Kirchen and his kickass band are currently on tour. You can catch them this week in Raleigh, NC (9/12), Ashland, VA (9/13) and Alexandria, VA (9/14). Full itinerary with dates and details here.
Put on Seeds and Stems (released June 18 on Proper Records) and one immediately encounters a lifeline back to 50s Sun Studio singles, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers in their fighting prime, white line fevered outlaw country, and other enduringly rootsy flavors. It should come as no surprise to find something so appealingly put together given that its creator is a veteran who’s been shaping the good stuff and the good stuff only since the late 60s, first as a founding member/spiritual architect/guitar maestro in the legendary Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and then in quality combos The Moonlighters, Too Much Fun and more. Bill Kirchen is a bona fide classic in an age with too few of them, a primo musician that done it right and done it for a really long time.
The Telecaster master’s new album jumps off with a skipping beat, announcing, “Get out of my way you small town clowns, this country boy he’s come to town,” followed shortly by the cheeky pronouncement, “There must be a whole lot of things that I never done. I ain’t never had too much fun.” The 65-year-old has been getting “lost in his own movies” on the road for over four decades, honing his craft in road houses and arenas, an expert at stirring up audiences, both to shuffle ‘round and let a tear or two drop into their beers.
For those unfamiliar with Kirchen’s catalogue, Seeds And Stems works as a primer in his concert staples laid down with touring rhythm section Jack O’Dell (drums, harmony vocals) and Maurice Cridlin (bass) with a little help from pals Austin de Lone (piano, organ) and Jorma Kaukonen (acoustic guitar). What the album demonstrates, without working up a sweat, is how deliciously vital these songs – a pleasing cross-section of solo keepers, Commander Cody gems, trucker tunes and a choice Dylan cover – and the man swinging on them truly are. While this material could come across as rank nostalgia, Kirchen and his mates breath beautiful life into each track, with the album serving as a loose salute to the gypsy life and the sorts of things one encounters dragging ass from stage to stage and town to town.
It was a great pleasure and honor to pull up a chair and pick Kirchen’s brain for a few minutes, where we discuss the new record, the Cody band days, the Newport Folk Festival, the touring, and more.
Seeds And Stems is one of those albums I have a hard time listening to once. If I put it on I always feel the need to hear it a second time. It’s very direct. There’s no fat on it. You can hear everyone’s contribution, and everyone serves the songs well.
You should get at least a few seconds within a song. You don’t want to elbow the singer out of the way, though since I’m the singer I can do that [laughs]. It’s pretty transparent music. It’s not like the poetry is difficult or anything.
This band sounds like they have fun playing together.
We do, and I really do enjoy what I do. We’re on the road pretty heavy, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t love it. We’re not out there out of desperation. I really do enjoy it. The drummer and I have been together almost 20 years. The bass player is fairly new to the band, maybe 3-4 years.
I really love Austin de Lone’s piano and organ playing on this album. He doesn’t need a lot of space or time to say something memorable. You’ve got the same gift as a soloist. I’m sure you could solo ‘til the cows come home but you’ve always been more interested in making a concise statement.
Austin just knocks me out! Only in recent years, due to pressure from fans, have I started to take longer 3-4 chorus solos. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to state a little tune and then get out. It is fun to try the other approach, to learn a whole new skill in some ways. I don’t try to do it that often, but it is rock ‘n’ roll so you have to stick it out there a little ways.
You have the major guitar lexicon down, and one need only check out the version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” on Seeds And Stems [where Kirchen expertly quotes Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Holly and many more] for resounding proof. I’m guessing is a real showcase in concert, too.
We call it the “Big Wayne Newton Climax” [laughs]. People will say, “Wow, man, it sounds exactly like the records!” but it really doesn’t. It’s more like a guy that draws you at the Boardwalk. It’s not a photograph but it’s a decent likeness of these other guitar players. My task in doing the little quotes in “Hot Rod Lincoln” is to do something eminently recognizable that makes people feel it’s like the originals. I get close!
And you’re playing the styles and signature riffs of famous guitarists on a Telecaster, which was not always their instrument of choice.
