Checking In: Guitar Hauler Bill Kirchen Pulls Into the Truck Stop at the End of the World

Long-game guitarist keeps twangin’ and sangin’

Despite aid from Paul Carrack, Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, and Butch Hancock, not only can Telecaster tamer and longtime local Bill Kirchen carry a tune, he’s penned as good as he’s picked on new 3-LP compendium The Proper Years. “Bump Wood”: “Then I wake up in the morning, and I know it’s going to be good/ When I stick out my elbows and they don’t bump wood.”

Photo by Valerie Fremin

Austin Chronicle: Where are you sheltering and under what circumstances? Who else is there and how’s that going?

Bill Kirchen: I’m at home in West Oak Hill Austin with my wife Louise and our good dog Chico. There’s enough room to spread out, in a nice area with friendly neighbors, and an undeveloped (for now) field behind us for micro hikes. We go nowhere unless absolutely necessary, thank you HEB and others for curbside.

“I spent at least half of the last 50 years on the road, so by far the biggest change is that I’m now home 24/7. The down side is similar for lots of folks: I lost my job, can’t safely go out, etc.”

Coincidently, I’m in the midst of a new CD release with a very active publicity push and even though the whole promotional tour had to cancel, I’m able to do all the interviews and promo stuff, and even stream to some of the very venues where I was booked. I also hit about eight Zoom meetings a week now, one a daily that switched from live in March, plus some strictly social hangs.

Unexpected bonus: Zoom has taken me to meetings in CA., NY., PA., and Istanbul, Turkey.

AC: At what point did C-19 shut down operations for you, and what went down with the ship, so to speak, both personally & professionally?

BK: Last gig was at the Saxon Pub, March 11. The only times since then that I have set foot in a public building are a couple of doctor visits and a few trips to a warehouse to film a video.

I spent at least half of the last 50 years on the road, so by far the biggest change is that I’m now home 24/7. The down side is similar for lots of folks: I lost my job, can’t safely go out, etc. Can’t get close to my family and friends, especially my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters who live nearby.

But that’s the high end of the new norm for so many people.

“The upside is that I seem to like being home. We’ve been married 46 years, and for all of a sudden being together full-time, we’re doing pretty darn well.”

The upside is that I seem to like being home. We’ve been married 46 years, and for all of a sudden being together full-time, we’re doing pretty darn well. For sure, Louise and I lost some really sweet road trips to festivals in California, British Columbia, and more, but compared to the widespread deprivation, devastation, and death, we are grateful and know we are extremely lucky.

It’s a huge luxury to be able to stay home, and not be forced out into harm’s way by economic and political (is there a difference?) pressure. The heroes are on the health care front lines and public service. The villains are spreading disinformation and hate for a vicious re-election campaign.

AC: As a global culture, people employ music for every purpose imaginable, obviously spanning religion to entertainment and everything in between. What happens to communities like ours when people can no longer access it in person?

BK: I don’t know. And we won’t really know for quite a while. I’ll bet virtual entertainment events are here to stay.

There is a real community exchange in audience chat during these livestream concerts. It mimics the camaraderie of an in-person gig, plus it engages folks who may have moved away but still identify with Austin. And the time shift is so convenient in that all the gigs don’t have to happen at once at 8pm.

What the live touring landscape will look like once the sun comes out again, I don’t know. Many venues will surely have gone down. What exactly will rise up is anyone’s guess.

There has apparently always been music, so I’m thinking it’s not over yet. It’s just too damn crucial.

AC: Everyone’s had to shift or drastically alter their work situation. What does that look like for you?

BK: I just released a music video for my new single “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods.” It was made under lockdown with son-in-law videographer Kyle Sweeney at the Durham Compound here in town. We kept our distance, and everyone was masked except me during the shots where I sang.

I’ve been doing livestream concerts every other Friday, 7pm Central. It’s so nice to have that contact and outlet, reaching people live around the country. The last one had folks watching from at least nine foreign countries as well. People from all over that I’ve played for through the years can meet and interact in the comments and chats and share the fun.

The weirdest thing about streaming is the deafening silence when the song ends. I worried that I was just a strung-out applause junkie, but it turns out I’m OK without it. Whew.

AC: What’s your soundtrack for the apocalypse and what role does music play for you as a fan and scholar of it in times of hardship?

BK: Got your soundtrack covered, first song anyway. “The Truck Stop at the End of the World,” my post-apocalyptic Dieselbilly epic, is on my latest release. I’m tuning into a good number of livestreams by friends in the same boat – more shows than I could hit prior to C-19. I’m always messing around with songs and guitar playing. I have more time now for deep dives into into the wild world of online music.

Check out the entire Checking In series.

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Bill Kirchen, Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, George Frayne, Kyle Sweeney, Paul Carrack, Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Butch Hancock, Louise Kirchen, Durham Compound, Checking In 2020

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