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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 a band?
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 music? [Laughs.] 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.