“I know we turned people on to country music because I hear it all the time from fans; we definitely had our impact. We also had a lot of fun and probably as much success as possible for a band like that.”
Telecaster master Bill Kirchen describes “Hammer Of The Honky-Tonk Gods”, the title song from his new album, as “like a car song, except it’s about a guitar.” But he could just as easily have called it a love song.
It’s about a man and his Fender Tele, and after his twangy intro lick, Bill shouts it out with his usual energy, finesse and good humor. “Well they put six strings on a metal stick/Stuck it on a slab of ash,” he begins. “Sold one to Luther, threw in a pick/Sent him out with Johnny Cash.” The chorus unequivocally avers that said ax “was born at the junction of form and function,” and Kirchen proves it on this song alone by alternating his trademark twang through ringing, jagged and rumbling lines alike.
They have served each other well, Bill Kirchen and the Fender Telecaster, through his tenures as a band member, a solo act and a sideman. As he points out, “I’ve played the same guitar for half a century now. The design hasn’t changed for 60 years. They got it right the first time.”
As a member of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen — the delightfully, messily democratic Ann Arbor/Berkeley band that’s an underappreciated pioneer of the whole Americana/alt-country shebang — he was the instrumental face on the 1972 top-10 pop hit “Hot Rod Lincoln”. Fronting the trio Too Much Fun (named after one of his best-loved Cody tunes) out of Maryland/D.C., he has now racked up seven solo albums, plus a compilation and a joint effort with the Twangbangers. To some, he’s still best known for his work on Brit pop-rocker Nick Lowe’s Party Of One and The Impossible Bird albums and tours (which in turn yielded Live! On The Battlefield). He’s the closest thing to an auteur that the truck-driving song, one of country’s most noble subgenres, has nowadays.
Though his music is invariably pigeonholed as country and rockabilly, it’s actually a mix of those and western swing, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, swamp pop, boogie woogie, jump blues, R&B, Tex-Mex, and even soul sounds, all made of a piece by his huge palette of Tele textures. Kirchen dubbed it “dieselbilly,” a term he “made up so I could play anything I wanted,” though it should be noted that the term bows to both his Tele and trucking fixations, and that Nick Lowe, who used to introduce him from the stage as “Diesel Billy Kirchen,” should also get some credit.
And now Kirchen and his Tele (and a band anchored by Lowe, rather than Too Much Fun) have turned in the most unlikely, but nonetheless one of the most fully realized, albums of his career — and damned if there’s not a single trucking song on it. So what gives, Diesel Billy?
First off, Kirchen hasn’t had a regular band for some time. About three years ago, he and his wife and sometimes songwriting partner Louise moved from the D.C. area to Austin to help take care of her elderly father. Bill used various musicians in Texas, retaining Too Much Fun drummer Jack O’Dell (who’d been with him for ten years) and bassist Johnny Castle (fifteen years) when he returned to his home turf. So for his first album on his new label, Proper American, he was free to essentially reassemble his version of the Impossible Birds band: Lowe on bass, Robert Trehern on drums, and Geraint Watkins and Austin DeLone on keyboards.
Paul Riley, who’d started Proper UK with Malcolm Mills as a reissue label specializing in budget-priced box sets of early American roots music, was the original Birds bassist (Lowe mostly played rhythm guitar), but he became Kirchen’s producer. “In the past, I’d always produced my own records, I think for better and for worse,” Kirchen says. “But now I had a chance to work with these Brits who can play country but aren’t country, and neither am I. I came up through the folk scare, bluegrass, and didn’t know who Hank Williams was until the mid-’60s.
“Nick is a very thoughtful, considered player, and nobody in the room listens as hard to a playback; he added lots of interesting ideas. Bobby, who played with Van Morrison, is a very unusual drummer and very familiar with obscure American music. Geraint is a soulful piano and organ player. And Austin DeLone is my favorite stateside compadre; 90 percent of the time I play as a trio, except when I can get Austin it’s a quartet.”
Some of the songs represent another notable change. Kirchen has usually recorded more outside material (sometimes oldies, sometimes contemporary but obscure) than originals. But this time, responding in his own way to the ever-darkening American social and political landscape, he concentrated on sharpening his songs, which make up nearly half the album.
“I decided to drop the trucker conceit, much as I remain the King of Dieselbilly,” he says. “I didn’t want to get too tied to a genre, and I’ve written a lot of trucking songs to last me, from ‘Semi Truck’ with Cody to ‘Truck Stop At The End Of The World’. That’s still a part of me. But I wanted to get a bigger picture, so I tried to write closer to the bone.”
He succeeded. The somber “Rocks Into Sand”, with its traditional-sounding melody, is doubtless the first Telecaster tone-poem written as a response to controversies over teaching intelligent design in the schools. It’s a far cry from the road rambles, party anthems and honky-tonk mayhem Kirchen is best-known for, but it’s effective.