Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Guitarist and songwriter Bill Kirchen is a lanky guy with a shock of white hair and a ready laugh. He carries his guitar with the ease of someone who hasn't been separated from it too much over the last 40 years.

Kirchen has played music all his life, from classical as a kid to folk in the '60s. He got his first national exposure as a founding member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

(Soundbite of song, "There's a Riot Going on")

COMMANDER CODY & HIS LOST PLANET AIRMEN (Music Group): (Singing) There's a riot going on up in cell block number nine.

NEARY: On his new CD, "Word to the Wise," Kirchen is joined by some of the many musicians he's worked with over the years, including Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, and of course, Commander Cody.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Work That Cheap")

Mr. BILL KIRCHEN (Musician): (Singing) So I made it back home for the big inaugurama. I had to play my record for my man Obama. I blew right by the Secret Service. I said, put that thing away, man, your making me nervous.

NEARY: Bill Kirchen joins us now with his guitar.

So good to have you with us.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Well, it's good to be here, Lynn. Thank you.

NEARY: Now, I understand you're called the King of Dieselbilly. What exactly is dieselbilly?

Mr. KIRCHEN: Well, I really made that up just so I could have my very own genre I wouldn't have to share with anyone else. Now, at one point, I first got into country music back in the '60s, there was a sort of legitimate form, truck driving songs. And for some reason, I took a liking to them, and they had a guitar sound that attracted me that I got into.

So at one point, more of just as a joke if any - that I started calling what I played dieselbilly, figuring if I had my own genre, anything I played would be legitimate dieselbilly, so...

NEARY: Well, there's one example from the new CD that I wanted to play called "Bump Wood."

Mr. KIRCHEN: Right.

NEARY: And I was listening to that song in Calvert County, Maryland, which I understand is where you live.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Exactly, yeah.

NEARY: Driving along on a country road, and I have to say, this was just the right thing to be listening to.

Mr. KIRCHEN: True. It's a good-to-be-alive song.

(Soundbite of song, "Bump Wood")

Mr. KIRCHEN: (Singing) If I could stretch a dollar like I stretched that cent I would have all the money that I already spent. If I had the money, I'd spread it all around 'cause it don't mean nothing when I'm layin' in the ground. I'm layin' in the ground, when I'm layin' in the ground. And I know in the morning that it's gonna be good when I stick out my elbows and they don't bump wood. They don't bump wood.

NEARY: Now, if you can listen to that song without bouncing your head up and down, then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRCHEN: Even I was bouncing up and down, and I've heard it before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: So you called that a good-to-be-alive song.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Yeah.

NEARY: Is that just because of the way it makes you feel or does it go beyond that or...

Mr. KIRCHEN: Well, it's what it's about, really. It's about writing I wrote it with the idea of, hey, I like it here, you know.

NEARY: You like it here on Earth.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Exactly.

NEARY: And you want to continue to be here.

Mr. KIRCHEN: In this neat suit that I've been issued, yeah. Just fine with me.

NEARY: So what are your roots? Are your roots country, are they blues?

Mr. KIRCHEN: I started out being a classical musician and hearing the pop music of the day. But I really didn't start playing until I got caught up in the big folk scare in the mid-'60s.

NEARY: The folk scare?

Mr. KIRCHEN: The folk scare whoa, what's this? But I would hitchhike to New York City into the Newport Folk Festival...

NEARY: Oh, yeah.

Mr. KIRCHEN: ...in 1964 and '65, and I saw all the great bluesmen like Skip James and Son House. And that was the music that I got going on. I really didn't start playing rock and roll in electric until a couple years later. And then I got a crash course in Western swing and country at that point when I started Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, we started that band.

NEARY: That's really where your career began, isn't it?

Mr. KIRCHEN: That's where my national career began, absolutely.

NEARY: All right, tell me a little bit about that, playing with Commander Cody.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Well, we were it started out almost as a - just a fun band. There was a floating membership and there were dancing girls, and it was kind an art rock thing. But we were mining boogie-woogie from the '40s, hard blood and guts country from the '50s, Hank Williams songs and whatnot, writing our own material. And so we were doing a lot of kind of things, which came to be known later as roots music. But we were playing them for rock and roll audiences in the '60s and '70s.

NEARY: Did you ever did you start playing trombone before you played guitar?

Mr. KIRCHEN: Yeah. I was a classical trombone player in - through junior high and part of high school until I got seduced by the banjo and guitar.

