STORY BY DAVID W. WANNOP
For 21st Century Media
Guitar virtuoso and top session player Bill Kirchen will be performing at the Sellersville Theatre Dec. 14. “Hot Rod Lincoln” was the song that made him famous in 1971, but he also played on many major albums by award winning artists. We corresponded via e-mail recently about his career.
Q. What aspects of your background, childhood, and upbringing grounded you in tradition and aspects made you want to go forth and conquer the world?
Kirchen: Always loved music, grew up with mom and dad singing around the house, classical and Broadway, Golden Age on the radio or records (78s for many years before we got the new LP player). Gravitated early on to what could be considered vernacular music, via cardboard and plastic kids records like “Oh Susana” and “Jimmy Crack Corn.” Never thought too much about conquering the world, just never wanted to stop playing and singing!
Q. Everyone talks about the clean and quick manner in which you play guitar. What’s the secret?
Kirchen: Well, maybe some of that comes from playing classical trombone as a student, also whatever clean and quick I can muster (and believe me, there are lots cleaner and quicker) comes from the hours I’ve logged strangling a guitar neck. Plus, I started as a fingerpicker on acoustic guitar, a style that maybe places more of a premium on accuracy.
Q. How many guitars do you own, which ones do you prefer, and which ones go on tour with you?
Kirchen: A few guitars, maybe 7 acoustics between my wife and me, 5 Teles, and a big box Heritage f-hole with pick-ups. [My] favorites: Rick Kelley Pinecaster, all 150 year-old pine with Don Mare pick-ups. I play that on stage 99 [percent] of the time. Favorite acoustic is a fantastic hand-made by Wayne Henderson flat-top D-28 type. I got it when I played his festival in Mouth Of Wilson VA this year.
Q. For a country man, you sure have a lot of supporters outside of country. How did that come about?
Kirchen: Well, I’ve made my living in the rock ’n’ roll and folk circles, really not so much in the country world, although I always have and always will love and play old-school country music. Our foray into Nashville country came to a screeching halt 40 years ago when we recorded “Everybody’s Doing It Now ….. on Country Casanova,” our third album. Let’s just say we were ahead of our time.
Q. What were your first concerts like?
Kirchen: Totally rocking and fun, but pretty loosey goosey. We made some attempts, perhaps not enough, to tighten up our act as our career moved us further out into the world.
Q. What were your first studio sessions for yourself and please describe your first sessions for others?
Kirchen: Always a learning experience. We cut our first keeper album in San Francisco, 1971, for Paramount records. The first single “Lost In The Ozone” went nowhere, the seconnd one, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” hit the Top 10 in ’72.
Q. What was the most fun you ever had playing on someone else’s album?
Kirchen: Recording with Nick Lowe, the “Impossible Bird” disc. Pretty much live with all of us sitting in a semi-circle in a beautiful old wooden community room in the back of a pub in London, all playing together at a low volume. Nick Lowe’s one of the nicest and smartest guys you could ever meet.
Q. Is there aspects of show biz that you find troublesome, difficult, dull, or dislikeable?
Kirchen: Sure. That’s why I don’t spend much time discussing or worrying about [them].
Q. What is your most creative environment?
Kirchen: On stage live, for playing guitar. Walking my dog, for song writing.
Q. I wonder what an all-star band of people you have worked with be like. Tell me, who would be on the various instruments and vocals.
Kirchen: OK, I’ll throw together an all-star combo, with people that I have worked alongside in the studio or on stage. I’ll call it Bill and the Bragging Rights. Or Wrongs.
Nick Lowe, bass.
Jim Keltner, drums.
Ry Cooder, guitar.
Link Wray, guitar.
Ralph Stanley, banjo.
Flaco Jimenez, accordion.
Elvis Costello, lyricist.
Hoyt Axton, spiritual advisor/bus driver.
Hazel Dickens, Linda Ronstadt and EmmyLou Harris, vocal trio.
Gene Vincent and moi, lead vocals.
What themes and moods come through on your current music?
Kirchen: Big fun, death, love, despair and trucking.
What songs are always in the set list and for what reasons?
Kirchen: “Hot Rod Lincoln” — dance with who [brought] you. I still love the song, against all odds. A Bob Dylan song or two. I saw Dylan 3 times [in] 63-65, including his first electric concert at Newport Folk Festival. It ruined me for normal work.
Do you sometimes extend the song to get in more instrumental vibe?
Kirchen: “Hot Rod Lincoln” is now close to 10 minutes long, on account of the 47 of your favorite guitar hooks that we have generously included.
IF YOU GO
What: Bill Kirchen’s Honky Tonk Holiday
Where: Sellersville Theater, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville.
When: Concert is at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 14. Doors open at 7.
Tickets: $19.50, $30
Info.: Call (215) 257-5808 or check www.st94.com