Bill Kirchen has had the good fortune to be associated with classic songs (“Hot Rod Lincoln”) and impressive sidekicks (Commander Cody, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Danny Gatton, etc.). Amongst guitarists, he earned a reputation for his barn-burning live licks and impressive stylistic diversity.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a politically and socially conscious hotbed of the ’60s, he bore witness to an exciting and heady time, as musical styles were blended to become the anthem for the new generation. Moving to California’s San Francisco Bay area in ’68, he rose to prominence with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a band that garnered respect from casual fans of music and professional musicians of all ilks for its ability to mix rock and roll, hardcore country, boogie, and rockabilly.
He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1986 and formed Too Much Fun, a trio that to this day keeps up the good work and recently released its fifth album, Tied to The Wheel, on Hightone Records. In support, Kirchen and Too Much Fun are spending a few weeks on the road with fellow Hightone artists Redd Volkaert, Joe Goldmark, and Dallas Wayne. It’s being called The TwangBangers Tour of the USA, a honky tonk supergroup.
We spoke with Kirchen about the many and varied aspects of his career and the music it has entailed. And we started by pointing out Commander Cody’s role in the history of the roots rock music form that has come to be called “Americana.”
Vintage Guitar: In your view, what is “Americana” music?
Bill Kirchen: There was a time when people came up in certain geographic areas, certain localities, that were very much uninfluenced by surrounding areas, two big points being the Mississippi Delta and the northeast corner of Tennessee/southwest Virginia – the place where bluegrass sprang up.
But back in the day, the music wasn’t getting out of the hollers; it was informed by a really local tradition. And nowadays, of course, for better or worse, everybody has heard everything. I’m sure there are Marilyn Manson tapes in Tibet, you know? It’s all part of the plan, and I understand it, but ya’ know…
Do you agree with the assertion that Commander Cody basically helped create “Americana” music?
Maybe it’s not for me to say, but I wouldn’t deny it, in a way. Commander Cody was certainly, amongst its generation, a band that played what we now call Americana. We loved that music – the blood-and-guts country music from California, and rockabilly, boogie woogie, Western swing… so it became our calling card, of sorts. Commander Cody’s job was to take interesting forms of music that weren’t widely heard and play them for rock audiences. We were ambassadors of those forms.
And you were freakin’ people out…
…as well we should’ve! They needed freakin’ out. It was a good thing. But at that time, just the fact that we were from this long-hair Northern culture, hanging out in Nashville freaked out some people…
Well, whatever Americana may be, the new album, Tied to the Wheel, is certainly a good example of it…
Yeah, it harkens back to when I got my first Red Simpson album, Roll Truck Roll, back in the ’60s. And I just loved that sound – that Bakersfield “twang.” I had come out of the folk “scare” – old-timey music and bluegrass, which I love. And of course the jug band, Bob Dylan… so when I heard that other stuff, it flipped me out.
Who taught you to play?
Well, it started when I found a banjo in my mom’s attic. It was her dad’s, and I started playing with the Pete Seeger Learn How to Play the Banjo 10″ Folkways record.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived, had a big folk scene. And I’d always wanted to play guitar like Mississippi John Hurt. I saw him in ’64 and ’65 at the Newport Folk Festival, and a whole lot of other people, including Dylan going electric.
But a guy named Pete Tourin was very kind to me. He went to the University of Michigan and I was just a high school kid who’d show up at his house. I don’t know why he didn’t just boot my ass out for being a pest. But he and his buddies would show me some fingerpicking.
So I started on acoustic and learned fingerpicking. Then I wanted to learn some Doc Watson stuff. To me, he’s one of the most sublime players and singers, and I credit my ability to do that lick on “Hot Rod Lincoln” fairly early in my career to trying to play “Black Mountain Rag.” That’s the direction I came from.
And a lot of people fuss over the “Hot Rod Lincoln” lick, but I don’t think I could’ve gotten through a whole song those days playing Chuck Berry rhythm; I wasn’t a broad-based guitar player. It just so happened that flatpicking resonated with me.
How’d your style develop?
I was attracted to the electric guitar. I got a DeArmond pickup for my Martin 00-17, and we had a jug band in high school talent show in ’65 – which incidentally also included The Iguanas, with the mighty Iggy Pop on drums. Anyway… so my playing evolved trying to learn from electric styles. At that talent show, we played “Subterranean Homesick Blues” instead of the jug band tunes we’d been doing.
What was your first electric guitar, and why did you choose it?
