Bill Kirchen joined our Instagram Live show hosted by Whitney Moore to talk about the upcoming release of Bill Kirchen---The Proper Years a remastering of a large body of his work arriving July. There's aslo the release of Bill Kirchen: Waxworks--The Proper Years the same month. Kirchen was a founding member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and has since played in a number of bands and with a vast collection of collaborators, including Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. Known as the “Titan of the Telecaster”, Kirchen has contributed hugely to the development of Americana music and his own “Dieselbilly” genre.
Kirchen called from his home in Austin, where he’s been for about three months. He’s feeling good considering his 50 years in the industry. It’s been a “full” 50 years and he feels “thankful”. Not a lot of people get to do this, “make their livelihood during something they love, their lovelihood”, he laughed.
Kirchen has been doing a regular Facebook Livestream which has been “very engaging” and a lot of fun, even with people staying up late to hear it. He’s doing a big birthday extravaganza soon, too, because in a couple weeks, he’ll be turning 72. He’s taken to walking for exercise, since he’s had beautiful weather. He knows that he’s in a “high risk” group due to his age, so he doesn’t really go to town. He likes cooking lately, which he never did much of before. He really enjoys being at home after 15 years of saying he needed to “get off the road”. Kirchen does miss the touring, but he can’t complain.
He’s been trying to get ready to cook Indian food, but he hasn’t started yet, and getting a mortar and pestle to grind spices, Kirchen related. He has been making yoghurt, though, and making eggs in an instant pot. His wife Louisa, thankfully, is a great cook.
Kirchen is really impressive to be Livestreaming so much, Moore praised. He thinks it’s a “great” way to engage, he said. Kirchen has to stop himself after playing for an hour and forty-five minutes at a time. All his old buddies have been sending comments, including friends in the Bay Area. “It’s precious to me.”, he said, and his daughter and grandkids get to see the show, which he loves too. He does take requests on his show, though he doesn’t take them all. Yes, he does some of his greatest hits. He does “whatever” he wants to do, basically, which keeps it fun.
Regarding the upcoming collection of music, Kirchen said it was “good to get it all in one spot”. The release was supposed to support a big tour, as well as a release of his first album in his DC years, Tombstone Every Mile. There’s not really a lot of new material on the Proper Records collection, but it does get everything into one place. It takes him back to his earlier days and does include an anthem version of “Times They Are A’Changing” by Bob Dylan. He sings that for hope, which we need right now, and his politics right now are for change!
The cover of the song is “rockin” and another song in the collection is with Nick Lowe, “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding”.
Who are some of his favorite collaborators? Nick Lowe, of course, and Elvis Costello. In the Bay Area, there’s Austin De Lone form The Moonlighters. Blackie Farrell, a songwriter. He recorded one of his song, “Mama Hated Diesels” and he’s been recording one of his songs every album since. Hoyt Axton is another. He hasn’t been in bands with many other people, though he’s shared the stage a lot.
Along the way, he and his band backed up Gene Vincent a Rockabilly legends. They recorded with them in the early 70. “It’s been a great ride and a tremendous time.”, Kirchen said.
Moore asked him about recording with his wife Louise. Kirchen said they’ve been together for “pushing” fifty years. She at one point was in a band, Roddy and the Rivets, and it took them awhile to get comfortable working together. She was always a writer. He wishes she had gotten more of her own career in music, and she was about to go into the studio to record her first album when COVID hit. A friend joined them, and the three of them working together made it easier to collaborate and bring about their “best behavior”, he laughed. Kirchen still likes writing and Louisa is still writing a lot.
Moore asked Kirchen how he’s kept on going in music for so long. Kirchen does sometimes have trouble writing music, particularly if there’s not a specific project. He needs a project to drive writing his own songs, since, “No one can tell you you’re doing it wrong. It offers me windows into who I am.”, Kirchen said.
A long time ago, he “wore out” his “love affair with alcohol and drugs”, Kirchen explained, and he thinks if he had not stopped then, in the 80s, he can’t imagine where he’d be today. That has certainly been a big part of how he’s kept going so long. He does drink lots of coffee! Eating all your meals out of gas stations doesn’t work out well either! That’s something to avoid as a musician, he advised.
Kirchen told us a story of traveling in 1955 in a greyhound bus in 1970, a glorious vehicle, that they once had to push over the Donner Pass in January. He’s a huge George Jones fan, and supposedly George Jones stopped at the Donner Summit and was reading about the Donner party. George asked his bandmates about the Donner story and then he said he “Hadn’t read the paper in the last couple of days.” when he revealed he knew nothing about the Donner Party.
