Americana pioneer Bill Kirchen headlines Carrboro's Fourth of July show

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2013 

Bill Kirchen.

COURTESY OF HENRY HUNGERLAND

  • More information

    Who: Bill Kirchen with Great Big Gone, Lockdown Blues Band, Gravy Boys, Village Band

    When: 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

    Where: Carrboro Town Commons

    Cost: free

    Details: carrborojuly4th.com

Bill Kirchen has forgotten more music than most people ever know, and he still remembers plenty. That’s on ample display on “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the hopped-up centerpiece track to Kirchen’s new album “Seeds and Stems” (Proper Records).

Forty years ago, “Hot Rod Lincoln” was a top-10 hit for Kirchen’s old band, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, in which the stinging twang of his Fender Telecaster guitar was a key element. This incarnation features a roll call of several score other artists, with Kirchen and band blazing through signature riffs from Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Merle Haggard, Professor Longhair, Doc Watson, Sex Pistols, the Beatles, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and others, including “The King Family” – Freddy, Albert, B.B., Ben E. and even Billie Jean; Kirchen imitates the plunk of a tennis rally on his guitar.

It’s like a cultural history lesson in under eight minutes. Count on hearing an extended version at Kirchen’s Fourth of July show in Carrboro on Thursday.

“That started out as a joke 12 or 13 years ago, with the riff from Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ and then it was off to the races,” Kirchen says, calling from his home in Austin, Texas, on a rare day off from touring.

“It was something we started and continued for our own amusement; our Wayne Newton climax, as it were. How long it goes on depends on how long-winded I get with the different Kings – Pee Wee, Burger, there are a lot. Maybe it just seems like it goes on for a long time. I doubt we’ve ever gone beyond 15 minutes with it, but I’m sure we’ve farted around with it for 12 minutes or so.”

“Hot Rod Lincoln” is one of 13 tracks on “Seeds and Stems,” which makes a fine retrospective of Kirchen’s career going back to the Commander Cody era. Through the ’70s, Commander Cody was the last word in beer-soaked bar-band blues-rock, drawing equally from rock and country. While “Hot Rod Lincoln” was its only top-10 chart visitation, the band’s influence lives on in the rowdier side of Americana that’s still around today. And in Kirchen’s hands, those songs still sound mighty fine.

“A lot of these songs on ‘Seeds and Stems’ are from the Cody days and they’ve always been an important part of my set,” Kirchen says. “We never stopped doing ‘Semi-Truck,’ ‘Too Much Fun’ and ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’ but those songs weren’t on any of my other in-print albums. So we decided to make a record of it. It was fun to revisit them with this band, which is very tight.”

For the Carrboro show, Kirchen’s band will also feature his main writing partner, pianist Austin de Lone (who doesn’t play many of the band’s live shows), which will add another element to the sound. But it’s mostly about the ever-spry Kirchen’s guitar and indefatigable spirit. At an age when most people ponder retirement – and Kirchen is about to become eligible for Medicare – he’s nowhere near quitting.

“My age is a badge of honor at this point,” he says with a laugh. “I’m turning 65, still on my hind legs and touring, and I’m making a living. I’m not rich but I’m not broke, either, so I’m fine. I’m lucky I can make a living doing something I love, which is to be cherished. Now I have to do a few more dates than I’d like. Being gone a month, home two days and then gone another month is a bit much. That’s touring like a young man, pretty rough. I’d like to be able to pick and choose a bit more, but I don’t want to stop. It’s a great job and a great life.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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