Bill Kirchen: Pulling strings, from Haggard to pub rock

Bill Kirchen recently released a new album with pub-rock pioneer Austin de Leone.

Bill Kirchen, a master of the telecaster with a love of rockabilly and honky-tonk bound by the common denominator of twang, is a veteran performer at the National Folk Festival, with past appearances in Butte, Mont. and Lowell, Mass.

The festival’s eclecticism suits his ecumenical approach to music.

“I love those people,” he said during a recent phone interview. “It’s a great operation. I get to hear music that I would never get a chance to hear live.”

Kirchen’s music spans the country end of the San Francisco psychedelic scene in the late ’60s to the pub rock movement in England in the mid-’70s that laid the groundwork for new wave. In the intervening decades he’s established himself as something of an elder statesman of Americana.

Both phases of Kirchen’s career are referenced on TransAtlantica, his collaboration with pub-rock pioneer Austin de Lone that was released by Red House Records on Aug. 25.

“Hounds of the Bakersfield,” the lead track, is tongue-in-cheek tribute to country great Merle Haggard.

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen’s band, relocated from Ann Arbor, Mich. to San Francisco in the late ’60s. While the Bakersfield sound, and Haggard’s music in particular, captured the imagination of many of the San Francisco acts, including the Grateful Dead, Commander Cody more faithfully attempted honky-tonk and boogie-woogie while their contemporaries ventured into psychedelia. The two cultures didn’t always intersect comfortably. Representing a rural, working-class perspective, Haggard mocked his emulators in his hit, “Okie From Muscogee,” singing, “We don’t make a party out of lovin’/ We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo/ We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/ Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.”

Kirchen recalled performing as part of a package show headlined by Haggard in 1971. Commander Cody opened and then backed the rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, who would die a couple months later from a ruptured stomach ulcer.

“Merle Haggard played his hit, which at that time was “Fightin’ Side of Me,” Kirchen recalled. “I always wondered: What made him so angry? I later got a sense of what he was angry about. His anger was directed at kids of privilege, in stark contrast to how he’d come up, thumbing their nose at stuff that they were still taking advantage of.”

Haggard, who died last year, is one of Kirchen’s heroes.

“I’m a great fan of Merle Haggard,” he said. “He wrote songs, played guitar and sang. How much better can you get than that? There will never be another. If he does a song, I’m going to listen to it.”

With the exception of the Haggard-Vincent-Commander Cody bill, there was never again much overlap between the two scenes. Kirchen said Commander Cody played few all-country bills, mostly performing country for rock audiences. In addition to an explosive remake of the 1955 rockabilly classic “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Commander Cody might be best known for the pro-marijuana country tune “Seeds and Stems (Again).”

Notwithstanding their different backgrounds, Kirchen saw a fellow traveler in Haggard.

Bill Kirchen performs on Friday on the Wrangler Stage at 9:15 p.m., Saturday at the Dance Pavilion at 12:30 p.m. and again on the Wrangler Stage at 7:15 p.m. On Sunday, Sept. 11, he shares the Lawn Stage with Super Chikan, Presley Barker, Steve Lewis and Simon Beaudry for the Guitar Traditions session at noon, and closes out at CityStage at 4:30 p.m.

“I always thought it was slightly strange,” he said. “A song like ‘Okie From Muscogee’ — I don’t know what he must have thought when it became a rallying cry. I have a hard time believing they weren’t stoned as rats when they wrote that song.”

Although Kirchen left Commander Cody in the mid-1970s, the influence of the group hopped across the Atlantic when de Lone, an American musician living in England, covered one of their songs, “Home In My Hand,” with his band Eggs Over Easy. Widely regarded as progenitors of pub-rock, Eggs Over Easy has been acknowledged as an influence on Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker.

Kirchen befriended de Lone after founding his second band, the Moonlighters.

“Austin introduced me to Nick Lowe,” Kirchen remembers. “We were invited to England to make the second Moonlighters album. After that, I toured with him, recorded with him. I did a couple Elvis [Costello] shows.”

The transition was seamless, as far as Kirchen is concerned.

“British pub rock was really Eggs Over Easy,” he said. “It was these American musicians with a residency in a pub in London. They were bringing Americana over to England. It wasn’t a big stretch for me. It was one of the building blocks of new wave. Our idea was to play music we loved. When we get together to make a record, it’s more writing for it and collecting songs that we want to do. There’s never an agenda. It’s more just to share our enthusiasm for these songs. Austin and I always felt there’s a very blurry line between soul music and honky-tonk and rock-and-roll.”

As a guitar player who has cultivated roots music for half a century, Kirchen is considered a founding member of the Americana movement, his legacy enshrined in the music of acts ranging from Dave Alvin to Wilco.

“I love it that it rubs off on someone else and they get excited, too,” Kirchen said. “I’ve pretty much been a professional musician for 50 years. I feel extremely lucky to have played with so many people. That’s a lot of interaction I’ve had in this half century. How lucky to do something that I love and it’s my vocation. If other people are inspired by it and want to do it, that’s even better. Many of them have surpassed me in fame and fortune. I love it.”