Bill Kirchen recorded the famously hot guitar lick in the Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Even so, he’s a modest master of the Telecaster and, like any real artist, doesn’t let the decades he’s spent cultivating his craft stop him from realizing there’s more to learn.
“I got lucky,” the Austin, Texas-based singer-guitarist said recently. “I played guitar on a hit record when I was 24. But the only reason I could play that ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ lick was because I’d been trying to play Doc Watson licks a couple of years before that.”
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, formed in 1967 in Kirchen’s hometown, Ann Arbor, Mich., got grounded in 1976. The singer-guitarist carried on by forming a swing band, the Moonlighters, and collaborating with British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe. Since the 1980s, he’s been working with his guitar, bass and drums trio, Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun.
“I am a slow learner,” he said of his longevity. “That has really helped me. It’s kept me interested in this. I feel like I’m just now starting to maybe to get to where I can sing responsibly, respectably.
“And then, with the guitar, all of a sudden I’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah. This is what you’re supposed to do!’ I know some people had everything all together by the time they were 24, but I didn’t.”
Something that’s been constant through the years, however, is Kirchen’s loyalty to the classic twang produced by the Telecaster model guitar. He even composed a homage to the instrument, “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.”
“Early on I decided I wanted a Telly because I was listening to Don Rich with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Roy Nichols with Merle Haggard and the Strangers,” Kirchen said.
“I just love it. To me, it’s like the Coke bottle of guitars. The design was perfected the same year I was born, 1948. Way back then they had it going on. A stick of wood, a slab of wood, two knobs, one switch, six strings and you’re done. Let’s go.”
While it was easy to pick his favorite model of guitar, naming his favorite guitarist still doesn’t come easy. Recently asked about it again, Kirchen hemmed and hawed as usual before selecting North Carolina’s master flat-picker, the late Doc Watson.
“I said, ‘Oh, man, that’s such a big question.’ But then I went, ‘All right! Doc Watson!’ I got no problem saying Doc Watson. I’m not gonna say he was the best guitar player in the world but, for that day and a lot of other days, I’ll take Doc Watson.”
Kirchen’s rapid-fire, Watson-influenced picking style will be on display when he returns to Louisiana this weekend for shows at the Red Dragon Listening Room in Baton Rouge and Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans. Both venues are among his favorite spots to play.
“They’re listening rooms where people come to hear the music,” Kirchen said. “I think people show up at Chickie Wah Wah who don’t even know who I am, but they know the room and say, ‘Heck, if he’s there, he’s got to be good.’ ”
Kirchen has another connection to Louisiana through the two albums he recorded for the former New Orleans record label Black Top, 1994’s Tombstone Every Mile and 1996’s Have Love Will Travel.
“One of the things I loved about moving to Texas is being close to Louisiana,” Kirchen said. “Now I have friends in the Cajun music world who I met through teaching up at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.V.”
Always a fan of Louisiana swamp pop, Kirchen experienced a Cajun music conversion when the guitar course he taught at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College overlapped with Cajun and Creole courses taught by such southwest Louisiana musicians as Joel Savoy and Christine Balfa.
“I always liked Cajun music but I think you’ve got to hear it enough to really get it,” he said. “Man, it was so great to be out there dancing to that music at Augusta with the lights strung across the pavilion. The music makes a lot more sense to me now.”
Louisiana’s influence shows up in the remake of a Kirchen standard, “Womb to the Tomb,” that appears on his new album, Seeds and Stems, his third release from U.K. label Proper Records.
“I reinvented ‘Womb to the Tomb,’ incorporating some of the Cajun vibe I’d been hearing. It’s a ghost truck driver song set on I-10, because I-10 is a kind of spooky, ghostly thing.”