If it’s true that you’re known by the company you keep, Bill Kirchen is very well known. The Titan of the Telecaster, as he’s been rightfully tagged, keeps company with Elvis Costello, Paul Carrack, Nick Lowe, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks and Commander Cody on his latest album, Word to the Wise. But, truth be told, those guests are probably more interested in keeping his company.
Bill Kirchen is a true musical legend of contemporary music and the architect of a Country/Rockabilly/Blues/Western Swing/Boogie Woogie hybrid applied to truck-driving music that’s been dubbed Dieselbilly.
So how does one become a legend? It helps to be born in Ann Arbor, Mich., and hang with pioneers, even inadvertently. Kirchen went to high school with Iggy Pop and Bob Seger.
When Kirchen was 19, a stranger on a bus offered him a 1959 Telecaster in exchange for his Gibson SG, a trade that would prove momentous. Kirchen joined Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen that same year and Kirchen’s swapped Telecaster (which he still plays today) formed the foundation of his trademark sound, exemplified by his iconic riff on Commander Cody’s 1972 cover of Charlie Ryan’s “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
After departing from Cody in the ’70s, Kirchen moved to Washington, D.C., formed Too Much Fun and became a fixture on the D.C. Roots Rock scene. For the next two decades, Kirchen released a string of excellent albums and toured with the likes of Doug Sahm, Emmylou Harris, Link Wray, Nick Lowe, Gene Vincent and Elvis Costello. He also became a living advertisement for the Fender Telecaster’s greatness.
After a short stint on the West Coast, Kirchen moved to southern Maryland and recorded 2007’s laid-back Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods (the title track being an ode to his beloved Telecaster), followed by the new and noisier Word to the Wise.
Even if Kirchen doesn’t haul out his brilliantly extended version of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” where he solos in every conceivable musical style known to man, you’re in for a show you’ll never forget. Legendary, I dare say.
Bill Kirchen plays Aug. 5 at The Southgate House. Go here for show and club details.