'Titan of the Telecaster' Bill Kirchen to perform at BuddyLou's
In 2001, musician Bill Kirchen was in the studio recording in Texas when he lost his voice for a day or two.
“Since I lost my voice, I made up a little instrumental that had some clucking and chicken sounding things,” he said.
Later, he was listening to the recordings at home.
“My wife said, ‘What was that?’ I told her it was something we knocked off in the studio because I lost my voice. ‘Put it on the record,’ my wife said. I took her advice and put it on there, and I finally got nominated for a Grammy,” Kirchen said.
The song was “Poultry in Motion” from the album “Tied to the Wheel” and the nomination was for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Though Kirchen had played and recorded with well-known artists since the 1960s, he has earned accolades from Guitar Player Magazine and Rolling Stone Magazine, and had recorded chart-topping music, the clucking sounds of “Poultry in Motion” earned him his one and only Grammy nomination thus far.
“I got out there and lost to Earl Scruggs. I’m a Grammy loser,” Kirchen said laughing during a phone interview with a Herald-Mail reporter from his home in Austin, Texas.
On Friday, Aug. 2, at 7 p.m., Kirchen will perform a collection of rock ‘n’ roll, hardcore country, boogie and rockabilly sounds at BuddyLou’s in Hancock. He will be joined by Johnny Castle and Jack O’Dell, with whom he played for many years when he lived in the Washington, D.C. area.
The early years
Kirchen, 71, was born in Bridgeport, Conn., and when he was about six months old, his family relocated to Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father worked for Ford Motor Company.
His father loved music but never played an instrument and his mother took up banjo for a time. He mostly heard classical and Broadway tunes around the house growing up. Kirchen played trombone through high school, until he discovered his mother’s banjo.
“I strung that up. That was my first stringed instrument,” he said.
In the early ‘60s, Kirchen attended a music camp in northern Michigan and met folk singer Dave Siglin, who inspired Kirchen in his musical pursuits.
Kirchen went on to attend University of Michigan and branched off into “psycho folk rock,” eventually becoming part of the country rock band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
The band earned a recording contract and moved to California. Its best-known hit, a cover version of the 1955 song “Hot Rod Lincoln,” reached the top ten on the Billboard singles chart in early 1972. One of the Commander Cody albums, “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas,” made Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Albums of All Time.
The D.C. days
During the mid-80s, Kirchen and his wife, a southern Maryland native, had a baby and moved to the Washington, D.C. area. He formed bands such as Too Much Fun, which released critically-acclaimed albums and toured 200-plus dates a year in the United States and worldwide.
Marc Gretschel — who owned venues including Tornado Alley, Half Moon BBQ, and the Twist & Shout, which went on to be immortalized in song by artist Mary Chapin Carpenter — was important to Kirchen’s musical success when he relocated.
“(Gretschel) was a big, driving force in presenting and promoting roots music in the D.C. area,” Kirchen said. “When I first got to town, he encouraged me and gave me a gig. I just had a kid and left Commander. He gave me my first exposure in D.C. He always had a place for me to play.”
Though he now resides in Texas, Kirchen still jumps at the opportunity to play from time to time back on the East Coast. It was Gretschel who contacted Kirchen about playing a gig at BuddyLou’s, Hancock’s casual dining establishment and quirky antique store.
“If Marc wants me to do it, I go do it. There are some people, you know if they suggest doing something, it’s worth doing. He got me in the door there,” he said.
It was also during his time in the Washington, D.C. area that Kirchen met and played with Jack O’Dell and Johnny Castle, friends who will play with him at BuddyLou’s. The set list will include trademark honky-tonk tunes along with blues and Western swing infused with some three-part harmonies.
“(O’Dell and Castle) are the two guys I spent the most time playing with in my life. In 25 years, we played a lot locally and traveling. Johnny plays bass, Jack plays drums, and both sing like birds. Sometimes like vultures, sometimes like canaries,” he said with a hearty laugh.
“They are both A-list players at the top of their games and it’s great to get back to those guys. I am thrilled about it. This is just a joy,” Kirchen said.
Leaving a legacy
Kirchen has a reputation as an artist who helped develop the musical “outlaw” style of musicians like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band.
He has played and recorded with artists including Elvis Costello, Bo Diddley, Sammy Hagar, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and many more.
He recorded 13 CDs following his time with Commander Cody, the most recent being “Transatlanticana,” which stayed on the Americana Top 40 Radio chart for five months and cracked the Top 10 in 2016.
His mastery of playing the Fender Telecaster electric guitar earned him the title “Titan of the Telecaster” at Guitar Player Magazine.
“Titan is a moon of (Saturn),” Kirchen said, “so I will take it as a compliment and leave it at that. There are so many people that I still look up to, but I’m glad to be called a Titan.”
Today, he plays originals as well as covers with equal pride and prowess.
“If I love something, whether it’s a song I’ve heard or a song I’ve written, and I think it sounds good and I’m proud of it, that’s going to be the best song I can do for people,” he said. “It doesn’t help me to do a song I’ve written that I think is weak when I can do a Bob Dylan song that flips me out when I play it.”
He feels good that year after year, people continue to respond to his music.
“I guess what it means is that the stuff I liked as a late teenager, and that really informs what I do today, still holds up,” he said. “Other people still find it interesting and like it, even people who are as young now as I was then.”