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Kirchen remains tied to the wheel

By Jon Lupton, October 2001

Lanky, bespectacled and now fiftysomething, Bill Kirchen looks a lot more like the shy, slightly absent-minded science teacher we all seem to have encountered somewhere along the way in junior high, and his slow, deep, folksy voice certainly doesn't suggest the presence of a country-rock legend, a certified Guitar God, but for more than 30 years now Kirchen has been as much an icon in his music - he calls it "Dieselbilly" - as Clapton and Santana have been in theirs.

One of the biggest surprises on the charts - both country and pop - of 1972 was a remake of Johnny Bond's 1960 roadhouse classic "Hot Rod Lincoln" by a previously obscure band that, as their name suggested, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere from the depths of space - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

The song's monologue-like vocal recounting of a drag race was by George "Commander Cody" Frayne, but for many, it was Kirchen's turbo-charged, full-tilt Telecaster boogie that stole the show and made the record an instant classic (again).

"I did the 'Go West, young man' thing," says Kirchen, speaking from his motel room in Houston in the middle of a tour to celebrate the release of his new HighTone album "Tied To The Wheel," a collection of no-holds-barred trucker and honky-tonk tunes both old and new. "We started the Commander Cody Band in Michigan in the '60's. It kind of fizzled off for a while. I moved out to California for a while, looked around in the late '60's, and thought, 'Shoot, we could do something out here' and was able to convince the rest of the guys to join me out there in '69."

The Michigan native's new record features Kirchen's regular trio Too Much Fun (from the title of another Commander Cody hit): Johnny Castle (bass) and Jack O'Dell (drums), which leads Kirchen to wryly speculate in the liner notes that he is "the Kitty Wells of Dieselbilly."

The album also features guest appearances by friends and sidekicks from the Cody days like Bobby Black (pedal steel) and Blackie Farrell (rhythm guitar). The Airmen broke up in the late '70's, but Kirchen continued to be a part of the legendary San Francisco Bay music scene until some family farm property in the Washington, D.C. area became available in 1986, and he and wife Louise moved their family there.

To his great surprise - and pleasure - he found the Capitol region to be a musical hotbed as well.

"It turned out to be a very good move, it's such a fertile musical scene, I didn't even realize how deep it ran - it's the Bluegrass Capital of the World, you have to say, for a city, and it's the whole post-War hillbilly boom that produced Jimmy Dean and Roy Clark and Patsy Cline, all those people came from there. Never mind it's a great Duke Ellington jazz town. It's also been a haven for people who play and enjoy the Telecaster, too."

One of the people he eventually met up and became friends with was Dudley Connell, a longtime fixture on the Washington music scene, and one of the most renowned bluegrass vocalists of the last two decades from his years with the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Seldom Scene, his current band.

When Kirchen decided to include a cover of the honky-tonk anthem "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke," he asked Connell to make a guest appearance, and the result is perhaps the album's strongest and most interesting track.

For Kirchen, it was a golden opportunity to "steal a few vocal licks" from someone he truly admires as both a friend and a fellow musical craftsman.

"I was kind of nervous...I say (he's) one of the great bluegrass singers, well I think he's just one of the great singers. To me, it sounds like he could do just whatever he wanted."

Another reason for including "Dim Lights" was that the song's co-writer, Joe Maphis (whose wife and partner Rose Lee was the other writer), was one of the strongest links leading to Kirchen's own full-bore approach to playing guitar.

"Back in the '60's when I was ' trying to figure out the guitar licks for the Johnny Bond 'Hot Rod Lincoln' record...I didn't even know that was Joe Maphis, I'm pretty sure now that it was Joe Maphis, and he had a whole kind of overdriven guitar style that you could certainly count as one of my major influences. He also was part of that whole West Coast country scene, with the whole honky-tonk, what I consider sort of more rock-and-roll country from the '50's that really knocked me out."

Although their styles were markedly dissimilar, Kirchen notes that Maphis and Merle Travis were great friends and that the recordings they did together convey much of the good-time feeling that he's always striven for - "just a couple of major buds having a great time."

Maphis died in 1986, and Kirchen regrets not crossing paths with him.

One great guitar hero he did get to meet, though, was the late Don Rich, who was as integral a part of the Buck Owens sound as Owens himself. "Tied To The Wheel" contains only one instrumental track, "Poultry In Motion," and Kirchen is quick to acknowledge Rich's influence on it and the rest of his work.

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