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Bill Kirchen (born June 29, 1948) is an American rockabilly guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was a member of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen from 1967 to the mid-1970s and is known as "The Titan of The Telecaster" for his musical prowess on the guitar.
Kirchen was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut but grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he attended Ann Arbor High School and learned to play the trombone. He met a folksinger named David Siglin and joined the local folk scene. While learning to play banjo and guitar his musical interest began to extend beyond folk music and included the blues and various string bands. During his student days at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Kirchen started a "psycho folk-rock" band and later a country band that included George Frayne and John Tichy which formed the basis for the Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen band.
In 1969, Kirchen took Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen to California and they developed a reputation as musical "outlaws" that were praised by other outlaw musicians and bands like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. Kirchen's band "played a collection of rock 'n' roll, hard-core country, boogie and rockabilly sounds produced in a "high-octane mix" that made them a "happening" group in the San Francisco Bay area.
Kirchen began to develop as guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and performer. He became known for his vocal and guitar work on such songs as "Mama Hated Diesels", "Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues" from the band's albums, Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers' Favorites and Lost in the Ozone. His live performance work was captured on the 1973 album Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas, recorded at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1973. Kirchen's Commander Cody band broke apart in 1976 and he formed a "swing orchestra" called the Moonlighters and began a decades-long collaboration with British musician Nick Lowe. Lowe produced the Moonlighters' second album Rush Hour, and Kirchen toured with Lowe and joined him in the studio from time to time. During this period Kirchen also worked on albums with Elvis Costello, Gene Vincent, and Link Wray.
Around 1986 Kirchen moved to the Washington, D.C. area and formed the band Too Much Fun with Dave Elliot on drums and John Previti on bass. In 1996 the band won ten Washington Area Music Awards including Musician and Songwriter of the Year. Kirchen became a contemporary and associate of many D.C. guitarists such as the late Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan, Link Wray, Tom Principato, Evan Johns, Billy Hancock, Linwood Taylor, Dave Chappell, Jimmy Thackery, the Nighthawks and others who, during this time, forged an elite fraternity of Washington D.C. area roots rock performers.
Kirchen recorded the album Tombstone Every Mile on Demon Records, while in England and then released the recording in the USA after he signed with Black Top Records in 1994. He released the critically acclaimed and musically eclectic album, Have Love, Will Travel in 1996 and Raise a Ruckus on Hightone Records in 1999. Kirchen followed up with more album releases on Hightone Records including Tied to the Wheel in 2001, King of Dieselbilly (2005).
In 2006 Bill kicked off his new deal with Proper Records by recording "Hammer Of The Honky -Tonk Gods" at their London studio. The band on the album was Nick Lowe, Geraint Watkins and Robert Trehern and it was engineered by Paul Riley.
This was followed in 2010 by another album - "Word To The Wise", once again recorded at Proper's studio in London by Paul Riley, with a band comprising Austin De Lone, Jonny Castle and Jack O' Dell. The record featured many guests including: Paul Carrack, Elvis Costello, Commander Cody, Blackie Farrell, Dan Hicks, Nick Lowe, Maria Muldaur and more.
2013 saw the third Proper Records album released - also recorded in London by Paul Riley. The band on "Seeds And Stems" was Jack O'Dell and Maurice Cridlin with guest appearances from Austin De Lone and Jorma Kaukenen among others.
Kirchen is reported to be one of the musicians that pioneered the Americana radio format and is a founding father of the "twangcore movement" which includes Dave Alvin, Wilco and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Kirchen's signature sound has been dubbed "dieselbilly" and incorporates elements of country music, blues, rockabilly, Western swing and boogie-woogie, laced with themes of American truck driving music. Kirchen's work in the early 1970s with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen helped set the stage for the singers like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and other outlaw country bands with his cover of songs like "Seeds And Stems." Kirchen is said to have "one of the most distinctive, pure-Fender Telecaster tone guitar sounds in modern music".
Kirchen was named "The Titan of The Telecaster" by Guitar Player magazine for his musical prowess on the Fender Telecaster guitar. He plays a 1959 model with a maple fretboard and sunburst finish that he acquired in 1967 when he exchanged his Gibson SG with a stranger on a bus.
Kirchen is a father and has been married for more than 25 years. In 2005 he moved to the West Coast and then to Manchaca, Texas. In early 2007 he returned to Maryland, then subsequently moved to Austin, Texas in 2011.
Washington Area Music Awards (Wammies): Best Country/Roots Rock Male Vocalist, 1991; Best Country Male Vocalist, 1993-96; Best Country Male Instrumentalist, 1994-96; Best Country Recording, Best Roots Rock/Traditional Recording, and Best Debut Recording for Tombstone Every Mile, 1994; Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Male Vocalist, 1994, 1996, 1997; Musician of the Year, 1994, 1996; Best Country Recording, Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Recording, and Best Record Design for Have Love, Will Travel, 1996; Songwriter of the Year, 1996; Best Roots Rock/Traditional R&B Instrumentalist, 1997; inducted into the Washington Area Music Hall of Fame, 2001.