Lanky, bespectacled and now fiftysomething, Bill Kirchen looks a lot more like the shy, slightly absent-minded science teacher we all seem to have encountered somewhere along the way in junior high, and his slow, deep, folksy voice certainly doesn't suggest the presence of a country-rock legend, a certified Guitar God, but for more than 30 years now Kirchen has been as much an icon in his music - he calls it "Dieselbilly" - as Clapton and Santana have been in theirs.
One of the biggest surprises on the charts - both country and pop - of 1972 was a remake of Johnny Bond's 1960 roadhouse classic "Hot Rod Lincoln" by a previously obscure band that, as their name suggested, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere from the depths of space - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
The song's monologue-like vocal recounting of a drag race was by George "Commander Cody" Frayne, but for many, it was Kirchen's turbo-charged, full-tilt Telecaster boogie that stole the show and made the record an instant classic (again).
"I did the 'Go West, young man' thing," says Kirchen, speaking from his motel room in Houston in the middle of a tour to celebrate the release of his new HighTone album "Tied To The Wheel," a collection of no-holds-barred trucker and honky-tonk tunes both old and new. "We started the Commander Cody Band in Michigan in the '60's. It kind of fizzled off for a while. I moved out to California for a while, looked around in the late '60's, and thought, 'Shoot, we could do something out here' and was able to convince the rest of the guys to join me out there in '69."
The Michigan native's new record features Kirchen's regular trio Too Much Fun (from the title of another Commander Cody hit): Johnny Castle (bass) and Jack O'Dell (drums), which leads Kirchen to wryly speculate in the liner notes that he is "the Kitty Wells of Dieselbilly."
The album also features guest appearances by friends and sidekicks from the Cody days like Bobby Black (pedal steel) and Blackie Farrell (rhythm guitar). The Airmen broke up in the late '70's, but Kirchen continued to be a part of the legendary San Francisco Bay music scene until some family farm property in the Washington, D.C. area became available in 1986, and he and wife Louise moved their family there.
To his great surprise - and pleasure - he found the Capitol region to be a musical hotbed as well.
"It turned out to be a very good move, it's such a fertile musical scene, I didn't even realize how deep it ran - it's the Bluegrass Capital of the World, you have to say, for a city, and it's the whole post-War hillbilly boom that produced Jimmy Dean and Roy Clark and Patsy Cline, all those people came from there. Never mind it's a great Duke Ellington jazz town. It's also been a haven for people who play and enjoy the Telecaster, too."
One of the people he eventually met up and became friends with was Dudley Connell, a longtime fixture on the Washington music scene, and one of the most renowned bluegrass vocalists of the last two decades from his years with the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Seldom Scene, his current band.
When Kirchen decided to include a cover of the honky-tonk anthem "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke," he asked Connell to make a guest appearance, and the result is perhaps the album's strongest and most interesting track.
For Kirchen, it was a golden opportunity to "steal a few vocal licks" from someone he truly admires as both a friend and a fellow musical craftsman.
"I was kind of nervous...I say (he's) one of the great bluegrass singers, well I think he's just one of the great singers. To me, it sounds like he could do just whatever he wanted."
Another reason for including "Dim Lights" was that the song's co-writer, Joe Maphis (whose wife and partner Rose Lee was the other writer), was one of the strongest links leading to Kirchen's own full-bore approach to playing guitar.
"Back in the '60's when I was ' trying to figure out the guitar licks for the Johnny Bond 'Hot Rod Lincoln' record...I didn't even know that was Joe Maphis, I'm pretty sure now that it was Joe Maphis, and he had a whole kind of overdriven guitar style that you could certainly count as one of my major influences. He also was part of that whole West Coast country scene, with the whole honky-tonk, what I consider sort of more rock-and-roll country from the '50's that really knocked me out."
Although their styles were markedly dissimilar, Kirchen notes that Maphis and Merle Travis were great friends and that the recordings they did together convey much of the good-time feeling that he's always striven for - "just a couple of major buds having a great time."
Maphis died in 1986, and Kirchen regrets not crossing paths with him.
One great guitar hero he did get to meet, though, was the late Don Rich, who was as integral a part of the Buck Owens sound as Owens himself. "Tied To The Wheel" contains only one instrumental track, "Poultry In Motion," and Kirchen is quick to acknowledge Rich's influence on it and the rest of his work.
"Oh, man, he was just my man. I loved Don Rich. He was so kind of unique and tuneful, the way he approached the guitar. I guess he learned from Buck Owens. He started out with Buck as a fiddle player. I also consider Don Rich one of the greatest high harmony singers of all time, and those great Buck Owens albums where the harmony is mixed louder than the vocal, like 'Close Up The Honky Tonks,' which is a cool song. I got to meet Don before he died (1974), I got to meet him in Nashville and spent an evening hanging out with him - he was just the world's nicest guy."
The Texas portion of the current Too Much Fun tour is the end of September, and Kirchen sadly agrees that sometimes the dark side of the real world can overshadow the business of living and performing music. His voice grows quieter as he says he is fortunate that thus far, no friends or loved ones are reported missing or dead in the recent terror attacks, but he recalls their most recent gig in New York City and talks about a fire brigade captain who came to the show and bought every CD that was available. Kirchen spent a good deal of time talking with the fireman that evening and can't help but wonder if he was caught in the maelstrom of Sept. 11.
Although the album was released well before the 11th, the tragedy had a direct effect on it as well. The opening track is "Truck Stop At The End Of The World," a reprise of a song written by Kirchen and Frayne nearly 20 years ago, a fantasy about driving that 18-wheel Kenilworth down the last post-Apocalyptic stretch of four-lane amid a world laid ruin.
Though tongue-in-cheek, and written long ago, and though his own liner notes almost presciently speak of the song being "shaken loose from it's moorings by scary current events," Kirchen disclaims any Nostradamus-like talents and agrees that the lyrics are uncomfortable to listen to in the aftermath of the attacks.
"If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have done it...I don't even perform it at this point, because there's a humorous bent to that song, and the last thing I want to do at this point is make fun of something that's on people's minds...Just in respect for the tragedy there, we don't do that song now. Maybe later it will be appropriate, but it doesn't seem to be now."
Throughout his career, from the Cody days onward, Kirchen's music has always been difficult to pin a label down: part country, part blues, part rockabilly, part down-and-dirty, anything-goes, roadhouse-free-for-all and maybe now even a little bit bluegrass.
There's just too much out there to like and absorb to let himself be described by just one word - though "Dieselbilly" comes pretty damn close.
"I don't happen to let myself listen to a whole lot of country radio. I really don't listen to much radio, you know...it just appears to me that what's now called country music serves kind of a different niche than what was called country music when I got interested in it. It seems like when I was first attracted to it, it was more of a harder-edged, more adult-themed (music)...it just appears (now) as if it's speaking to someone other than me, which is fine, I got no beef with it. Of course, as with anything, I think there are wonderful, creative people in the field, there's always good stuff coming out. I'm not pessimistic, let's put it that way...I'm not one of these guys that says, 'Aaahh, country music's gone to hell'. I don't particularly like the mindless, sort of fake 'good old boy', 'party-rock' aspects of certain kinds of country music, but that doesn't mean that all of country music sucks."
He pauses for a moment and lets out a deep chuckle that grows into a full-throated laugh.
"And I'm sure there are people out there who have their beefs with what I'm up to. But you know, it's a big old beautiful world out there."