FridaysUpdate: 'Titan' of the times: Dieselbilly legend 'hot rods' to town
He went to high school with punk progenitor Iggy Pop. He's shared the stage with the likes of rock icon Elvis Costello, late Maryland guitar great Danny Gatton, and country artist Emmylou Harris. His guitar-driven version of roots rock has earned him such monikers "King of Dieselbilly" and "Titan of the Telecaster." But does Maryland resident Bill Kirchen, the distinctive guitarist who helped push "Hot Rod Lincoln" to the pop charts 35 years ago, ever wonder if he's finished making his mark?
"I feel extremely fortunate that I've been able to do something I love and pass it on," Kirchen reflects. "But I'm not at the point where I want to stop."
Althought the 61-year-old rock 'n roll guitarist has played alongside a who's-who of the progression of American music, you won't find any hints of snobbery or grandfatherly insistence that one musical era trumps another. In fact, Kirchen represents a refreshing mindset from a now aging generation.
"Having a teenage daughter in the house in the '90s, early 2000s, she had a lot of rap or hip-hop on–- and though I could have no problem getting through life without it, I've found I enjoyed it."
Despite a diverse and varied musical career path and an open mind to new genres, Kirchen insists he "isn't trying to be a museum piece." Yet it's hard not to rattle off all the places he's been. Growing up in a household with Broadway musicals– "music that's now 100 years old"–- repeatedly playing on the record player, Kirchen was classically trained on trombone before becoming a self-taught guitarist and banjo player.
"Back in the '60s, the Beatles came along, and then I got meshed in folk music," Kirchen remembers. "When I started playing banjo and guitar, I learned off listening to records."
From there, Kirchen reached a turning point in his musical trajectory–- attending the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and '65, he glimpsed a whole new world of music–- from folk legends Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt to country star Johnny Cash–- he had never even imagined.
"Seeing a wealth of music all up close and personal changed my life," Kirchen says. "I was a kid just out of high school, and it was like opening up a treasure chest–- there were all kinds of different music you didn't know existed."
Kirchen spent the rest of his career carefully crafting his signature style, a self-described mesh of country, blues, rock, and roots. Although typically described as "Americana," Kirchen made the attempt to distance his sound from mainstream generalizations with his term "dieselbilly."
"I made up that word partially as a joke, but I can play anything I want because I own the genre," he notes.
And play he does. As part of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, he took part in the now-classic 1972 cover of the rockabilly classic "Hot Rod Lincoln." His seventh solo album, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods, has garnered his fair share of praise from his fellow musicians to his long-standing fan base. Hitting the main tenets of American music– from his beginnings as a classical trombonist to playing in a hippie rock band in the '60s– Kirchen may very well embody a museum piece. But that doesn't mean he's not ready to change with the times. Just don't expect his next record to be rap.
Bill Kirchen & the Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods plays Fridays After Five on 7/17. Jeebus opens. The show starts at 5:30 pm, and admission is free.