up and running in this business.
Both Dan Hicks and Maria Muldaur fall
into that category. When I had my first band,
the Seventh Seal, back in Ann Arbor, I bought a
Charlatans record that featured Dan, and I drew
a lot of inspiration from it. And many times I’d
hitchhike to Boston to hear the Kweskin Jug
Band with Maria at the Club 47. I heard them
at the Newport Folk Festival in ’64 and ’65, too.
So Maria and Dan were heroes of mine from
the ’60s. I’ve played with Nick Lowe and Elvis
Costello over the years, so they were a natural
fit. Blackie Farrell and I have been writing music
since the Commander Cody days. The one
stretch is that I’ve never performed professionally
with Paul Carrack, but I have sat in on his
stage and he has joined me on my stage, so I
figured that’s okay. The fact that money never
changed hands is immaterial.
Where did you record Word to the Wise?
We cut the rhythm section in the UK and then
went around the world to harvest the vocals
with a laptop, recording people where they live.
For instance, we recorded Chris O’Connell in
Virginia and I got Cody in Albany, New York.
Sometimes we carried the tracks on a hard
drive into the studio to record vocals, like when
we went across London to record Nick and Paul
in Nick’s studio. We had to record Elvis Costello
by mail, because we had a brief window of
opportunity when he could do it, so I didn’t get
a chance to go there and watch him track his
vocals. We definitely had to time shift to get
this record out. That’s the great thing about
digital recording these days—it’s much easier to
accommodate everyone’s schedules.
Did you cut the rhythm tracks together as
Yeah, the rhythm tracks are all live. I overdubbed
all the solos and most of the fills
and lead parts at a later time. I have an
Apple Logic rig at home, and I did vocal
harmony and guitar overdubs after the fact
at my house.
Yet it sounds like you didn’t fall into the
trap that so many of us do, which is,
“Hey—I can tear this song apart and redo
everything, note by note!”
It’s a slippery slope, man. I have to admit
I’d sometimes find myself sitting there
slack-jawed in front of the computer, hitting
the space bar to redo a few seconds
of guitar after having literally recorded 50
tracks of that part. And it’s not getting any
better, you know? Every take is slightly
worse than the one before—it’s a trap. I’m
not trying to say overdubbing is bad and
playing live is good, but there’s still something
to be said for recording as much as
you can in real time. Digital audio giveth,
but it taketh away.
In honky-tonk songs like “Bump Wood”
and “Husbands and Wives,” the drums
swing in the tradition of Merle Haggard.
That’s rare these days.
Yeah, there’s no premium put on swing anymore
in most modern country music. Heck,
rock used to roll
, and to me that means
swing. Maybe music didn’t get helped by
modern conventions we take for granted
now, like click tracks. Didn’t Brian Wilson say
headphones and electronic tuners ruined
.] I’m glad it swings because
we tried. Jack [O’Dell, Kirchen’s drummer] will
be very pleased to hear that. Although Jack
is younger and grew up on Led Zeppelin and
skate punk, his dad was a drummer, so Jack
heard Ray Charles records when he was a kid.