Interview: Bill Kirchen

When it comes to unique talents in the field of guitar players and entertainers, Bridgeport, Connecticut born, Ann Arbor, Michigan raised and now Austin Texas-based, Bill Kirchen is up there with the best. What a wonderful musical history comes with this unique act. He grew up at a time when pop music was in its infancy and the Beatles and the UK pop scene was influencing the US big style. Heady days. Tagged as the Titan of the Telecaster Kirchen is still shaking things up with his creative playing, and for his latest venture he has called on his old friend, Austin de Lone (Godfather of Pub Rock) not only to share a record with him, but also tour the UK. Steeped in numerous different styles of the guitar playing Bill Kirchen defies nature when he picks up his Telecaster, and steps on stage. It is like he is taken over by a dynamic power. 

It is great that you have a new release Transatlanticana (Proper Records) out and better still that you are going to be over here touring?
I am really excited about this record with Austin de Lone, and the fact I will once again be back over to the UK.

How did it all come about?  It is quite a big project with it recorded evenly on both sides of the Atlantic.
I first started recording over here in the States. Prior to that Austin de Lone and I had toured together in England, so Malcolm Mills who is an old friend of us both suggested that we should take what I had started in the States and involve Austin to come over to England with me. So we used Malcolm from Proper Records on drums and Paul ‘Bassman’ Riley on bass. He had also produced all my records on Proper, and was also the engineer on a record Austin de Lone and I made in the 1980s, it was in a band called The Moonlighters. Nick Lowe produced the record. We all go way back. Austin of was in the band Eggs Over Easy, and was over in England in the early 1970s, and at the ground floor of pub rock. So the album was recorded half in the States, and the other half in England.

You mention Nick Lowe, one of the great writers of our time?
In some ways I think he is the pop theoretician, he has theories and talks about music that are very interesting. I have always enjoyed my relationship with him, and have been on three of his albums one way or another. I also met Nick through Austin, my partner on Transatlanticana. It is good to have these friendships that have lasted so long – that is when I first met Malcolm Mills adds Kirchen. Paul Riley and I were touring in Nick Lowe’s band, touring the US and Malcolm came out and hung out with us. I believe it was in Arizona. I guess it was back in the late 1980s, and then Malcolm decided to sign me to Proper Records. I put out Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods, and we did that with the band I had toured with decades before; Geraint Watkins, Bobby Irwin and Nick Lowe plus Paul who played bass and produced the record.

You mention Geraint Watkins – now there is some player!
Oh, yeah, he’s wonderful. I saw him do a solo gig here in Austin, and it was mesmerising.

Do you currently live in Austin?
Yes, I do. I have lived here twice. This time has so far it’s been four years. We were down here for four years the first time. I first came here about ten years ago to take care of my father-in-law, and because my wife’s sister lives here. So we circled the wagons as we say in the States, and then we moved back up to Washington DC. Our daughter then moved down and started a family so we followed her back here to be close to that family. Also, because Austin has a great music scene, one I am proud to be part of.

You have called on a few of your Austin friends to play on the record?
Gurf’s (Morlix) on there, and the rhythm section Rick Richards and David Carroll. Rick Richards the drummer has been over in the UK a lot playing with Slaid Cleaves, and he’s played on a lot of Ray Wylie Hubbard records and also Gurf Morlix records. He also toured with Joe Walsh for three or four years, and he even got to meet Ringo.

I imagine it would be just as a big an honour for Ringo to meet Rick Richards who is said to be about the best drummer in Texas!
I will tell him you said that, because that is great. I would not argue with that.

Of course there is also Gurf Morlix. What a player to have on your album, a great team player.
He is a great team man. I have known him for a long time, but had not worked with him till we made a Blackie Farrell record. Blackie is a songwriter friend of mine who managed to write for about thirty years but never made a record. So we took him into the studio, and Gurf was just delightful there. He would do whatever. I mostly played guitar. Sometimes he would play bass, or I would, while on other tracks he would play steel. He has the greatest way of making things work in the studio. He is a lovely guy, and a great player. I just played a gig with him a week ago at a venue where we have a show called Mystery Monday. This week it was Gurf, Ray Bonneville and myself, and we had a great night playing guitar and swapping songs. It was a lot of fun.