In ’65 or 66 I bought a tweed Twin from Danny Erlewine, who was my neighbor. And I borrowed a Jazzmaster from my bass player, and I commenced trying to play – with plastic fingerpicks and thumbpicks! We played anything we could think of; “Diving Duck Blues” by Sleepy John Estes, a Donovan song, “My Favorite Things” because John Coltrane did it… It was an interesting mix.
The Jazzmaster was my first electric, but I didn’t stick with it that long. The next electric I had, to my recollection, was a red Gibson SG I bought for $100 from John Tichy, the rhythm guitar player in the Cody band.
How’d you come to prefer the Telecaster?
Well, the Cody band kind of broke up in ’67, and I went to San Francisco to get a job. I wanted a Telecaster because I was knocked out by Don Rich and James Burton, and they all played Teles. Well, one day I sat on the bus next to a guy who offered to trade his Tele for my SG, straight up. He wanted mine because Pete Townshend had just come through town, smashing Gibsons… it was my lucky day!
So I got that Tele, and it has basically been my main axe ever since. I’ve had others, but it’s safe to say that 98 percent of the electric guitar playing I’ve done since has been on that Telecaster.
And only lately has it kind of slipped out of first position in my gig bag – I’ve got a reissue that’s setup kind of the same – Joe Barden pickups and Vintique bridge and knobs – and maybe it’s just the fact that I’m playing a Deluxe now with a bass player with an SVT. Or maybe the old one just needs tweaking.
You’re a diehard Fender amp guy. Talk about all those you’ve spent time with, and also feel free to mention the Mesa…
Well, I started out – as a complete novice – with one of the dream rigs; a Telecaster through a tweed Twin with original Jensen speakers. Before that, I had a cheeseball Standel transistor amp, but Danny got me into the Twin.
When I got with Cody, at some point it was perceived that I needed more power because we were playing on big stages with bands like the Grateful Dead. And I didn’t like playing with a distorted tone, so I ended up with a couple of Twins stacked end to end. Then, at another point we fell under the spell of these Grateful Dead roadies, and they hooked me up with a preamp from a Fender Twin running into a MacIntosh power amp or something. I didn’t know much about it and have to admit that at the time I wasn’t exactly at my peak for knowing what was going on around me (laughs)…
That whole scene pretty much imploded around ’76, and from then on I was on my own with amps, and I stuck with the Twin pretty much, until I bought a Boogie. At that time, I was trying to get a rock tone, and somehow come up with a more modern sound. I got a great old Boogie – I think it was a Mark nothing. And it lasted for quite awhile, but I never got good at controlling the distortion. It had the stacked preamp, so you had either two volume knobs or three, depending on how you hit the A/B switch.
But my favorite amp was a tweed Super with two 10s. Then I bought an extension cab from a friend in California who, for a hundred or two hundred more bucks, threw in a blackface Vibrolux. And that was a pretty pivotal moment for me, when I plugged into that. That was when I started using amp distortion to good effect. I discovered that great combination – a Telecaster straight into a Vibrolux turned up to 10 – although I rarely turned up to 10. It was a great sound that I used for quite awhile, and ever since then I’ve been chasing that type of sound. I still have the Vibrolux, but it’s in slight disrepair… needs tweaking. I also had a VibroKing, which I sold – I don’t know why.
Since the Vibrolux, I’ve discovered the joys of the small Fenders, slightly overdriven, and I notice that my tone has gotten more grindey, but I still love that clean thing. My favorite amp now is a ’68 Deluxe Reverb that I got from Big Jerry in Grand Rapids Michigan and had tweaked by Joe Barden. I stick with it 98 percent of the time; I try to stay away from being like a golfer, you know, “Let’s see… I’m 90 feet away from the back wall, so I’ll need a Vibrolux…and a Princeton!” On the album I also used a Carlson Tremo-Pup amp, from Mark Norwine.
I use the Deluxe and if I play a larger venue I’ll throw the Pro and the Deluxe up there, leave the Pro below 3 just for added volume, and run the Deluxe between 3 and 4 because if I run it much higher it gets pretty grindey.
Any sort of preamping in the chain?
For years and years and years I went straight into the amp, but last year I got a Tubescreamer that somebody modified. And lately I’ve been using two analog delays, one set short, one long. But I hate to get lost in that stuff…
You started your first band while in college, right?
I kind of flamed out of college. I graduated from high school a year early, in ’65, and hitched to San Francisco. There, I saw a lot of live shows, including one at the Avalon ballroom with Bo Diddley, the Sons of Adam, and a bunch of other psychedelic bands. Then I came home and just had to start a band.
