Talking Story With Bill Kirchen

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Bill Kirchen has been called the “King of Dieselbilly,” “The Titan of the Telecaster,” and “The Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.”  Kirchen was the guitarist with the legendary Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from 1967 to the mid-1970s, and Kirchen’s jaw-dropping licks drove the group’s classic single, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” into the Top Ten.

Kirchen, now based in Austin, will be coming for two shows next month, marking his Big Island concert debut. On Saturday, March 30, Kirchen and band will be playing the Honokaa People’s Theatre. On March 31, Kirchen will be featured at Gertrude’s Jazz Bar in Kona. You can find ticket info for both shows at the end of this article.

I first heard your music while growing up in San Francisco. Commander Cody was in regular rotation on KSAN radio. Can you talk a little bit about playing with Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen?

We started out as college town art school lark in the ‘60s, and we had a floating membership. We had the fabulous green tap-dancing sisters who tap danced in green bras and panties join us on stage. I just joined the band and they played these concerts that showed videos and slides of dental extractions on this screen. When we got to California, I figured that what we were doing would be just fine out there. It was an eight-piece band, and we had a lot of radio success with “Hot Rod Lincoln.” Every now and then people will say to me, “Well, man, you guys didn’t get your due,” but I think we did. We had a great run, and it was just a fantastic time. We never really did try to become a radio hits band. We didn’t devote the energy in that direction. We were a live act. I think of us now as one of the original Americana bands.

Is there a backstory to the arrangement for “Hot Rod Lincoln”?

I found that song on a Johnny Bond album. We also found his song “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke, (That Cigarette)” as well. We had no idea that “Hot Rod Lincoln” was in fact an answer song to a song called “Hot Rod Race,”[by Arkie Shibley]. The old Commander, who was charged with the task of singing it, sort of switched a bunch of words around to try an imagine what he thought was going on.

As far as that lick goes, I was trying to just learn the guitar riff off the Johnny Bond record. Later I went back to just hear it again and I like it …it was significantly different. And now I like my version better. I always tell music students it was originality born out of incompetence.  I’m sure if I’d have been able to steal the lick directly, I would have, but fortunately I couldn’t.

Can you talk about your signature sound? What exactly is Dieselbilly music?

That’s a little word I made up back in the ‘60s, when I discovered country music. I backed into it through folk and bluegrass and old timey hillbilly string band music. I had an old Red Simpson record, “Roll, Truck, Roll” that knocked me out. As quick as I could, I got a Telecaster, and started calling what I did Dieselbilly for fun. I’m the self-crowned King of Dieselbilly because apparently nobody else wanted the job.

Tell me about some of your favorite guitar players?

Well, some of my favorite guitarists early on were Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. I also love steel guitar and that has had an influence on me. It’s such a distinctive sound even though I don’t play steel guitar. In rock, I loved Scotty Moore… Johnny Horton… kind of melodic guitar. Only sort of reluctantly have I done any sort of shredding. That’s kind of late to my arsenal.

Do you have any thoughts on Hawaiian slack key guitar music?

Honestly, I didn’t know much about it until I heard  “Chicken Skin Music” by Ry Cooder with Atta Isaacs and Gabby Pahinui on it. That was my first exposure to slack key. I’m embarrassed to tell you, I really haven’t pursued it, but I just love the sound of it.

Are you working on any new projects this year?

We’re going to do a tour of England and Scandinavia, and there’s always stuff to record. I’m trying to balance my time between touring and writing songs. So that’s the plan: write, make another record. I got some good ideas, but it’s too early to discuss.

What can Big Island fans expect at your upcoming concerts?

I’m into entertaining, and it’s not a “singer/song whiner” show, although I’ll do some originals. It’s pretty much a “up on your hind legs rockin’ thing,” and I will do a bunch of stuff from the Commander Cody days. I’ve put out about six albums since then. It will tend to be roots, rock and roll, and unabashed hillbilly and rockabilly. We will attempt to bring honor to your fantastic island. That’s what we will try to do.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you! I appreciate what you’re doing there. You’re on my team. You’re helping us tremendously.

If You Go

Bill Kirchen’s Big Island Tour Dates:

The Honoka’a Peoples Theatre
March 30, Saturday
45-3574 Mamane St. Honoka’a, HI 96727
Tickets: $40. Gen. Adm;  $55. Gold Circle
Doors: 6:00 pm. Show: 7:00 pm.

Gertrude’s Jazz Bar
March 31, Sunday
75-5699 Alii Dr. Kailua-Kona, Hi. 96740
Info: 808-896-4845Venue: 808-327-5299
Tickets: $40. Gen. Adm.Adv.
Show: 7:00 pm.

Big Island Ticket Outlets & Information:
Online information, tickets and VIP: www.bluesbearhawaii.com or call: 808-896-4845.
Hilo Ukulele & Guitars, Hilo Music Exchange – Hilo; Rogers Guitars, Kea’au; Kona Music Exchange – Kailua-Kona; Kiernan’s Music – Old Town Kainaliu; Waimea General Store – Parker Square, Kamuela; Top Stitch – Honoka’a.

Bill Kirchen’s website: www.billkirchen.com


Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Valerie Fremin and Bob Minkin.

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