Do you ever record these nights?
No, we don’t, but it is a really good idea. Next week we are doing it with Kevin Russell, the Shinyribs guy who was in The Gourds. He is doing great with Shinyribs. I believe in many ways it has liberated him.

I understand your partner on the album Austin de Lone was actually produced back in 1970 by Chas Chandler (The Animals)?
Yes, with Eggs Over Easy. In fact the last time we were over in Newcastle John Steele joined us who was the Animals drummer, and was also with Eggs Over Easy for quite a while. Everybody says they were the start of pub rock.

What music were you brought up on as a teenager?
My parents were a little bit older and were born in 1909 and 1910 respectively. My mom would sing songs from the 1930s and 1920s she had known as a kid, which was the popular music of her time. My dad did too. At home we would listen to classical too, and the golden age of Broadway. Rogers & Hammerstein, South Pacific, Oklahoma, The Music Man, The King And I. Some of the greatest musical productions – there was other stuff in our house too but not a lot of pop music. I got interested a little bit listening to pop music on the radio in the early 1960s. I got very much into folk music in 1964-1965. The Beatles and Stones came over and I really liked that. I was almost a year from getting out of high school when I got into listening to rock’n’roll, but I was well immersed into folk music. I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965 and saw all the great country blues guys. I really loved Mississippi John Hurt, and his work was accessible to me. I learned to play like that. Plus there was Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins and ‘Sleepy’ Jon Estes and I also got to see The Staple Sisters when Mavis was 24 -25 years old. I loved all the East Coast folk musicians, new people like the Jim Kweskin Jugband, and Geoff Muldaur. I got to see Bob Dylan go electric with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at Newport. It was combinations of those people in 1965 that I cut my teeth on. Then I discovered when I hooked up with the people who I started Commander Cody with in 1967-68 country music. I got a crash course in old country and western music. Music I really did not know anything about until then. I listened to a lot of Hank Williams, and I was there for the golden age of the Bakersfield sound that featured Buck Owens and Merle Haggard (among others) – although I was little late I had all that stuff. So that is roughly my musical history.

You would also be influenced with the trucking guys Dave Dudley, Red Simpson, and Dick Curless?
Yeah exactly. For some reason that sound, I don’t why but I came to associate with it. I had one Red Simpson record that had Gene Moles on guitar, and it had a big influence on me. It was called “Roll, Truck Roll”. They later repackaged it when he had a hit with “I Am A Truck”, and I had three of four of Merle Haggard’s early records, “Strangers, Sing Me Back Home, Lonesome Fugitive” and “Mama Tried”. All of which are still tremendous records. I had the first few Buck Owens records and lots of Hank Williams. When I started hearing his music back in the 1960s the only Hank Williams available on commercial labels had a whole band over-dubbed on MGM. You had to go buy the mono records cut out records and dig into the bargain bins to get the original recordings of Hank Williams. It was the craziest thing. That’s how disinterested people were in that kind of music back then (country music that was 15-20 years old and older).

You mentioned Bob Dylan a few moments ago, and the influence he had and still has. You have one of his songs on the new album – what made you choose “The Times They Are A-Changin’”?
I started singing it that way when I was so thrilled at Obama’s election eight years ago. “The Times Are A-Changin’” I sang and that for me was a celebration. Now I am singing it with a whole different intent, after our disastrous election. Now I am now singing it as a call to arms, not literally a call to arms but a call for attention, a call of awareness of what’s happening. We are in trouble over here!

I can imagine there are people who are only now awakening to what’s going on, some people who never even bothered to vote.
That’s right, a lot of people didn’t vote! It’s crazy how people didn’t use their hard fought vote.

