Artist: Bill Kirchen
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Latest album: The Proper Years (July 24, 2020)
Personal nicknames (or rejected band names): First band name, 1965: The Who Knows Pickers, an acoustic jug band. One gig only, we shared stage with The Iguanas, Jim “Iggy” Osterberg on drums.
Which artist has influenced you the most… and how?
I have to go all the way back to Pete Seeger. I learned my first string instrument, the 5-string banjo, from his instructional book and record, and had lots of his recordings from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. He was an ecstatic singer, very successful and influential songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Soft-spoken on stage, he was most definitely outspoken politically his entire career, always for racial equality, workers rights, and freedom of speech. In the early 1950s McCarthy era, he went up against the powerful but later utterly disgraced House Un-American Activity Committee. He earned himself a career-hijacking blacklist that lasted years by asserting his constitutional rights and refusing to name names and implicate others. He never backed down. His performing career spanned nearly 70 years. I saw him in the mid-’60s many times, then again in the ’90s.
What was the first moment that you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I wanted to be a musician as soon as I figured I could sing a song. I have early memories of being a toddler lumbering around, singing along with my cardboard record (yep, they existed!) of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” At 8 I learned trombone, then played it in orchestras and bands until the mid-’60s folk scare lured me away. As for wanting to be a professional musician, I guess getting my first paying gig in ’64 or ’65 cemented that desire. I certainly never thought, “I’ll just do this for a bit then quit and get a job.”
If you had to write a mission statement for your career, what would it be?
Not clear on the concept here, but it sounds interesting and I’ll give it a try. I certainly never had a mission statement, rather I just got in the canoe and now here I am and where I’ll be next, I don’t know. So here are my suggestions to the young me: Bill! You know you love listening to, singing, whistling music all the time. That’s super important, don’t let go. Learn to play an instrument as soon as they’ll let you, then learn some others. Play with folks, preferably better than you. Take any opportunity you can to go hear live music. Now don’t blow this one: you liked the 1963 Blues at Newport record and Mississippi John Hurt. Well, you are within hitchhiking distance of the ’64 Newport Folk Festival, he’s gonna be there, Dylan too, go do it. Sleep on the beach, whatever, it’ll all work out. Then do the same in ’65, trust me. Many of the extraordinary people you will see will be gone less than 10 years later. Then before the ’60s are over, move away from your Ann Arbor hometown. Try San Francisco. Travel everywhere and play as much you can. Pull up roots and move across country a couple more times, find more kindred spirits and play with them. Just get in the canoe. You’ll be surprised.
What’s the toughest time you ever had writing a song?
The toughest time I always have writing is making myself sit down and do it. I love the process when I get rolling, but I don’t have a burning desire to bare my soul in verse and melody, then buttonhole folks and make ‘em listen. But I enjoy making up my own songs, lots of perspiration plus a little inspiration. Then again I wouldn’t mind just singing Haggard and Dylan songs all day. Couldn’t really ask people to pay for that, I know. As the great Roger Miller said writing a hit song is just like taking candy from a gorilla.
How often do you hide behind a character in a song or use “you” when it’s actually “me”?
I hid behind characters a lot early on. Wrote a lot of truck-driving songs, though I’m not and don’t want to be a truck driver. It was a legitimate sub-genre when I discovered country music, and I do come by a love of the road and travel honestly. As for finger-pointing songs, I’m usually not a big fan. And you know what they say, when I point my finger there are three more pointing back at me. Oops.
I didn’t let myself write songs that were more personal and closer to the bone until I started making records under my own name in the ’90s. When I went to England to record my first record for Proper, Hammer of The Honky-Tonk Gods, it was with Nick Lowe and the band with which we’d recorded and toured the world several years before. Nick is one of my favorite songwriters and I remember thinking, dang, I can’t just show up with a bunch of I’m A Burly Truck Driver songs. I’ve got to get closer to the bone and try a little harder.
Photo credit: Valerie Fremin