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Kirchen hammers away on his Tele

By Dan MacIntosh, January 2007

Bill Kirchen's guitar skills have earned him the nickname Titan of the Telecaster, so - quite naturally - the title track to his new CD, "Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods," is a tribute to a few of his favorite Telecaster players. And without a doubt, Kirchen loves his Telecaster guitar.

"It's kind of got its own cache for a variety of reasons," says Kirchen, when asked what makes this particular guitar so special. "One, it's a design that's remained virtually unchanged since it was invented in the late '40s/early '50s. So, it's over a half century old, and it's still just about how it started. So, it's one of those things they got right the first time."

"In a way it's kind of the bicycle of guitars, too," he continues. "It's the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B. It was, in its day, an inexpensive guitar. Not a lot of frills; just two pickups, one switch and two knobs. To me, it's got this kind of working man's vibe to it, although it's been used by everybody from Keith Richards to Jimmy Page."

Countless rockers have made Telecaster their axe of choice. But Kirchen's primary attraction to this brand came when he first heard country artists and roots rockers playing them.

"To me - where I got onto it and when I had to have one - was when I started listening to guys like James Burton with Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley. And Buck Owens and his wonderful guitar player, Don Rich, who I claim as one of my earliest, best influences. And Merle Haggard and his wonderful guitar player, Red Nichols. Those three pickers - and in two cases, their bosses - all played Teles." "To me, it says twang. Not that it doesn't rock and do many other things. To me, that is sort of the quintessential Telecaster sound. It was developed in Southern California honky tonks where that music came up, so it fits in well. Leo Fender supposedly used to get on stage and tweak the new amps he was making while people were trying to play. So, I associate Telecasters with Bakersfield and L.A. country of the '50s and '60s." Kirchen's original music oftentimes points back to his musical heroes. For example, one of the best songs from the new album, "Get A Little Goner," has a whole lot of Owens in it.

"That's the highest praise in my book," responds Kirchen. "It is a hillbilly song for sure. It was written by me and my wife, and it started out with an idea from Sarah Brown, who's this fantastic bass player that I use a lot."

This was not, by the way, the first musical collaboration between Kirchen and his wife Louise.

"She's more of a prolific writer than I am," Kirchen admits. "We have co-written some stuff in the past. We co-wrote a song called 'Girlfriend' off of the 'Raise a Ruckus' album. I've recorded some of her songs. 'Dream World' she wrote, and 'Big Hat, No Cattle,' she wrote....She's helped me out a lot of times on songs where I was floundering. That was her title, 'Womb to the Tomb,' also. She's really ahead of me when it comes to writing songs."

Bill and Louise will have been married 31 years, an eternity by entertainment business standards. And while Kirchen has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, the reasoning behind why his wife has stayed with him this long is one of the mysteries he has yet to figure out.

"That's the only thing I wonder about her," he jokes. "I'm delighted with everything else about her. Except I'm curious as to why she would have stayed married to me. We've been together for over a third of a century. It makes me wonder about her. She's great. She's fabulous. She's been very supportive of my stuff. We've been business partners. She's been my manager at times, and as I say, co-writer. One of the very finest people I know. The finest person I know."

Famed singer/songwriter/producer Nick Lowe appears on Kirchen's new one, and these two unlikely friends have worked together many times over the years. Kirchen has also performed with Lowe's famous crony, Elvis Costello. But both of these musical figures are more closely associated with British new wave and punk movements, not country. Kirchen's associations with Lowe and Costello reveal just how wide his circle of friends reaches.

"I actually met Nick Lowe back when he was in Brinsley Schwarz when I came with Commander Cody to England in the early '70s," Kirchen recalls. "But I didn't really get to know him until I was reacquainted with him by Austin Delone, a wonderful Bay Area singer/songwriter/piano player/guitar player who I played with in The Moonlighters for years."

"When I had a band with Austin, he wrote a letter pitching our songs to Nick. And Nick wrote him back saying: 'Dear hero of mine, Come on over to England, and I'll produce your album.' The whole (Moonlighters) band went over there and made a record that he produced, and I've been friends with him ever since."

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