Bill Kirchen has been called the King of Dieselbilly, the Titan of the Telecaster and the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods. His music straddles several genres — truck-driving music, Americana, country, rockabilly — but he sums it up as roots music.
"I don't know what to call it," he tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Lynn Neary. "That's other people's jobs. I just play. You figure it out."
Kirchen started out playing classical trombone, but says the folk scene of the 1960s took hold of him. He once hitchhiked to the Newport Folk Festival.
"I saw all the great bluesmen, like Skip James and Son House, and all the youngsters playing music like the Kweskin Jug Band and ... Maria Muldaur," he says. "That was the music [that got me going]. I didn't really start playing rock 'n' roll and electric until years later."
After taking up rock 'n' roll, Kirchen joined Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, his first foray into a nationally recognized band. He says it started out as a fun art-rock project.
"We were mining boogie-woogie from the '40s, hard blood-and-guts country from the '50s ... writing our own material and playing rock 'n' roll and rockabilly," Kirchen says. "And so we were doing a lot of things, which came to be known later as roots music."
Commander Cody, Maria Muldaur and Elvis Costello are among a cast of guest musicians who appear on Kirchen's latest record, titled Word to the Wise.
"I went and looked up many people who I had worked with, but also who were important to me when I was first coming up," Kirchen says.
Also featured on the album is Kirchen's trusty Fender Telecaster guitar, which he's been playing for more than 40 years.