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Jeff Moehlis: Bill Kirchen’s Hot Rod Guitar

The "Titan of the Telecaster" will perform at the Lobero Theatre

“Titan of the Telecaster” Bill Kirchen will be joined by Texas country singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore for a concert July 29 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
“Titan of the Telecaster” Bill Kirchen will be joined by Texas country singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore for a concert July 29 at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. (Valerie Fremin Photography photo)

Guitarist Bill Kirchen is known as the "Titan of the Telecaster" for good reason. Exhibit A: Check out his smokin' signature tune "Hot Rod Lincoln." It became a Top 10 hit for country rock hippies Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen in 1972, a few years after Kirchen and his bandmates migrated from Ann Arbor, Mich., to the Bay Area.

The Airmen flew their own ways in 1976, and since then Kirchen has recorded and performed in various lineups and styles, from country to rockabilly to Western swing to the catch-all style he calls "dieselbilly."

On July 29, Kirchen will be joined by Texas country singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore for a concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, kicking off the new Sings Like Hell season. Tickets are available online by clicking here.

Kirchen talked to Noozhawk about the upcoming show and his days with Commander Cody.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming show?

Bill Kirchen: I haven't played in Santa Barbara in a number of years. The last time I played probably was at SOhO, or maybe there was an outdoor festival I played at also. Of course, it's one of the most wonderful towns in the world. I used to live in California. I was in the Bay Area, but there are still a lot of people I know in that neck of the woods. I'm delighted to do it.

Plus, it'll be right in the middle of my little tour with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and that's been a delightful thing to experience, working with Jimmie Dale. There's a lot to look forward to. Plus, [Sings Like Hell mastermind] Peggie [Jones] seems like a great person. I just got to know her recently. So the whole thing's lining up great. And we've got Colin Gilmore, Jimmie's son, on the show. What's not to like?

This gig with Jimmie is the best of both worlds in a way. I do what I do solo, but he'll play rhythm with me, and then I get to play as his accompanist and harmony singer, which is a delightful thing. I love Jimmie dearly, and he's a wonderful, wonderful singer and songwriter, and in person and personality. It's a lot of fun.

JM: I want to ask you about the Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen's first album, Lost in the Ozone. What are your reflections on that particular album?

BK: The neat thing about that record was it was composed of stuff we'd learned just because we loved it. We weren't premeditated in the slightest. Everybody brought to the table something they had written or had learned, and we also had time to really settle into it. I like the album a lot in that respect. There were ways in which we were not slicked up very much yet, but that's kind of the charm of it, too.

I think it yielded the only hit we ever had, "Hot Rod Lincoln," and that says something. I still enjoy going back and hearing it. It sounds kind of youthful and charming to me when I listen to it. We were earnest, but that was a good band. It gives me warm fuzzy feelings to hear that stuff.

Good songs, too. A lot of great songs. "Wine Do Yer Stuff" and "Seeds and Stems (Again)" — I didn't write either one of those, but those are fine songs that stand the test of time. I sing them today, you know. They're good tunes. I think "hijack one of those big jet planes" is on there [JM: the song "Back to Tennessee"], and "Hot Rod Lincoln" of course, and I did "Home in My Hand." Yeah, a good record.

JM: "Hot Rod Lincoln" has, I think, become your signature tune now.

BK: I would say so.

JM: I know it's a cover. How did that song come to your attention and get into the catalog of Commander Cody?

BK: I found an album called Johnny Bond's Greatest Hits, I think. It was a cheapie on Capitol, probably — I can't remember the label anymore. It had him doing "Hot Rod Lincoln," which was a cover song we didn't know. Nor did we know it was an answer song to a song called "Hot Rod Race," which we had no idea about. So the words made no sense to us. It starts off, "You all heard the story of the hot rod race." Well, in our case it was like, "No." We didn't even recognize it as such.

So George [Frayne] changed the words all around. I tried to learn the lick as best as I could. Now I realize when I go back and hear it, it's significantly different. I kind of like mine better now, so I always tell people it was originality born out of incompetence. We didn't even get the chords right — it's I-IV-I-V on the record, and we played it I-IV-V. But we did the best we could, and we actually carved something interesting out of it. That song — I love it, and I still do it. I made my own version of it almost by accident, doing the medley of guitar licks in the middle of it. So definitely that song should claim me as a dependent on its income tax return, I'd say. [JM laughs] I've had a good run with that tune.

I learned it because as a guitar player I loved that lick. I'd been trying to play Doc Watson stuff on acoustic, and I really hadn't gotten too far on electric. But that almost required Doc Watson-type flat-picking skills, which I had just started to gain by then. That's why I was able to play it, and that's why I liked it. So we got George to sing it, because it was a talking thing, and he was great at that stuff. I mean, I don't remember him doing anything else like that before then, but we got him to do it and it turned out to be a good idea.

Click here for the full interview with Bill Kirchen.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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