I started college at the University of Michigan, but lasted only about half of a semester. The momentum I gathered in that year off propelled me right out the back door! The band sorta of blew me right on out of there.
What kind of music were you doing?
It was called the Seventh Seal, and the best I can describe it is folk rock, or psychedelic. We heard all these bands from out West, and thought we could just play all these tunes we learned off of Folkways records, and Bob Dylan and Bo Diddley songs.
Was it a pretty serious effort?
Sure. I mean, I look back and think it was flawed and silly in some ways, but at the time we were all trying to the best of our abilities.
Was there anything between it and the Cody band?
No, not really. I did some solo stuff, folk stuff, and some jug band stuff, but never anything on a commercial level where I actually did gigs and got paid. But one of my biggest disappointments happened about then; we knew John Sinclair, and he offered us a deal on ESP Records. Somehow we failed to take advantage, and I would love to have had an ESP disc of Seventh Seal… But actually, the fewer people who hear that record, the better off I am (laughs)!
And soon after, the Commander Cody gig came along. How’d you get involved with it?
In ’67, the Seventh Seal played a film festival at the art school in Ann Arbor. A bunch of Andy Warhol’s people were there, dancing around in chains while they showed movies… weird ****, you know. Anyway, one of the guys from the art school, George Frayne – a.k.a. Commander Cody – and his bud, John Tichy, were starting this band, with the leg up he had from being in frat bands together for years. They knew rock and roll inside and out, plus Tichy sang Buck Owens songs and Cody could play boogie woogie piano.
They recruited me from the local hippie/psychedelic scene, then picked up Billy C. Farlow, who had a great blues band. Then they got the rest of the guys, and we started this band. It was a wacky thing. We’d play frat parties or whatever. And George’s brother was an even more far-out, visionary cat, and because of him we always had these girls in green bras and panties doing the twist – the Intergalactic Twist Queens – or someone else with an American flag doing jumping jacks! It was great!
Around this time, mixed in with all the rock and roll songs, we started playing Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, rockabilly, truck drivin’ songs, boogie woogie…
Cody was a lot of fun, a neat band. It had a core of members, but there was also some floating membership and the peripheral dancers that would come and go.
Your career has been marked by not only the bands and the people you’ve worked with, but there were some important changes of locale. Why did you transplant Cody from Michigan to the West Coast?
Well, the band had pretty much broken up when I went out West. But there, I met a guy named Mylos Sonka, who was part of the bluegrass and folk scene. I also met Phil Marsh, who I’m still tight with today, and he had a band called the Cleanliess and Godliness Skiffle Band, on Vanguard Records.
Now, back in Ann Arbor, we had seen these guys on TV. So I called and told the Cody band, “I think we could do something out here.” Frayne was teaching art in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and didn’t like it anyway. I told them about the scene, and the girls, and next thing you know, they were on their way to join me in California.
The Cody band got a lot of praise from stars of all musical genres, right?
Well, it was a bold concept, in a way. There were eight of us onstage, and we were unique in that we took a harder-edged line toward the country music we played. We had this variety, and there was a fairly high degree of musicianship. It was just a wild, disparate bunch with a wild rhythm section from the blues scene. Then there was me, and you’d swear I’d get a nosebleed above the seventh fret (laughs)! We were a bunch of wackos.
Then again, maybe everybody was just so stoned that they liked it… that might just have been it. They were impaired!
Arguably, Cody’s most revered album was Live Deep From the Heart of Texas. Do you think it was a high-water mark for the band?
I’m with you on that, I think we peaked right there. We were never as good at making records as we were live. We made good studio albums, but they never captured the essence.
That was just such a heady time in a big quonset (Armadillo World Headquarters, where the album was recorded) in Austin, with 2,000 rednecks and hippies mingling. Just a delightful scene, and certainly a good party!
In 1986 you moved to D.C. Why?
I had my own a band in California, the Moonlighters, with Austin de Lone, Tony Johnson, and Tim Eschliman, and we had put out a couple of records and sort of run our course. And I was also back to working with Cody as their guitar player/manager… if the idea of being Cody’s “manager” isn’t too much of an oxymoron!
Anyway, I was trying to be that, so it didn’t matter where I lived, and my wife and I had just had a daughter. My wife’s family farm in Maryland became available, and it struck me that because Cody was a national act, it didn’t matter where I was. So we headed back to Maryland, into this beautiful bucolic setting just 20 minutes from the Beltway.
Was it a good atmosphere for a guitar player?
I didn’t know that D.C. had this tremendous musical scene! For one, it’s a Telecaster town… who knew? Plus, it’s the bluegrass capital of the world. So I was astonished at how much work we could get here. As a guitar player, I was embraced.
