Best known to baby boomers as the lead guitarist for the eclectic hippie-era aggregation Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Bill Kirchen became one of roots music's premier artists during the 1990s. Playing a mix of rockabilly, R&B, and Bakersfield twang, the Michigan native became a 50-time Washington Area Music Award (Wammie)-winning favorite in the D.C. area before he moved to Texas in 2004. In the process, he fought off substance abuse and smoking-related illness and reached an exciting new level as a songwriter and guitarist.
Bill Kirchen grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his parents were classical music buffs. His first instrument was the trombone, and he attended the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan during the early 1960s. There he was first exposed to the rhythmic joys of folk music by cabin counselor Dave Sigland, who showed Kirchen his first guitar chords. Once home, the youngster took up the banjo, later switching to guitar in 1964.
Influenced by Newport Festival
In both 1964 and 1965, Kirchen attended the renowned Newport Folk Festival. "If I had to put my finger on life changing experiences, that's right up there at the top of the list," Kirchen said in an interview. "I was lucky enough to hear music from people who by and large hadn't spent a lot of time away from their little regions…. Specifically old-timey and what became known as bluegrass music from southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, Kentucky. I saw the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, the Lilly Brothers from West Virginia…. I saw blues singers from the Delta, Son House, Robert Pete Williams, Rev. Robert Wilkins…. I saw Mississippi John Hurt. I saw gospel music like the Georgia Sea Island Singers, weird gospel choral stuff. All these things that would be over within a decade." Kirchen also saw one of the greatest stars of the1960s at a pivotal turning point in his career. "[Bob] Dylan going electric had a big effect on me," Kirchen recalled. "I don't remember him being booed at all at Newport. I never could figure out what people were talking about."
Spurred on by his Newport experiences, Kirchen assembled his first group for a high school talent show. "We had a jugband I called The Who Knows Pickers," laughed the singer-songwriter. "In the yearbook they missed out on my whole pun and they put it as The New Nose Pickers." After graduation the aspiring musician hitchhiked with friends to San Francisco, where various acts appearing at the famed Avalon Ballroom inspired them to form their own band. Unfortunately, while train-hopping home, Kirchen's foot was run over by a freight car's wheel and "It broke three of my toes in two places each and squashed my foot open like a sausage, so I had to spend the day there getting stitched up and then sent home. But we came home and started a band called The Seventh Seal."
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
The Seventh Seal, which included bassist Ron Miller, drummer Steve Elliot, pianist Andy Sacks, and a revolving door of other local musicians, played in the Ann Arbor area while Kirchen made a half-hearted attempt at furthering his education at the University of Michigan. The Seventh Seal was floundering, and so was Kirchen's grade point average, when he ran into fellow student George Frayne, who would soon be known as Commander Cody. Kirchen was thrilled to absorb fresh influences. "I got a crash course in country music," he recalled. "Billy C. Farlow had a tremendous Hank Williams collection…. John Tichy brought the Buck [Owens] and the Merle [Haggard] to the party I think…. [and] we discovered a Bob Wills album in a record cut-out bin."
With characteristic humor, Kirchen recalled the initial appeal of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. "The nice thing about the Cody band? If there was an advantage to those days of overindulgence and no business plan, it allowed some interesting creative things to crop up unencumbered by any common sense or practicality. One interesting thing was, we had four totally different front men. Three of us sang. Tichy, Billy C. and myself. The Commander would get up and do the talking stuff. Everybody just really sang whatever they wanted to…. We had an authentic Alabama hillbilly in the form of Billy C. Farlow, but he had moved to Detroit and became a harp-playing bluesman. He not only could sing Hank Williams but he was very familiar with stuff by Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. He was a grand harp player and blues singer. Cody had inexplicably become a tremendous boogie-woogie player. So, we had that catalog working for us there. Then we had me, the town hippie who came up through the folk thing, but I took a shine to the weepers."
