Jun 26, 2017
by Robert Feuer
The song “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a rockabilly hit in 1955 for Charlie Ryan about a San Pedro hot rod race, was taken to #9 on the Billboard charts in 1972 by the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, under the sheer force of co-founder Bill Kirchen’s sizzling guitar work.
Kirchen, born in 1948, later propelled the song into the 21st Century and beyond by creating an elongated version on which he succinctly reproduces the guitar styles of many American heroes. Kirchen, in a recent phone interview, says this developed spontaneously 10-15 years ago, starting as a stage joke. Rolling Stone magazine called it “epic,” and now Kirchen calls this version his trademark and features it in every show. “People want to hear it,” he says. “I need to play it.”
On July 26, at Sebastopol’s Peacetown Summer Concert Series in Ives Park (7400 Willow St, Sebastopol), Kirchen, who embraces rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, Texas Western swing, and California honkytonk, will swap songs with three-time Grammy nomineeJimmie Dale Gilmore, whom Kirchen describes as “having been at the ground floor of the whole Austin roots music/alt-country scene.” Kirchen’s wife, Louise, will add harmonies.
Kirchen, now living in Austin, Texas, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town, though he describes himself as a “townie.” While in high school he discovered folk music. Rescuing his mom’s old banjo from the attic he hitchhiked to 1964’s Newport Folk Festival, meeting the world’s greatest folk and blues players. “I was so green then,” he says.
He met George Frayne while Kirchen’s band played the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and they co-founded Commander Cody in 1967. The band moved to California, and rented a house in Emeryville. Kirchen describes hiring a drive-away car and drilling holes in the floorboard to attach a trailer to transport his records and two motorcycles.
During this time, the band backed up ‘50s rockabilly star Gene Vincent (Be-Bop-a-Lula) at the Oakland Coliseum and Berkeley’s notorious Longbranch Saloon, just before Vincent’s death in 1971. Of Vincent, Kirchen says “He could sing like a bird.”
Post-Commander Cody, Kirchen moved to Glen Ellen, forming the Moonlighters, which included Norton Buffalo. For their first gig they backed upLily Tomlin in 1976 at San Francisco’s Boarding House. A 1983 album release was produced by Nick Lowe in London.
Kirchen played behind Link Wray in the mid-70s, now describing Wray as “super-friendly. He wore sunglasses 24 hours a day.” Playing behind Bo Diddley at a one-off gig, Diddley told Kirchen’s band “Nobody play that Bo Diddley beat but me.”
Guitar Player magazine has named Kirchen a “Titan of the Telecaster” and a Grammy nomination came his way in 2001 for “Poultry in Motion” in the country instrumental category.
He has been part of several college shows on the history of electric guitar in popular music, plus one at the Smithsonian Institution called “Electrified, Amplified, and Deified.” Kirchen remains an integral part of the rise of electric guitar to its dominant role in modern music history.