Bill Kirchen Opens Up On Road Trip

Renowned among those in the know as one of the progenitors of Americana/country guitar, Bill Kirchen is back on the road promoting his latest project with Austin de Lone.

Kirchen came to prominence with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, where he and his bandmates found a successful blend of country and rock influences to pioneer elements of what would later become “outlaw” country music.

In the ’80s Kirchen was a fixture in the D.C. music scene, working with the likes of Elvis Costello and Link Wray. In 1996 he released Have Love, Will Travel, which earned him a slew of regional awards.

He eventually relocated to Austin, where he has set his roots with his family and now hosts a weekly event at .

Many of Kirchen’s albums in the 2000s, such as King of Dieselbilly  and Tied To The Wheel showcase the genre called “truck-driver music,” and like his highway-riding listeners, Kirchen is still often on the road, despite being 68 years old.

Kirchen and longtime collaborator de Lone released the joint effort Transatlanticana last month and the two recently launched a tour to put the new tunes on display.

In the midst of his tour, the axe-man took some time to chat with Pollstar about the new music, retiring the Telecaster he’s had for 40 years, and what his life is like in Austin.

So you just kicked off the tour in New York last week?

Actually, we started the whole CD release tour in Berkeley [Aug. 26] … at the venerable  which, by coincidence, is where I met my beloved partner in this record, Austin de Lone in 1969, I believe. … I have fond memories in the Bay Area.

You talk about California a lot in the record. The first track on Translatlanticana is a tribute to Merle Haggard, right?

Yeah, it certainly was. You know we wrote that before he passed away, and we thought “You know, what the heck, that can get on there anyway and be thought of as a tribute.”

When I first discovered country music, because I didn’t really grow up with it, I grew up in Michigan, I kinda backed into old-sounding music and folk music and moved onto bluegrass, but once I heard power-chord country music, the stuff that I heard and liked best was that sound in the Bakersfield and West Coast country, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, that kind of stuff. I went mad for that West Coast country sound.

It seems like the new music is a little bit slower with more blues and rock vibes, whereas your previous Dieselbilly stuff is a little bit faster.

Yeah I think Austin comes from a bit more of a blues style, which tends to be slower tempos… you’re absolutely right is the short answer. We definitely access a bluesier side of the music [on this album].

What made you go in that direction?

Well, that’s where Austin’s roots lie. And I like all different kinds of stuff, but he leans more in that direction. … That’s just how we ended up writing the songs we picked. Once again, this wasn’t a conscious decision but once we get done, that’s just sort of the direction we went in.

There’s a rock ’n’ roll song on there, “Oxblood,” it’s flat out rock ’n’ roll, though it’s not a frantic rock ’n’ roll song… I guess the most frenetic we get is on “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

What are the live shows like on this tour? I would imagine fans are are more familiar with the rockabilly songs you’ve played over the years.

Well, we mix it up and people have seen me enough [to know] I’ve been mixing it up all along, so I don’t think anyone is too startled by this mixture. The fact that it leans in one direction, it hasn’t been a problem.

We’re a rock ’n’ roll show essentially, with a lot of other aspects to it. Its not the kind of thing where we tell people, “Quiet, listen to the way we do it.” … But it still works well, it’s still a lively, engaging show.

You’ve been doing this for so long now, but you’re still on the road a lot.

It’s kinda weird isn’t it?

Do you think you’ll ever give up life on the road?

No, I’m not gonna give it up, but at the end of this year I think I’m gonna be a little more careful about how many days in a row I go out. I still enjoy it, but I want to be able to travel with my family more when we travel.

I love being on the road and I love performing, but I don’t really think that I need to do 250 dates a year anymore. I suspect we’ll see somewhat of a slowdown, but they still give us a pretty active schedule, even south of that.

My daughter’s grown, has a couple of kids, we’ve even got grandkids in Texas now, and I don’t wanna miss that, because they get big so fast. I am able to travel with my family, they are going to join me the next time I come to California in October for , all of our wives in the band will be coming, which is a really nice thing to be able to do.

How long have you been married ?

