Smile Politely

Bill Kirchen Wields Hammer at Rose Bowl Tavern Thursday

If the live music at Pygmalion is trending too young and indie-rock for your tastes on Thursday night, there’s a perfect antidote available at the Historic Rose Bowl Tavern: Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly,” will be playing an 8 p.m. show with special guests Dyke and Chrissie Corson. Kirchen is touring in support of his new album, Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods, and tickets are $15 in advance. Kirchen, a legendary guitarist who got his start with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen back in the ‘60s, has played with everyone from Ralph Stanley to Elvis Costello, Doug Sahm to Emmylou Harris.

Kirchen is performing as part of the Whip Music Series (tune in tomorrow for a profile of WWHP in Farmer City). I caught up with Kirchen earlier this week, between days one and two of a three-day gig at Oneida Casino in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The interview is after the jump.

Smile Politely: Where did the term “dieselbilly” come from?

Bill Kirchen: I made it up myself. I was playing truck driving songs, and I decided to make my own genre of music so I could play what the hell I want. I was touring with Nick Lowe, and he’s a proper English gentleman, and he would delight in introducing me in this elegant accent as “Dieselbilly Kirchen.” I used to sing truck driving songs when I was first getting into music, and at that point it was a legitimate subset of country music. I never was a truck driver, but I like doing the songs, and I continued to do more truck-driving music.

SP: How did you get your start in guitar-playing and performing?

BK: I always loved music, and there was a big folk scene in the 60s and I was really attracted to that. I started as a classical musician, and I got more into pop, and I liked the music that I heard. There was acoustic guitar, banjo. I saw Bob Dylan in 1964 and then saw him when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ‘65; those were exciting times. I got into electric music, and before that it was folk-blues. I started a band, and then I joined Commander Cody. We moved to California, and starting in late ‘69 we had a run. We had a hit song on our first album, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and we toured non-stop, 300 shows a year for seven years. I got my education in rock ‘n roll, country, western swing and incorporated them into what I do. I’ve been making records under my own name for 15 years. I’ll be playing a concert with Elvis Costello in San Francisco in two weeks, and after I get off the phone with you I need to learn 20 Elvis Costello songs; some of them are difficult. I mostly do my own thing, I’m extremely fortunate to be able to do this for a living. I like people, and at a show I might meet 5, 10, 15 or 20 people, and that’s fabulous.

SP: Did you know Iggy Pop and Bob Seger personally [growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich.] or did you just go to school with them?

BK: I knew Iggy pretty well. I was friends with Jim Osterberger, who was the drummer in the Stooges, and I saw Iggy’s band, the Iguanas, live. We were both in the Class of ‘65, as was Dan Earlwein, who went on to form the Prime Movers. I knew Ron and Scott Ashton, Dave Alexander. Seger was in the Class of ‘64, and I wasn’t really in the rock ‘n roll scene, I was more in the classical scene as a jazz trombonist. I took my daughter to a Stooges show on their reunion tour last year. Iggy’s a great entertainer. I was at the first Stooges show, Halloween ‘65 I believe. I wasn’t ever in the punk scene myself. The Stooges were almost pre-punk. Nick Lowe produced The Damned’s first album, which could be called the first punk album, and Nick went on to produce Elvis Costello’s first three or four albums.

SP: How did you come to live in Maryland?

BK: I followed the sun to California, and I lived there from ‘68 to ‘86. My wife and I had a kid, and her family’s farm became available in Maryland, and we decided to get out of the hub and the bub. I was working on a national level at the time, so I could work from about anywhere. We’re part of the vibrant Washington, D.C. music scene and I was able to start a whole second career there.

SP: What’s been your best and worst experiences as a performing musician?

BK: I forget most of the worst ones. I quit drinking 25 years ago, and I think the worst shit happened before I quit drinking. I think maybe Keith Richards said that any band in the world has the opportunity to be the best band in the world for one minute if everything clicks. I played the last Led Zeppelin show, and I’ve played shows where the band outnumbered the audience, and it doesn’t really matter, it can still be great. Last night, I was onstage playing for two hours straight, and I didn’t even know that I’d been playing for that long until somebody told me.

SP: How would you describe your live show?

BK: I consider myself more of a visceral performer, not someone who, after the show, someone would say [assumes stuffy academic voice], “He had some interesting ideas.” I like to get people hoppin’. Do you play any musical instruments?

SP: No. I bought a guitar because I thought that holding it would help me meet girls. I met my wife that way, but I never learned to play.

BK: I was on the Garrison Keillor show, and we decided that playing the guitar was a biological imperative to preserve the species. Do you have any kids?

SP: No, you?

BK: I have a 24-year-old daughter who I hope to get up onstage to sing with me on Thursday.

Here’s some video of Bill playing Commander Cody’s hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln”:

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