NEARY: And I know that you said that you really got into the folk music...

Mr. KIRCHEN: Yeah.

NEARY: ...but did you ever think about going into pure blues or jazz? Where you headed in that direction at all, or...

Mr. KIRCHEN: Well, to be honest with you, I never this wasn't a thought-out career. It's like the next thing I know, like, whoa, I've been a musician for 40 years now. And so it's hard for me to think back and think where the forks in the road were.

But I've really just been lucky enough to play the music that really struck me.

NEARY: All right. I wanted to play a track from the CD. This is one that I think you wrote for Elvis Costello. It's called "Man in the Bottom of the Well."

(Soundbite of song, "Man in the Bottom of the Well")

Mr. ELVIS COSTELLO and Mr. KIRCHEN: (Singing) I spend my time thinking about the tales he's got to tell. There's a man in the bottom of the well. Don't go there for water you might walk away as dry as dust and bone.

NEARY: So that is Elvis Costello...

Mr. KIRCHEN: Yeah.

NEARY: ...singing with you. And did you write that with him in mind?

Mr. KIRCHEN: I really did not write it with him in mind, but I picked it for him. I was I wanted a song for him to really sink his teeth into, and I thought somehow that reminded me of him and sort of the emotional intensity that he's capable of delivering.

NEARY: So, you know, over the years, you have earned some very lofty titles.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Oh, my goodness.

NEARY: Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Titan of the Telecaster.

Mr. KIRCHEN: They say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And I understand you've been using the same Telecaster guitar since 1967?

Mr. KIRCHEN: I think I got it in '69, actually, about 41 years ago. And it was at least 10 years old then. But I did. I managed just the same old guitar. I'm sure it was because back in the day, I had roadies to rescue it for me and put it away every night. But I've been able to take care of it myself now for the last - yeah.

NEARY: Well, is there something special about the sound of that guitar that makes you hold onto it or...

Mr. KIRCHEN: Yeah. Well, I think any guitar has its own voice and especially the good ones, and that was one of the good ones. Even if it's just a plank of wood and a stick and some wires, it's still got character to it, and that was one of the good ones.

NEARY: Yeah. It's not the only guitar you play with.

Mr. KIRCHEN: No. As a matter of fact, I don't have it with me today. It's a - I have a guitar now that I just got yesterday that's made check this out. It's made by Carmen Street Guitars(ph) in the Village, and the neck is from pine taken from the fabulous Chelsea Hotel in Greenwich Village.

NEARY: Well, we're going to have you play that.

Mr. KIRCHEN: All right.

NEARY: But wait. Before we have you play that, I understand something else...

Mr. KIRCHEN: What?

NEARY: ...which is you're a good whistler.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Oh, yeah. I can whistle.

NEARY: Can I hear you whistle something?

(Soundbite of whistling)

NEARY: That's great.

Mr. KIRCHEN: I learned how to whistle walking my dog. As a kid, I'd walk my dog and whistle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRCHEN: What can I tell you?

NEARY: Well, one song that you're really well-known for is "Hot Rod Lincoln," and I was wondering if you could play that for us.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Sure. Why not?

NEARY: Okay. Great.

Mr. KIRCHEN: First off, a little back story on this. We learned this from a Johnny Bond record. And I was pretty new to learning songs off records. And I thought I pretty much nailed it exactly, but I go back now, and it wasn't even close. But I like mine better, and it was originality born of incompetence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Hot Rod Lincoln")

Mr. KIRCHEN: There you have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah, there really is something about your music that makes you want to move, I think. What inspires you when you're writing?

Mr. KIRCHEN: That's a good question. I don't know. Generally I love music, that's one thing. I always have. And sometimes I feel that I just want to go, hey, listen to this, or even if it's a song like a Dylan song I love or whatnot. So for openers, I was a fan, and then I was lucky enough to learn how to play and make my living doing it.

NEARY: That's singer-songwriter and guitarist Bill Kirchen. His new CD is called "Word to the Wise," and he joined me here at our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thanks so much for being here.

Mr. KIRCHEN: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a wonderful experience.

NEARY: All right. Now, maybe you can play something else to say goodbye?

Mr. KIRCHEN: Sure. I'll play a song. Yup.

(Soundbite of song, "Sleepwalk")

NEARY: And this is Bill Kirchen, playing and whistling the 1959 classic, "Sleepwalk."

(Soundbite of song, "Sleepwalk")

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.