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Kirchen Comes Home For Ann Arbor Gig
It’s been a long time since Bill Kirchen had an album out in the same six-month period as Bob Seger and the Stooges — all high school classmates when Kirchen, the onetime guitarist of Commander Cody’s Lost Plane Airmen, was growing up in Ann Arbor.
“That’s a good question — let’s try ‘73,” Kirchen, 59, correctly guesses.
His latest, “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods,” came out in January, sandwiched between Seger’s 2006 album “Face the Promise” and the Stooges’ recent “The Weirdness.
Kirchen even caught the Stooges’ mid-March performance at the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference in Austin, Texas, with his 22-year-old daughter, Julie.
“I was kinda holding onto a tree halfway back,” says Kirchen, who’s preparing to move from Texas, where he’s been caring for his recently deceased father-in-law, to Maryland. “About halfway through the show (Julia) says, ‘Dad, I’m going up. I’m going in,’ meaning the mosh pit. “I said, ‘Julia, I’m going back. I’m too old for that.’ ” But Kirchen isn’t past the point of making music. In fact, “Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods,” is one of the most ambitious and vital of his 40-plus-year career, a striking “country soul” outing that also features some of the most personal original material he’s ever written.
“I decided to drop the conceit of being an American truck driver,” he explains, “because I’m not. I do still sing truck-driving songs, but I’ve got enough of those to last me a lifetime.
“This time I thought it would be cooler to do something closer to the bone, closer to what mattered to me — without getting too touchy-feely about the whole thing. I wanted to write songs that are a little more soulful and mean a little more to me and relate a little more to my life.”
Recording in England with a group that included Nick Lowe — who used Kirchen on his 1994 album “The Impossible Bird” — and keyboardist Geraint Watkins, Kirchen came up with tracks such as “Working Man,” a rant against the inequitable distribution of wealth, and “Rocks in the Sand,” a low-key rumination on creationism. He’s happy with the results, but Kirchen, who still has a brother and sister living in Ann Arbor, says that singing and guitar playing — including the solo to the 1972 Commander Cody hit “Hot Rod Lincoln — still come far easier to him than songwriting.
“I don’t write unless there’s a gun to my head, really,” admits Kirchen, who also stuck a few covers on “Hammer ...,” including Shorty Long’s “Devil With the Blue Dress,” Blackie Farrell’s “Skid Row in My Mind” and the Arthur Alexander-written title track.
“Left to my own devices, I do all Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard songs, maybe with one Stooges song thrown in. I have to have to write in order to do it. It isn’t something that springs unbidden out of my anguished breast — but if I can get up the (guts) to do it, it’s exciting.”
Bill Kirchen performs at 8 p.m. Thursday (April 26th) at The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Admission is $15. Call (734) 716-1451 or visit www.theark.org.
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