Upon tallying how many decades he’s worked as a professional guitar slinger, Telecaster master Bill Kirchen quips, “Well, they don't make 50 years like they used to.” They don’t often make careers like his, either.
From performing with his Who Knows Pickers jug band in Ann Arbor High School’s senior talent show (also on the program: the future Iggy Pop), to birthing the Americana genre with the original “hippie country band,” Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, this affable Austinite has been everywhere, man, flying alongside some of the planet’s coolest cats — including the Jesus of Cool, Nick Lowe, and Lowe’s old protégé, Elvis Costello.
Kirchen has toured the world with Lowe, who produced an album by Kirchen’s post-Airmen band, the Moonlighters, and Costello recruited Kirchen for high-profile gigs like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival — and even named his festival band after Kirchen’s Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods album. Lowe appears on that 2006 album, and its 2010 follow-up, Word to the Wise, along with Costello, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks and other luminaries.
Kirchen’s right-place-at-the-right-time career has put him at the forefront of many musical movements, including outlaw country; Commander Cody’s 1974 album, Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas, recorded at Austin’s legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, made Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of All Time list.
Just another twist in an incredible career trajectory was set in motion, according to Kirchen, by two pivotal events: the 1964 and ’65 Newport Folk Festivals. As a high-school kid on a quest to catch Mississippi John Hurt, he thumbed to the first one, then went back the following year — and witnessed Dylan going electric. “That pretty well blew away the competition for what I was going to do before, or if, or when I grew up,” he says of those experiences.
Kirchen has shared a bill with John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder, when Commander Cody and the Airmen, who’d formed in Ann Arbor, played a benefit for Sinclair after he got 10 years for two joints. A mere 50 years later, Kirchen’s still having a blast. He’s even planning another tour with Riley and Mills. But releasing this package, he says, “nicely puts a bow on a whole, very enjoyable period of my life.”