Could you tell me a little about the history of one of the most famous songs you perform live and have recorded, “Hot Rod Lincoln”?
I brought that song to Commander Cody band because I loved the guitar part, and the only reason I could play the guitar part was because I had been trying to play flat-picking Doc Watson songs. Songs like “Black Mountain Rag” on acoustic guitar with the flat pick had a little bit of dexterity with the right hand and I loved the song. Cody of the band, George (Frayne) made me ‘commander’ of the band – he did the talking and I did the playing. It just stayed with me over the years, and since then people would keep asking me to play the song. So I learnt the words and then as a joke we started putting in different car horns. I then started having Johnny Cash pull over in the song and was off playing a Folsom Prison lick. From there it was off to the races, it just grew organically. We try never to rehearse it, and enjoy keep switching it up to leave us off balance and take it as it comes. It has sort of settled into a run through of all the great guitar riffs of the last forty or fifty years.

I feel it is important that an artist connects with the audience, and makes them part of the show no matter how good someone may or may not be?
Yeah, I am an entertainer and I know that. I really enjoy that part of it. Speaking of the entertainer, people will ask me ‘aren’t you sick of doing Hot Rod Lincoln?’ Actually I am not, and I almost feel guilty thinking I should be, but no I am not. I am an entertainer, and it is an entertaining song to start with. We just came up with a very entertaining way of doing it with the imitations.

Ray Benson’s Asleep At The Wheel also do a version of the song.
Yeah, he learnt it from me. He also did House Of Blue Light and though we can’t claim them because we didn’t write them but are songs we did. I believe he also did “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke That Cigarette.”

Talking of “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke That Cigarette” is there any special reason why you have recorded it again.
Malcolm picked it. I had always enjoyed it and had fun doing it live although it is not on the US album version. One of the great things about the song is it did give me the chance to go out and record my treasured friend steel player Bobby Black. We met him when we started Commander Cody in 1970s and he is now 83, and is probably the best musician I have ever met. He dates back to playing steel guitar on the very first George Jones records in the 1950s and he met Hank Williams. Hank played Kaw-Liga for him and his brother. Bobby goes way back and we are fortunate to get him.

You have a few songs from Blackie Farrell who we talked about early on the record?
Yep. We wrote “Hounds Of The Bakersfield” as a tribute to Merle Haggard, but we did not get to record it before Merle died, although we had already written it. “Hounds Of Bakersfield” is a reference to Bakersfield California. There is a pun there because Buck Owens and Merle made their mark in the post-war honky tonks there. That whole, hard-edged west coast sound, and his band the Strangers. I guess most people know this but won’t mind me reiterating.

Merle when he came out of prison he played in a number of those clubs, places like the Blackboard and High Pockets?
Yes, he sure did.

Word has it that is where he first met Lefty Frizzell?
Apparently so, and word has it that he got Merle up on stage to sing. I never got to meet Merle, but did a couple of shows he played and feel he was the best, really. You don’t have to pick a best if you don’t have to. He wrote them, he sang them and he was a great guitar player and put together a band that defined that sound for many years. I went on line to try and figure out about a show I saw in 1968 in Michigan. It was the Buck Owens Show, and the opening act was Merle. It was when I was figuring out about the deal. Both were on the same package show. What a night that was!

There is a song “Back In The Day” attributed to your wife Louise?
Yes she wrote that. Original Commander Cody Airmen member, Lance Dickerson had died passed away so we all went out to California for a memorial for him. Louise was back home in our house in Maryland and she sat down and wrote it. She was out in Berkley, the University Of California in the 1960s and was there when they had the free speech movement. I came out a few years later and met her. She sat in front of the fireplace and wrote the song in about half an hour. It is just about those days, and it is a lovely song. It really speaks to me as it speaks of the endless possibilities when we were young back then in the late 1960s.

