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Dieselbilly: Bill Kirchen, a master of the telecaster

by John Adamian

@johnradmian

The Fender Telecaster may not be the most complicated instrument. But players like Bill Kirchen make the most of the guitar, exploring rarely traveled regions of twang and metallic brightness. His playing gleams like a well-polished engine, and it moves with its own internalcombustion. Kirchner seems capable of squeezing out a rainbow of sounds from the Tele, with its rudimentary construction and limited tone-switch options.

“The Telecaster offers on the small end of the amount of coloration available to you,” says Kirchen. “Make no mistake, there’s an infinite number of sounds that can come out of that thing.”

Kirchen was a core member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a pioneering country-rock band steeped in boogie-woogie, honky-tonk and western swing, long before Americana and roots music became tags and genres unto themselves. Bringing about a half-century’s worth of playing experience and a wide-scope sense of musical history (just listen to the dizzying music-medley portion of his “Hot Rod Lincoln” for a taste of his encyclopedic country/rock/surf/blues/jazz/soul mimicry skills). Kirchen will play four sets at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, which runs from Friday, Sept. 9 through Sunday, Sept. 11. Kirchen plays at different times and on different stages each day.

Fans of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, or of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, NRBQ, the Grateful Dead, Kinky Friedman, and the Byrds of the Gram Parsons era, will know that something peculiar was brewing in American rock in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The counter-culture may have been anti-authoritarian and all about upending long-cherished traditions about sex, drugs, jobs, clothing, faith, family and every other institution. But at the same time, there was a strain of the youth movement that was fixated on excavating facets of American culture and reembracing them with a twist. That’s one way of understanding what you might call the long relationship between hippies and truckers, or hippies and farmers, or hippies and hicks. If it hasn’t always been exactly symbiotic, at least the countercultural carpetbaggers were often admiring of the can-do spirit, the way with a tune and the fatalistic humor that the country crowd seemed to possess.

The longhaired hippies in the Bay Area, where Commander Cody and crew thrived, sometimes had to demonstrate their earnest respect for country music and its related tangents. They did that by playing it with skill.

“We loved this music,” says Kirchen. “I really got turned on to it through the back door of folk music — electric country and honky tonk, and rockabilly — I really didn’t know that much about.”

Kirchen grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a university town where there was a thriving folk scene on campus. And the folk revival from the early ’50s carried through to the early ’60s, with college students eagerly learning Delta blues styles and old time music from North Carolina and Virginia. The leap to contemporary country wasn’t a big one.

“I think at some point in your life you’re looking for adult themes and you’re looking for something with some more depth of emotion,” says Kirchen. “I embraced [country music and honky-tonk] for what it was. It was just a whole new form of expression.”

The trick — for those embracing tradition from outside that tradition — was to do it without seeming to be making fun of or mocking anyone. Even though humor and self-aware exaggeration is part of the classic country aesthetic.

“What I hope we didn’t do, and what I didn’t like in other places, is we didn’t present it too smirky, we didn’t want it to be too arch,” says Kirchen.

Over the years, Kirchen has been identified as the creator of a sound known as dieselbilly. It’s a fossil-fuel-burning, twagcentric Telecaster sound, a biting and clean tone with a manic attitude toward the open highway and vehicular mobility. It’s the got-to-ramble vibe of the blues grafted onto a caffeinated and turbocharged trucker country rootstock. You can hear the connection to Red Simpson, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

Kirchen has worked with all kinds of giants from inside and outside the country world. He’s played with Gene Vincent, Link Wray, Elvis Costello and many others. He’s worked with Nick Lowe as well. And just last week Kirchen released a collaborative record, Transatlanticana, with Austin de Lone of the somewhat obscure but hugely influential band Eggs Over Easy, an American band that lit a spark in the British pub-rock scene in the ’70s, with a no-nonsense thrust that would eventually inspire punk.

The set that Kirchen will play in Greensboro will pay homage to the idea that this is a music with its own culture and history. It’s music that’s part of the swirl of American history, the migration west, the creation of the interstate highway system and the age of the automobile. If we now look back on songs about railroads with a sense of nostalgia over vanished ways of life, we may — with the foreseeable arrival of driverless-vehicles and drone transport — one day view the whole genre of trucker country as a relic of the past. But Kirchner is a loud and clear connection to it.

“I’m gonna approach this more as a folk set, which doesn’t mean we won’t rock,” says Kirchen with regard to his thoughts on the upcoming show. “I’m gonna try to present the traditions. And the traditions in this case are honky-tonk and West Coast rock and roll.”

Kirchner’s hopped-up sound will fit right in with the scope of the wide-ranging festival.

“I’m a folkie, I just play a little bit louder,” says Kirchen. “Too loud and too fast.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

Bill Kirchen plays the National Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro. Kirchen will perform four times over the course of the three-day festival. He plays Friday, Sept. 9 at 9:15 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 11 at 12 p.m. and again at 4:30 p.m.

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