You eventually wound up playing in Danny Gatton’s band, right?
Yeah, but before we ever played together, Danny fixed my guitar for me. I needed my Tele re-fretted, and Al Anderson, from NRBQ, said, “Go see this guy, Danny Gatton.” So I went see this repairman. He knew who I was, and was talking about some of the licks on “Semi Truck,” and then he made me a brass nut, gave me a five-screw pickguard, an old string tree, and some old knobs. This stuff was all just sitting around his shop.
Now, I figured he could play, but without seeing him do it, I didn’t have know the half of it! So when he said, “You wanna play some?” I said, “Sure.”
Now, imagine me, thinking, “Well, I’ll show this friendly guitar repairman a lick or two…” you know! And Christ Almighty! He started playing… those little Vienna sausage fingers of his – it was just ridiculous!
So anyway, I played in his band for about a month, and I think he enjoyed the sense of humor in my playing. People would ask, “Aren’t you intimidated to be up there with Danny?” And I’d tell them, “I think it would be pretentious of me to be intimidated by Danny.” Nobody was as good as he was. I knew that and I hope he knew that, so I wasn’t really scared. He was so good, I just had the best seat in the house, you know?
The only thing that got me was when we’d trade fours. I doubt I was challenging him – I always kinda thought it was like a mercy ****, you know; I’d go [imitates truck drivin' lick] “Derr, Derrrr, Deeerrrr,” and he’d go “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, weedleeeeldiiiinnnnggg!” (laughs).
But hey, I hung in there and did what I could (laughs)!
I also saw Roy Buchanan a couple times, but never met him.
You’re set to go on this Hightone Records “TwangBangers” tour with Redd Volkaert and Joe Goldmark. Do you have any expectations or plans?
Oh, man! Again, the only way I can not be too nervous about playing with these guys is to go in saying, “Apples and oranges, apples and oranges..” But it isn’t a contest, and it’s on nobody’s turf – it’s just music, and I know that. And so I’m just delighted to get a chance to play with Redd and Joe, who’s a very cool and creative steel player. I’ve known Joe for years, and played with him on and off… but not enough!
I met Redd a couple times in the ’80s and ran into him again in Austin, but never picked with him. Very nice cat, cool guy. That stuff he did with Merle, and on his own, is just the greatest. And Dallas is a super songwriter and singer.
Have you all decided how you’re going to arrange the set?
I think the idea is for us to all be onstage all the time. And we may well do that. I don’t know, but I assume we’ll get there and figure it out.
We’ll be a six-piece band – Joe on steel, Redd and myself on electric guitars, Dallas on rhythm guitars, and the mighty rhythm section that has been with me for years now – Johnny Castle on bass and vocals and Jack O’Dell on drums and vocals.
One gets the impression that you do not categorize or pigeonhole music…
Well, I do, in a way. But at least I like so much of it that I try not to do it with prejudice. And I like the edges, where it gets blurry. And it’s great having my 16-year-old daughter, Julia, who’s a huge music fan and plays guitar. Through her, I’m hearing so much stuff that I wouldn’t listen to very closely otherwise. Near as I can tell, some of it’s good old rock and roll, some of it’s designed to piss off the parent’s generation. It’s nice to be able to get past that and hear that great stuff is being made today.
Bill Kirchen’s Telecaster is a well-worn enigma
Though he doesn’t know what year it was made, and little of it is original, the Fender Telecaster wielded night after night by Bill Kirchen is a storied instrument!
When Kirchen and a Pete Townshend wannabe traded even-up (Kirchen’s Gibson SG for the Tele) in the late 1960s, the Tele had a seven-screw pickguard, flat knobs, and a t-shaped string tree. Much of those mishaps were corrected to some degree a few years later when Danny Gatton, who was a Washington, D.C.-based repairman of note before he garnered fame as a player, put original-era parts on the instrument (it was in the shop for a re-fret, so what the heck…).
When he acquired it, the guitar was finished in three-color sunburst and was in overall immaculate condition. It had what appeared to be a late-’50s maple neck. The only serial number on the instrument rested on the bridgeplate – #2222.
Since the day it landed in Kirchen’s hands, it has been his number one instrument, and through the years, as parts have worn out, has become somewhat customized, with a flipped control plate, Joe Barden pickups, Jay Monterose’s Vintique bridge plate, knobs, and neck attachment plate, and brass saddles by Jonathan Thatcher.
Photo: Gerald Martineau, courtesy of Mark Pucci Media.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.