It was like an open meadow with a lot of free space to run?
It sure was. You could just up and go to California, which I did a couple of times. You did not need to have much money. The Commander Cody Band started like that. It wasn’t a business decision. We just got together with a bunch of different people from Ann Arbor who did not really know one another. The next you know I have been a professional musician for almost half a century. It is amazing!

How long did you live in California?
From 1968 to 1986, I lived up in Marin County in Mill Valley. I love it out there, and I am lucky enough to go back to play there twice a year. Austin still lives in Mill Valley. I love getting out into the open countryside in California.

You have another good ol’ boy donate a song on the record Butch Hancock; the song Oxblood is a new one to me?
It is brand new. I asked him for it. I was helping at a songwriting workshop he was doing, and he sang me that song. I turned to him and said I love that! I asked him if I could record it, he said, sure. So I got Butch to sing it as a duet with me. Butch is one of my very, very favourite writers.

He also has this lonesome feel to his voice, and captures the wide-open spaces of West Texas and beyond.
I get to meet those guys a lot here in Austin. Jimmie Dale Gilmore is also a good friend of mine. Every year the Flatlanders (Gilmore, Hancock and Joe Ely) play California when I am there, and I sometimes I get to sit in with them. They are a great bunch of guys, crazy Lubbock, Texas’ fellows.

It would be a great idea to do some informal recordings with Butch?
In fact Jimmie Dale Gilmore and I are going to do a duet tour of California and that is an interesting thing we are going to do. As yet we haven’t written anything together but hopefully we will in time for the tour. I have about four albums that I already know I want to make; most of them are genre specific. I want to make a straight country honky tonk album. I played a little with Doug Sahm, and before I even did that did a little swamp pop that curious half R&B and country sound from the Gulf coast area of Louisiana and Texas. I would really like to make a swamp pop album. I have a lot of things to do. I had better get busy.

Playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore will be a wonderful experience?
I am looking forward to it. He wants me to play electric with him playing acoustic. Then look forward to coming over with Austin and touring England with the album. The last few months I have been playing with my trio. It will be great to meet up with Malcolm and Paul once again adds Kirchen.

Where does the song written by Charles E. Calhoun Losing Hand come from?
It is a Ray Charles song. It is on an early Atlantic record by him. Audie is heavily influenced by Ray Charles, and is one of the best interpreters I know of that stuff.

Where did you get your style of guitar playing from? Is there some English influence in there?
Well, let me see. I will tell you my English influence first. Here is my historic order of influences of guitar playing: It started out with the folk scene learning to play from Pete Seeger records, and learning to play the banjo, then old-timey music from the New Lost City Ramblers. As already mentioned I tried to play like Mississippi John Hurt, which was really a song thing. Because he did not play like the Delta blues, in a way he was more white sounding. The first blues I tried to play was Lightnin’ Hopkins. I saw him in the mid-1960s, some Rev Gary Davis but never got very good at that because it is so complicated. Then the electric stuff came to me. I think the first guy I heard live playing electric blues was Mike Bloomfield, I saw him in 1965 at Ann Arbor and then at Newport. I didn’t get to the English guys till the next year. I got to hear Cream and saw Eric Clapton, but I knew little of the other guys at that point. I got to Freddie King in the sixties, so I could recognise when some of the same songs showed up with Eric Clapton. I wasn’t a Peter Green fan, although I do go back and listen to him now. I wasn’t aware of him at the time. He didn’t cross my path at all. Mostly, it was Americans. I know I am missing something from what I heard England. You also had the pop records by the Beatles, Stones, Animals and Kinks which I didn’t hear that much of. After that it was the turn of the Bakersfield guys.

Roy Nichols from Merle Haggard’s band was a great guitar player!
He was fantastic! Roy Nichols and James Burton, and Don Rich who was with Buck Owens. Plus a guy called Phil Baugh, I had an album by him – he was a big inspiration. His song “Country Guitar” where he does and seven or eight hot guitar style of country music was a huge inspiration for me.

Bill Kirchen and Austin de Lone’s “Transatlantica” is out in the UK on March 3rd

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin' Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

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