Kirchen has had to put out engine fires with Perrier water when on the road. Sometimes the worst gigs are the most fun, when you outnumber the audience, he recalled. Back with the Moonlighters, they did a tour of the USA with a van and a school bus. He does not recommend the shocks on the back of a schoolbus. One time traveling in Nevada, a wheel came off the bus. It landed with rooster tail sparks and they lost the wheel in the desert, but it makes for a good story.
Moore asked on their plans for touring, since Kirchen did have plans before COVID. He was going to do a festival in British Columbia, and he’s been putting together some Lost Airmen reunions. He doesn’t know when it’ll be rescheduled. He may be touring by December, but that seems unlikely. Kirchen’s content to “ride it out” until things are better for touring.
He says that he’s got trees, a dog, his wife Louis, and grandkids nearby, so what more does he need? So he tries not to “whine about it”. Kirchen does a “social zoom” meeting with friends to watch movies and talk about it. “Social distancing” is a dirty word, he feels. It really is “physical distancing”, since the social is still here. “We need a pandemic of kindness.”, he quoted from a pandemic doctor.
Asked if he could go back in time, what advice would he give himself, Kirchen gave it some thought. Maybe “Slow down, Turbo!” and “Easy with the parties!” He looks back on things that he could have done to be more successful and skilled, but at the end of the day, he still loves the same music. He hitchhiked to Newport to see the festival as a teen and saw the Blues singers, and went back in 1985 to see Bob Dylan go electric. He loves Roots Americana, as it’s called now. He would say, “You go kid.” to himself up there on stage with a harmonica, he said. Kirchen knows that he made some mistakes, but he’d just take himself aside and tell himself to “Be even nicer.” He was nice, and thought he was nice, but feels he could have done even better.
Does he recommend some music to be listening to? In the Honky Tonk field, there are some people before Merle Haggard, he explained. When Kirchen used to go to the Grand Ole Opry, they didn’t even allow a full drumkit on the stage. Wyn Stewart was a great singer, and Tommy Collins, before Haggard and Buck Owens.
Current people in Honky Tonk would include Chuck Prophet. Prophet’s wife’s in the band with him. Kirchen described Prophet as a “triple threat” as a songwriter, singer, and music god. Kirchen wrote a couple songs with Al Anderson, of NRBQ. The World Famous Headliners are great, but they don’t play together often.
Christine Albert and Chris Gage in Austin are awesome. He did a kind of open mike performance with Christine for five years every Monday.
Kirchen is also a big fan of musicals. He grew up listening to them and had Oklahoma on a 78! A 78 was a record that preceded the 45, he explained. It was ten inches in size and went really fast, at 78 RPMs. So that’s what he started out listening to. South Pacific, The King and I. The Music Man. He was a trombone player in his youth, so he loved that stuff. So much of it challenges him as a songwriter. He also grew up on humorous old English musicals by Gilbert and Sullivan, written in the late 1800s.
Kirchen has a daughter who played viola and piano, then learned guitar, and learned finger-picking Blues music. They’ve been talking about playing together via Zoom or Facebook. He gave her a pedal for Christmas that she’s had to send back to him to use for these livestreams.
His son-in-law is a video editor and does live improv, he told us. Kirchen’s had his daughter on stage with him playing with Elvis Costello, during “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods”. Kirchen was with his band for the show, and Costello need a song “transposed” into another key, so his daughter did, and got up on stage and sang for him.
Asked what his favorite way is for fans to listen to his music, Kirchen said that he would envision “anywhere”. Though he listens to music driving, he’s also spent most of his hours playing listening to people live than listening to recorded music. He’s played 150 to 200 shows a year for many, many years. He considers live music to be the first option, but any way is fine with him. His ears aren’t good enough anymore to determine whether an LP or CD has the better sound, he laughed.
Asked about the Tower Records Motto, “No Music, No Life”, Kirchen said he’s loved music since he was a kid, listening to carboard records, and singing in school. But what proves the value of it all to him is the response he’s gotten from his recent Facebook live shows. If he could give his young self advice, he would say, “They want so much to like you. The audience wants to be entertained. Don’t be so frightened”. Being live on Facebook has reminded him of that, since it’s not what he’s used to. But the people want it, they want to be engaged, to be involved in how music is made.