Right and I only have one button with a little delay and reverb but otherwise the only thing I’m changing is different pick-up positions and I’ll hit whatever loud pedal of the day is, say a Tube Screamer or whatever. Other than that it all has to happen with your hands.
I dig guys who’ve dedicated themselves to the Telecaster [Editor’s Note: DI immediately thinks of West Coast Tele champ Scott Law].
I heard that Telecaster twang and just had to get into it. I heard Roy Nichols, who played with Merle Haggard and Don Rich, who played with Buck Owens, and that whole Bakersfield sound was it!
One of the through-lines in your career is how your music communicates well both with music of the past and music of the present. Your music throws a line back to Merle Haggard but it also sits well with the twangier Americana today. You remind folks that music is a continuum.
Well, thank you, and the reason for it is we approach that stuff with great reverence but not in a precious way because that stuff rocked! We never liked to treat it with kid gloves. It was in Berkeley that the Cody band got it together. We played Mandrake’s on University and the other honky tonks in Berkeley from ’69 on, and that’s where we got our sea legs.
Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen had an unforced air of weirdness about them. Other bands had to put on hats and play at being strange, and you guys seemed like a band that had smoked just enough grass to not be straights.
[Laughs] We took acid and smoked joints and everything else after that. I worry a little bit sometimes. I don’t want my humor to be too arch. You want to have fun with something rather than at something. I hope I’m not being ironic or being at a hipster’s distance from things.
You don’t go too far with your humor. One finds other feelings hidden in the laughs like in one of your signature tunes “Down To Seeds and Stems Again.” The version on the new album has some nice pathos. It’s a classic bummer tune.
I’ve been singing that song for so long that I’ll occasionally throw in the line, “So, my dog died AGAIN yesterday.” But sometimes I don’t even do that. Sometimes I think I should just step back and let it be the world’s saddest song.
Listening to the new album one might easily come to the conclusion that you’d spent some time as a trucker. You have such a huge affinity for the material.
I’ve never been a trucker, and my interest in trucking extends no further than the music and the fact that for the past 40 years I’ve made my living on the asphalt seas. I got into it during the big folk scare of ’64-’65. I went to Newport and saw Skip James, Son House, Staple Singers with just Pop on a Tele, just everybody, and then I discovered country music all at once. Maybe it’s because I’m a trombone player and the low note on a Tele is the same, but for some reason the stuff being marketed as truck driving records just got me.
There’s a lot in common between a truck driving life and the life of a working tour band.
There was a time, maybe 6-8 years ago, where we were in the van as many hours as the law allows a truck driver to be on the road. It’s like having two full time jobs, where one is traveling and the other is performing, and both are pretty extensive.
It’s how LOTS of bands make their living today. It’s frustrating because they’re facing a new generation that’s gotten into the mindset of music being free.
It’s crazy [laughs]. Luckily for me, I play for a good many people of my demographic so I still sell a fair number of CDs from the stage or out of the back of the truck. The kids these days! Get off my lawn [laughs]!
The way you play around with your tunes makes perfect sense that you’d include a Dylan song [“It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”] on the new album. He’s the master of reinterpretation, just putting stuff in the mortar & pestle and seeing what can be mashed together.
I love Dylan, especially the first ten albums. That’s the stuff that pretty much ruined me for regular work. As I mentioned, I went to Newport, and I saw him go electric with [Mike] Bloomfield – a Telecaster player by the way – and that resonated deeply with me.
The closer on Seeds And Stems is one of the best chicken pickin’ tunes since Merle Travis’ “I Like My Chicken Frying Size”.
I learned guitar to play like that. I learned so I could play like Mississippi John Hurt. I was so lucky to have a few people show me how to do this. When I was a snotty high school kid in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I wanted in on this stuff – guitar playing and whatnot – and there were 3-4 guys already in college who let me come over to the house and showed me basic blues licks. I got exposed to this because of people who were generous of spirit. I try to remember that and act on it with others. It’s important that it appear real to somebody. It can be such a disembodied thing on record, and one doesn’t know how to even go about doing it or whether the people doing it have two heads and three hands [laughs].