American Routes Shortcuts: Bill Kirchen

Sep 1, 2017

Bill Kirchen
Credit American Routes

This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we visit with Titan of the Telecaster, Bill Kirchen, of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. The father of "dieselbilly," Kirchen helped Commander Cody take their hippie, honky-tonk satire up to the Top 10 with the 1972 hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Though he’s long been flying solo, Kirchen stuck with the automotive theme and high-octane sound. We spoke to Bill back in 2010 about his musical journey.

Bill Kirchen: I never really thought of myself as a guitar virtuoso, I never really, maybe I’m just lazy. I never really set out to be you know the baddest gunslinger out there, and I’m not so it’s both my vocation and my avocation and my recreation so-

Nick Spitzer: Hey that’s three things.

BK: Yeah there’s a lot, I don’t even know what avocation is but I’m sure that’s it too, man.

NS: You’ve also penned some homage to the guitar in your writing, and I know you’ve got this great song, “The Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods,” which has this immortal line about “born at the junction of form and function.” What are you talking about?

BK: It’s an homage to the particular guitar that I play, the Telecaster, which is maybe noteworthy because it’s one of the very simpler guitars out there, one of the first electrics. One of the few things in this industrial world that’s maintained its pretty exact identity for over 50 years, it’s kind of like the Coke bottle of guitars and it’s sort of the shortest distance between two points.

NS: So when do you first meet George Frayne, Commander Cody and all this in Michigan?

BK: Well I was a townie with my band, the Seventh Seal, and I believe that we got tagged by someone to play the Ann Arbor Film Festival. So anyway we were are the film festival and George Frayne who was in art school and his particular talent lay in collecting people from kind of a wide variety of directions and putting them all together in this one big band and he got this guy Billy C. from a blues band in Detroit, Billy C. and the Sunshine, he got me, the town hippy, he got the wild-haired Andy Stein from the music school to play the classical violin.

NS: This is sort of a Noah’s Ark assembly.

BK: It was, yeah.

BK: Well our job seemed to me to be to be messengers of rural American music, country music and rockabilly to places where it wasn’t really played that much. For instance the entire Northeast had pretty much fallen out of favor there.

NS: And the country crowd, I mean maybe their sensibilities were a little thin-skinned to have these hippy guys rocking out and playing these songs and throwing in new words and this sort of thing.

BK: We got chased through Arkansas you know, and I finally got a cop, stopped a cop and told him what was happening and his advice to me was to get a gun. And that was just hair you know, that was our sin, having long hair, but the advantage we had with Cody, Nick, is we might have had long hair but there was 12 of us.

NS: Before we go, Bill Kirchen, I wonder if we could do the libretto thing here on this song “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Now you do this song live and it really is a catalogue of the history of twang and guitar and all these things.

BK: Yeah it’s my little chance to nod and tip my hat to maybe 30 or 40 guitar players who caught my ear through the years.

NS: All the sounds and styles of American roots guitar, Bill Kirchen thanks for being with me here on American Routes.

BK: Thanks so much, Nick, you take care. 

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.