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Lost Planet Airmen exposed college audiences to a thrilling mix of rock, boogie, blues, and country music with an ironic twist. In the process they became a hot live act that attracted a contract from Paramount Records. "The first record we put out was 'Lost in the Ozone," laughed Kirchen. "We thought that was the greatest idea…. So, we put that out and needless to say it sank like a stone. Then, the record company said, 'We think this "Hot Rod Lincoln" might have a chance.'… So, we put it out. I don't remember us thinking it had a chance at all, but once you put out a hit record, it always seems easy. I think we were always slightly surprised and disappointed that we didn't have another one. We thought, 'This is a piece of cake. Every other record you put out is a big smash hit.'" However, their cover of the Charlie Ryan-originated Johnny Bond hit "Hot Rod Lincoln" was to be the group's only top ten record. After several albums for Paramount and Warner Brothers, the break-up of the original lineup proved inevitable.
For the Record …
Born on June 29, 1948, in Ann Arbor, MI; son of Calvin (a statistician and Ford plant worker) and Chestine (an English teacher) Kirchen; married Louise Kirchen, 1974; children: Julia Ann Kirchen.
Started folk-rock band The Who Knows Pickers, 1965; helped form psychedelic folk-rock combo the Seventh Seal, 1966; along with George Frayne, John Tichy, and Billy C. Farlow, helped form Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, 1967; band signed with Paramount Records and scored top ten "Hot Rod Lincoln," 1971; recorded extensively for Paramount and Warner; original Lost Planet Airmen disbanded; Kirchen joined reunion albums and tours, 1976; joined Austin DeLone and Nick Lowe-led pub rock band The Moonlighters, 1977-84; toured with Nick Lowe, worked as producer/session man on various projects, 1985-93; recorded first solo album, Tombstone Every Mile, for Elvis Costello's Demon label, later leased to Blacktop Records, 1994; signed with Hightone records, 1996; recorded Diesel-billy Road Trip for Cracker Barrel, 2003.
Awards: Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies): Best Country/Roots Rock Male Vocalist, 1991; Best Country Male Vocalist, 1993-96; Best Country Male Instrumentalist, 1994-96; Best Country Recording, Best Roots Rock/Traditional Recording, and Best Debut Recording for Tombstone Every Mile, 1994; Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Male Vocalist, 1994, 1996, 1997; Musician of the Year, 1994, 1996; Best Country Recording, Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Recording, and Best Record Design for Have Love, Will Travel, 1996; Songwriter of the Year, 1996; Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Instrumentalist, 1997; inducted into the Washington Area Music Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Hightone Records, 220 4th St. #101, Oakland, CA 94607, website: http://www.hightone.com. Management—Louise Kirchen, P.O. Box 1618, Manchaca, TX 79652, phone: (512) 295-7928, e-mail: [email protected] Website—Bill Kirchen Official Website: http://www.bill kirchen.com.
Yet Kirchen, who would rejoin the band for periodic reunion tours and albums in succeeding years, is proud of the Lost Planet Airmen's impact on musical tastes. "We did kind of predate any other rockabilly revival that I'm aware of. I think we sold more Merle Haggard, Gene Vincent, and Bob Wills records than we did Cody records. Perhaps that's how it should be."
Started Solo Career
During his days with the Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen had begun tinkering with a new band, The Moonlighters. "We started out literally moonlighting from Cody," explained Kirchen. "The band progressed from a 7-piece western swing band—we put out one album on the Amherst label—then me and the drummer stuck with it and began working with Audie De Lone and turning it into a 4-piece skinny tie [new wave/pub rock] band."
One of the band's biggest fans was English pub-rocker Nick Lowe, then with the Dave Edmunds-led Rockpile. After the break-up of Rockpile, Lowe produced the Moonlighter's second album and cemented a friendship with Kirchen. "When that got done, I sort of stayed in touch with him and got myself on The Party of One, his last Warner Brothers record," explained Kirchen. "Then, I was in England working with my band and he came out to see us and I got hired on as his guitar player. Through him I met Elvis Costello."
