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On The String: Bill Kirchen’s Hot Rod Career

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Bill Kirchen’s big 35-song box set from his years on Proper Records opens with a song not about his journey or his outlook on life but about the tool he’s taken to work for fifty years. The Fender Telecaster, he sings, was “born at the junction of form and function, it’s the hammer of the honky tonk gods.” No other single track could teach you more about Kirchen’s inspired career. He’s a witty songwriter, a virtuoso picker and a larger-than-life showman.

Twang is an exemplar of onomatopoeia, a sound word with a silvery metallic timbre, a crisp attack and a bluesy slur. It can be achieved in a variety of ways, but it comes baked into the wire and wood of the Telecaster, an electric guitar first issued in 1950 and sold to this day with no major redesigns. Kirchen observes in Episode 162 of The String that he was born about the same time as his favorite guitar, so maybe that’s one more reason he forged a bond with it during his formative years as a professional musician.

“I got a crash course in actual country music which somehow was really being ignored by the folk world back then,” says Kirchen of his teen years in Ann Arbor, MI in the 1960s. “And the stuff that for some reason talked to me most were the records coming out of Bakersfield, in particular Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Red Simpson.” Those were the singers anyway, but Kirchen had his ear cocked to their lead guitars, of Don Rich with Owens and Roy Nichols with Haggard and the others. “All of them were Tele men,” he says. “And so that's what got me, and that's the noise I liked.”

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At a time before hippies were supposed to like hard core country music, Kirchen went all in. His friend George Frayne took on a stage persona and they formed Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen in 1967. After a bit of local burnout and near dissolution, Kirchen saved the band by convincing the guys to move to San Francisco in ‘69, where they found a rock audience ever more enamored of country and bluegrass. Cody and co. super-charged their cult following with a move to Austin a couple years after that, where they became a staple of the iconic Armadillo World Headquarters in the age when Willie Nelson returned to Texas and worked on the foundations of Americana music. Despite hassles from their label to join the soft rock parade a la The Eagles, the Airmen producing some solid studio albums and an epic live album from Texas, where Kirchen’s early mastery of tone, speed, harmony and phrasing are apparent.

Also there on the live album is the Airmen’s one and only hit, a reworking of a rockabilly song that had bounced around since 1955 and that made its way to Kirchen by way of Johnny Bond. “Hot Rod Lincoln” is a dramatic tale of an outlaw road race up Grapevine Hill on a California night. Kirchen took a gimmick in the song that used guitar to imitate car horns and built on it, working in a litany of guitar licks he’d learned from all his heroes from Bakersfield and beyond: Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Duane Eddy, and on and on. It’s a tour-de-force on stage where the band has to keep up over the better part of ten minutes. A studio version is on the new Proper Years collection.

“So, it just came organically,” Kirchen says of what’s become his signature song. “I think that's one of the nice things about it. It was contrived, but it was contrived in real time in front of (an audience). I was trying to crack up the band, and if you crack up the band, you crack up the audience, and it's beautiful.”

In the hour, we also get into Kirchen’s long working relationship with intellectual British pub rocker and master record producer Nick Lowe (who’s on the Proper Years collection singing a magisterial version of Merle Haggard’s “Shelly’s Winter Love), his friendship with the tragic genius Danny Gatton and the time on Proper Records in the 2000s that gave rise to the new box set. Reached at home in Austin during the fatal blizzard of February, I found a 74-year-old artist waiting it all out with boundless good humor, a terrific memory and ample reserves of twang for whatever comes next.