42 years! The woman I married was born on All Saints Day, Nov. 1. I married an angel.

What are your career goals now that you’ve been in the business for nearly 50 years?

My specific goal would be to concentrate on the best quality gigs that I have out there. I also like teaching, I teach at a couple of camps. … But I like my career the way it sits right now. I like what I can do and we’re fairly successful at it. I’m able to make a living and support the family.

I’m not going to challenge the pop market, that’s not gonna happen. You know I’m a 68 year old guy with an interest in music that has already ruffled feathers in the late 60s. … It’s a good world I inhabit and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people who really got into the music business for the love of music, so I feel extremely fortunate in that sense. I’ve got a great record company, Red House here in the States … they’re supportive, and I’ve got a good community of people I get to work with. I just want to fine tune it a little bit, that’s all. I don’t feel a burning drive to be different then I am.

You’ve worked so hard to get where you are, more of the same should feel good.

I still can perform and I’m thankful for that. And music’s the kind of thing – I want to get better, the more you are out there doing it, the more you realize there is so much room for improvement at the craft.

The craft of performing, the craft of writing, there’s miles to go there. I guess I should stress that, I never want to quit writing, and I think I sing better now at 68 than I did at 64 for some reason.

I’m a slow learner, what can I tell you. There’s a lot of room for growth.

What do you want out of life? You want to be engaged in something that’s interesting, rewarding and challenging, and I feel very fortunate to have made that my career.

NPR ran a feature on you in 2010 that mentioned you had been playing the same Telecaster for 40 years. Are you still playing it?

I have to say that’s one is at home now for a variety of reasons. I’ve retired that bad boy really only because I started playing [on] a guitar with a much bigger neck for whatever reason, and it just used to fit me better. Whether my ergonomics are changing or whether I’ve realized I like a bigger neck, I don’t know. … So that one is at home but I put a lot of miles into that thing.

I think my hands have changed a little, certain changes are occurring in my body. … I mean I’m 68 for crying out loud. Something is bound to be different.

Photo: Andrea Legge
A press photo for Bill Kirchen and Austin de Lone.

So you were doing Americana music before it was really a thing.

That’s right. I think that’d be fair to say, we were [one] of the first bands that played we now call Americana. We weren’t genre-specific but we were playing hardcore country, roots rock ’n’ roll, almost like folk music.

[It was] vernacular music, vernacular forms that were designed for dancing and entertainment.

And it wasn’t called Americana. I’ve outlasted quite a few genre distinctions.

Today you can see a number of bands like Mumford and Sons that play what you could call Americana or rock-folk music, and they’ve become some of the biggest acts of the country. What do you think, seeing young people get into this kind of music and putting their own spin on it?

It’s wonderful. I love it. It isn’t up to me to really try to decide where I fit into that.

I’m gonna do what I do and whatever it is people can access, enjoy [from] what I do, its fine. I have [tried] all these years not to try to pigeonhole what other people are doing. I’m not one of these guys that is [up in arms] about the direction country music is in. There are a lot of things I don’t listen to on a daily basis and one of them happens to be modern country, but it’s not because I’m mad at it, I just know genres change and they totally understandably change and they are for different demographics and different people. I don’t happen to listen to much opera but I’m not mad at opera. … There’s people who understand and love it. And I have the utmost respect for these things but I don’t necessarily listen to it.

That being said … the only problem I see is that sometimes the corporate culture, or certain aspects of the business feel the need to make something sound like something else so they can sell it. And that, sometimes, I think, robs the consumer of the ability to hear a broad variety of music because commercial factors are forcing formulas on music that maybe didn’t used to exist. …

But I’m happy about it. I’m not one of these guys who is worried about the state of music. I’m happy … as new bands come in … I see them all over the country. I don’t keep up that well … [but] I’ve certainly heard [Mumford and Sons] and I certainly think they’re great. ….

It’s a healthy thing, I think everything’s OK. [There is] a different delivery system and a different commercial system that it’s not really up to me to worry about, I’m still selling CDs. I have a much bigger percentage of CD sales than a younger band might so I’m not worried about that either.

