As in past years, the annual Lowell Folk Festival is an eclectic affair, with Zydeco, Québécois folk, world music and blues among the genres represented. To Bill Kirchen, who performs all three days of the festival, which begins Friday, July 29, this makes complete sense. Years ago at a similar event, he first became aware of broader musical horizons.
“It was a progression from the folk scene, that’s how I started to play music,” said Kirchen as he prepared to teach a class at a college in Georgia. “I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and 1965 and if I could name some specific thing that influenced my musical life, I would say that would be it … it turned me on to a lot of regional music that I discovered all at once.”
A couple of years later, he moved to San Francisco and found the style he would build a career on — “Dieselbilly,” a hybrid of country, blues, rockabilly, swing and truck driving music.
“I met the guys in Commander Cody and got a crash course,” he says. “I got to the party late [and] the stuff that really stuck with me was the hard-core country — Hank Williams, Red Foley, Lefty Frizzell and especially Merle Haggard … I’m still knee deep in that stuff.”
Kirchen is perhaps best known for his stint with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen — that’s his Telecaster mimicking a speeding “Hot Rod Lincoln” and his singing on the neo-country blues “Down to Seeds and Stems Again.”
The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and others were deeply influenced by the same sound, but, Kirchen says, “there was something about our approach that differed from other bands that were mining the country music field. For one, we were somewhat outsiders; we came from a different culture. We were a little bit tongue in cheek, but I think the way we approached music, it wasn’t smirky or an arch kind of thing, we really loved it.”
Fans of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other psychedelic bands welcomed the Cody gang as their own, building a bridge between the counterculture of the time and a period of music many had no idea existed. “It was also a really big band, it was energetic and we were able to get to the heart of that stuff,” Kirchen says. “We weren’t poking fun, we were honoring the tradition.”
When Kirchen began playing rockabilly in earnest, he traded his Gibson Les Paul SG-3 for a Fender Telecaster — according to Wikipedia, with a stranger on a bus. Not true, says Kirchen. “I was a motorcycle messenger [and] Pete Townshend has just come through town with The Who smashing his SG-3 guitar up, which impressed a guy I worked with. I figured out that the guys I listened to, specifically Don Rich and James Burton, all had Telecasters. We just swapped across the board and both walked away happy.”
The Commander Cody band split in 1976, and in the subsequent years Kirchen recorded with his band Too Much Fun and collaborated with other musicians. Many of them contributed to his latest effort, an album of duets called Word to the Wise.
“The requirement was you had to be someone I’d actually worked with — either recorded or performed with, not just knew — and had to be not dead, which cut down the field a little bit,” says Kirchen with a laugh. Appearing on the record were Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks, Elvis Costello, Commander Cody, Rocky Farrell, original Asleep at the Wheel vocalist Kris O’Connell and Norton Buffalo, in one of his final performances — “Valley of the Moon” — a song ironically inspired by going to a friend’s funeral.
Bringing English players who’d adopted the American sound like Costello and Lowe together with longtime friends and partners like Muldaur, Cody and Hicks helped tie together the different phases of his career — the working title, says Kirchen, was “40 Years Without a Day Job.”
“I was a huge Jim Kweskin Jug Band fan, and I got a chance to work with them and Maria, most notably San Quentin Prison one New Year’s Day, and Dan Hicks I was a fan of before I got to California — we did some early shows, so I got to play with him a few times. The English guys, I thought they had their own lovely take on Americana, a great way of assimilating it and kind of honoring it. I met Elvis through Nick and played with him at the Strictly Bluegrass Festival two or three times. Blackie Farrell — I’ve tried to do a song of his on every record I’ve made since the second Cody album.”
“I’m a lucky guy,” Kirchen says. “This record really brought it home to me.”