The “Titan Of The Telecaster” Meets “The Sultan Of Sardonic”

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Grammy-nominated guitarist, singer and songwriter Bill Kirchen, best known for his "Hot Rod Lincoln" licks with Commander Cody’s band and his work with Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris, returns to the Ohio Valley in early May for a series of concerts with Parkersburg’s own Todd Burge

Burge, who Larry Groce (host of NPR’s Mountain Stage) calls "the dean of West Virginia songwriters," talked with WOUB’s Mark Hellenberg about their upcoming dates (check out the audio above for a recent interview with Bill Kirchen).

MH: You have a string of gigs and workshops coming up in May with the great guitarist, Bill Kirchen. The performances are billed as "a handful of evenings full of twisted stories and distraction-packed folk-rock-a-country-twang-a-billy." I figured you wrote that.

TB: You figured right, I did write that blurb. We'll mostly be playing together as a duo. Some solo stuff too, I'm thinking, but not a whole lot. We've shared a bunch of songs online…about 30 to be exact. So we have a lot to choose from.

We'll start at Rt. 60 Music on Thursday, May 2 in Barboursville W.Va., then Friday, May 3 The Adelphia Music Hall in Marietta. The next day at noon, we'll conduct a free songwriter workshop at the Colony Theatre in Marietta. We'll discuss our songwriting methods and deconstruct a few tunes. I'll tell people how they can write one bad song every day and how that can lead to a good one every once in a while. Later that evening, we'll play the Theatre at the Mon Arts Center in Morgantown, W.Va., and on Sunday we'll play the Kathleen Howland Theatre in Canton, Ohio, with Don Dixon. Don has a music series there. He'll play along with Bill and me on a few songs.

Bill, of course, is known mostly from his days with Commander Cody and more recently his amazing trio, Too Much Fun. This acoustic duo deal he's doing with me gives him the chance to showcase songs that he might not perform with the trio. We're playing listening spaces next week as opposed to rock venues, so I think people are going to see a different side of Kirchen. That being said, a lot of the music we're doing as a duo rocks pretty good, too, and Kirchen and I will certainly do his staple songs. I have some new material that Bill will help me with as well as my usual suspects. I'm really excited when I think about what Kirchen will do on some of my stuff. It'll be a blast.

MH: You guys must have played together in the past and you must be thrilled to do this mini-tour. How did this come about?

TB: We have played here and there in the past. I was showcasing with Tim O'Brien at the Folk Alliance back in 2008. Tim had produced my most recent CD.  At the time, Bill was on Proper Records. Proper had released a CD that O'Brien and I were on entitled Always Lift Him Up: A Tribute to Blind Alfred Reed, so long story short, we were showcasing a bit together. On a cool side-note, Hazel Dickens was there, performing and speaking. She would turn up at my showcases along with Bill and Alice Gerrard. What an audience. It was a real trip getting to know them and sharing music with them. Tim O'Brien has been a great friend to me and my music.

Last year, I showed up at a Bill Kirchen show in St. Mary's W.Va. There's a cool private venue there owned by Nelle and Jeff Howard. They have a barn with a great sound system. There's food and drink and great people who love live music. Bill was playing a show with his wife Louise and I think he had just done a stint at Fur Peace Ranch. He called me up and I played some wooden spoons and harmonica on a few songs. At the end of the night, he said that he'd like to work up some duo stuff and maybe tour. Of course, I was thrilled.

MH: I've interviewed Kirchen a few times in the past and always comes across as the nicest, most humble dude alive. Do you agree?

TB: He is indeed. He's one of those guys that you instantly feel like you know well. I love music trivia and he is a walking encyclopedia of much of the music history I'm drawn to. You feel better after you've been around him.

MH: Bill is known as the "Titan of the Telecaster." How did you get the title "Sultan of Sardonic?"

TB: Well, funny you asked. It's not like I have PR wing here at my world headquarters in Parkersburg. Through the years, my music has been described as "sardonic" from time to time. I can't remember who said it originally, but I encourage the use of it once in a while and it sounded good with "Titan of the Telecaster." Last year I used, "Of all the songwriters in Parkersburg, he's one of them." I love that quote. I made it up.

MH: When Bill performs, he always does his "greatest hit," "Hot Rod Lincoln," where he names a long list of guitarists and amazingly quotes their signature licks. Could you describe Kirchen's playing and songwriting for those unfortunate folks who have not heard his work?

TB: It's hard to describe, but you're right, he goes through about 20 to 30 famous guitarists and imitates their sound and groove. Few musicians have a song that is that recognizable…"Hot Rod Lincoln," I mean. That song alone, when heard live, is like a guitar lesson that combs through 80 years of music in seven minutes. There's a feeling I get when I watch him play guitar: Whether he's playing swing, swamp soul or country twang, I get the feeling that there isn't better music being made on the planet that at particular time. You simply must see it live.

MH: You have a fairly new album and you mentioned that Kirchen has a new release coming out as well.

TB: I do. My latest is Building Characters. I've written around a bunch of fictional characters, including a woman who buries her husband of 35 years in her own flower garden, then waters him daily, telling him to "Grow Up." There's a tune about how Joseph must have felt when Mary said she was with child, without his assistance. A man buys enough Jesus night lights to plug into every receptacle in his house and is blinded by that light. Springtime comes and a hungry squirrel goes crazy and loses his religion while looking for his nuts.

Bill's new CD comes out in two weeks, I think. It's a bunch of favorites from his career, re-recorded by his current band, Too Much Fun.

For more information about the upcoming Kirchen/Burge tour, visit www.toddburge.blogspot.com.