For awhile you were really embracing that truck driver element of your music, with albums like King of Dieselbilly. Do truck drivers come out to your shows en masse?

Well, there was at one point a legitimate genre in country music that was truck driver music and some of that stuff I like a lot, maybe because I was on the road a lot, I don’t know. I sure didn’t grow up with it. Nor do I have a big interest in trucks, I didn’t drive one or anything. I just sorta like that sound.

But I do get truck drivers at the shows. … And I just did a Sirius XM radio show that reaches a lot of truck drivers. It’s still a viable genre and a viable, paying audience.

So Austin is home now?

Yep, home sweet home. Been there about four years and I’ve been playing in Austin since the early 70s so I had an awful lot of friends in the musical community there already.

Austin is a music town for sure. Is that why you decided to settle there?

No, it wasn’t. One of the reasons is because I had so many friends there [in] music. But I moved there once to take care of my father-in-law. Then my daughter joined us, then we moved to D.C. … Anyway, long story short … we moved there to be close to family.

And it’s turned out to be a very good move all around. Good in the family department and also very good musically. Case in point, this album was recorded with Butch Hancock … [and] Gurf Morlix, who lives in Austin… It’s just a great musical community.

I’m a co-host of a wonderful show with a different guest every week called Mystery Monday [at El Mercado in south Austin] and I co-host it with a woman named 

So you just kicked off the tour in New York last week?

Actually, we started the whole CD release tour in Berkeley [Aug. 26] … at the venerable . … She’s a wonderful songwriter and singer and we get together every Monday and we get to play with all kinds of people from Austin and beyond. It’s a live show every Monday, a two-hour show. It’s a lot of fun.

The show is every week you’re back from touring?

Yeah but I get a lot of Mondays off [after] we play through the weekend. That’s how it started, I was flying home Monday morning from weekend gigs and my wife would pick me up from the airport and we said “Oh let’s go to El Mercado and see who is the guest this week.” And they would eventually drag me up on stage and put me to work.

Anything else you think people should know about the tour or the album?

Hats off to the industry and the audience that have made this career possible for me. I love it and if you come out to see a show, I think you can see why we are still having fun. I hope to see you on the road.

And I think it’s a good record. I’ll go out on a limb and say I, Bill Kirchen, think this is a good record.

Here is the routing for Bill Kirchen and Austin de Lone:

Sept. 9 – Greensboro, N.C., Center City Park (National Folk Festival)
Sept. 10 – Greensboro, N.C., Center City Park (National Folk Festival)
Sept. 11 – Greensboro, N.C., Center City Park (National Folk Festival)
Sept. 15 – Wimberley, Texas, Wimberley United Methodist Church
Sept. 16 – Baton Rouge, La., Red Dragon Listening Room
Sept. 17 – New Orleans, La., Chickie Wah Wah
Sept. 19 – Buffalo, N.Y., Sportsmens Tavern
Sept. 23 – Bordentown, N.J., The Record Collector Store
Sept. 24 – Albany, N.Y., Private Function
Oct. 2 – Occidental, Calif., Private Function
Oct. 8 – Huntington Beach, Calif., Don the Beachcomber
Oct. 28 – Austin, Texas, El Mercado’s Music Lounge
Oct. 29 – Houston, Texas, McGonigel’s Mucky Duck
Oct. 30 – New Braunfels, Texas, Gruene Hall
Nov. 3 – Fairfield, Iowa, The Depot Brewery
Nov. 4 – Minneapolis, Minn., Lee’s Liquor Lounge
Nov. 5 – Berwyn, Ill., FitzGerald’s
Nov. 19 – Bethesda, Md., Private Function
Dec. 2 – Shirley, Mass., Bull Run Restaurant
Dec. 3 – Buffalo, N.Y., Sportsmens Tavern
Dec. 4 – Rochester, N.Y., Lovin’ Cup
Dec. 8 – Philadelphia, Pa., Tin Angel
Dec. 11 – Piermont, N.Y., Turning Point
Dec. 16 – La Salle, Ill., Uptown Grill

Tickets are on sale now. You can learn more about Bill Kirchen at