Kirchen's first solo album, Tombstone Every Mile, was released on Costello's Demon label, and the highly regarded mix of roots rock and hardcore country was picked up by Black Top Records in America, setting the stylistic tone for future releases. Having already moved to the Washington, D.C., area, Kirchen and his band Too Much Fun became a continuing presence at the Washington Area Music Awards, eventually winning 50 Wammies. During the neo-traditional independent country boom of the 1990s, Kirchen's albums for Black Top and Hightone earned him legions of new fans and reinvigorated the old Commander Cody crowd. He did it all without label interference of any kind. Kirchen explained, "I intentionally told both Black Top and High-tone that I would be delivering an album and they never tried to tell me what to do. They'd give me some money and I'd give them a record, then they'd give me the rest of the money. That's how it worked…. I also [tried] to surround myself with people who are good at what they do."
Clean and Sober
Although he still plays shows in bars, Kirchen himself is no longer a drinker or substance abuser. "I had to come to terms with that early or get a new career," he recalled. "I don't have a big beef with booze. I have a big beef with booze and me." The singer-songwriter cleaned up his act in 1984, and though issues with his lungs dictate that Kirchen perform in smoke-free environments, he has remained at the top of his game creatively and technically. In 1997 Guitar Player magazine named him one of the "Titans of the Telecaster" for his sharp work on the instrument. Moreover, he has been able to turn his musical endeavors into a family business. Louise, his wife of more than 30 years, wrote most of the songs on 1995's Raise a Ruckus, and has been his manager during his comeback years, winning a Wammie for her work.
Hightone's fortunes were sinking fast, but Kirchen's 2003 album Dieselbilly Road Trip was funded by the National Council for Traditional Arts and sold with great success through the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. "I covered a lot of place name songs," explained Kirchen about the disc's concept. "'8 More Miles to Louisville,' 'Streets of Baltimore,' 'Pittsburgh Steelers,' 'Hollywood City,' and 'Midnight in Memphis.'"
When asked about the difference between running with a successful big label group and maintaining an independent label career, Kirchen is reflective, yet proud. "One thing is the fact that I have to be conscious of the business end of things. The good side of that is that it's a tangible thing to me…. That's great because before I was so insulated from all that…. Now, I'm involved with every aspect and I love that.
Still touring the world from his new base in Texas, Kirchen remains pluckishly philosophical about making music for a living. "It's my vocation, my avocation, and my social life. It's also been the horse I rode on my descent into alcoholism and it was the same horse I rode coming back out of it. It's just been there, it's been my whole thing…."
Tombstone Every Mile, Black Top, 1994.
Have Love, Will Travel!, Black Top, 1996.
Hot Rod Lincoln Live!, Hightone, 1997.
Big Hat, Hightone, 1999.
Raise a Ruckus, Hightone, 1999.
Tied to the Wheel, Hightone, 2001.
Dieselbilly Road Trip, Cracker Barrel, 2003.
With Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
Lost in the Ozone, Paramount, 1971, MCA, 1992.
Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers' Favorites, Paramount, 1972.
Country Casanova, Paramount, 1973.
Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas, Paramount, 1974; reissued, MCA, 1992.
Lost in Space, Relix, 1975.
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Warner Bros., 1975; reissued, Wounded Bird, 2003.
Tales from the Ozone, Warner Bros., 1975; reissued, Wounded Bird, 2003.
We've Got a Live One Here, Warner Bros., 1976.
Lose It Tonight, Line, 1980.
Let's Rock, Blind Pig, 1986.
Sleazy Roadside Stories, Castle, 1988.
Aces High, Relix, 1990.
Bar Room Classics, Aim, 1994.
Tour From Hell (1973), Aim, 1996.
Best of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Akarma, 2002.
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen (live), Silverline, 2003.
With The Moonlighters
Moonlighters, Amherst, 1977.
Rush Hour, Demon, 1983; reissued, Diablo, 1995.
Midnight in Memphis, Amherst, 1999.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative CountryMusic Guide & Directory, Dowling Press, 1999.
McCloud, Barry Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigree, 1995.
Brutarian Quarterly, #40, Winter 2003.
"Bill Kirchen," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 26, 2004).
Bill Kirchen Official Website, http://www.billkirchen.com (June 26, 2004).
"Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen," All MusicGuide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 26, 2004).
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen Official Website, http://www.commandercody.com (June 26, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from an interview with Bill Kirchen in May of 2003, from which all quotations were drawn.
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