Bill Kirchen?s newest solo album, Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods, is another celebration of American roots music from a man who helped lay the foundation for the genre today known as Americana.
It was Kirchen?s larger-than-life Telecaster licks that propelled Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen up the charts in 1972 with a cover of Johnny Bonds? ?Hot Rod Lincoln.?
?We may have been the beginning of what?s now called Americana, but I?m not sure that?s true,? says Kirchen, who makes his home in Maryland. ?I do know I had more fun than I deserved and almost more fun than I could handle. We put on fabulous shows and made some pretty damn good records. Eventually the wheels came off, and it was time to go, but I still play songs I played back then, and I?ll go to my grave doing some of them.?
Oddly enough, Kirchen grew up playing trombone in his high school band in Ann Arbor, Mich. (The drummer was a kid named Jimmy Osterberg, later known as Iggy Pop.)
?Trombone held my interest until my senior year at Interlochen Summer Arts Camp. My cabin counselor was Dave Siglin, who later started The Ark, the longest-running folk club in the U.S. He played folk on the 12-string guitar. When I got home, I got my mother?s old banjo out of the attic and got Pete Seeger?s ?How To Play Banjo? book and the How To Play Banjo album on Folkways and went at it. I started hanging with the folkies and got into guitar pretty quick,? he says.
Kirchen spent some time in New York City?s Greenwich Village in the early ?60s to investigate the folk scene. After returning to Ann Arbor, he started a hippie folk-rock band called The Seventh Seal. Shortly thereafter, he met George Frayne, also known as Commander Cody.
?George had a good eye for talent,? Kirchen recalls. ?He recruited me to be the hippie guitar player; Billy C. Farlow, from an R&B band, to be the singer; John Tichy, who was really deep into Bakersfield country, for the second guitar.?
The Lost Planet Airmen created a buzz on the local scene, but Kirchen was restless. He moved out to Berkeley, Calif., in the early ?70s. When he saw how open the local club scene was, he convinced the rest of the band to follow him to the Bay Area. The rest, as they say, is history.
?By the mid ?70s, we?d run our course,? Kirchen says. ?We weren?t having any more success; we weren?t getting better as a band. I was doing too much drinking and drugging and had my own issues that separated me from being at the top of my game musically.?
Kirchen started his next band, The Moonlighters, with other guys from the Cody Band.
?We were actually Moonlighting from Cody at the start. Then I moved to the D.C. area to live on my wife?s family?s farm. Turns out D.C. had a big post-war hillbilly movement and was a big bluegrass and a R&B center. They had go-go and hip-hop ? everything you could think of musically. I started sitting in with Danny Gatton?s band and had a whole second career playing locally with my trio, Too Much Fun. There was so much work in town that I tended not to get out and about that much.?
Eventually, Kirchen got back on the road, and that?s where you?ll find him most every night. And while he?s a much-in-demand sideman, his own music takes precedence.
?Now that I can record on a laptop and send (the files) back, I can do more (side work), but being on the road, booking the gigs myself and driving the van eats up the time,? says Kirchen. ?I don?t have unlimited stamina, but I can dust some younger folks as far as staying on the road. I?m still in a van moving my own equipment, and I love it. What takes the energy is doing the radio shows at 7 in the a.m., then doin