Trailblazers of twang Bill Kirchen and Jimmie Dale Gilmore team up; Bobby Black and Blackie Farrell join the ride
Telecaster-wielding electric guitarist Bill Kirchen came to national prominence in the late 60s and 70s as guitarist, singer and songwriter with Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, an eclectic band whose blend of country, rock, western swing, blues and boogie-woogie earns them credit as pioneers of Americana music. Singer, songwriter and guitarist Jimmy Dale Gilmore co-founded The Flatlanders, the Texas-based band now credited with establishing alt-country.
Bill Kirchen and Jimmy Dale Gilmore will join forces for a string of California shows through the end of the month. At select shows, steel player Bobby Black will join Kirchen and Gilmore and Kevin “Blackie” Farrell will open.
Kirchen said the foundation for this collaboration was laid over the years.
“Jimmie and I have crossed paths a number of times, starting back in the late 60s when he came out from Lubbock to the Bay Area, and would see me with Commander Cody at Mandrake’s in Berkeley. Since then I’ve frequently sat in with his band The Flatlanders at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Fest in SF. Things accelerated in the last few years after I moved to Texas and we became neighbors then collaborators.” They first officially played together as a band for a few shows earlier this year.
Gilmore has a tenor voice that grabs the heartstrings and puts listeners in mind of big skies and open spaces. Something about Gilmore’s voice – perhaps the lack of ornamentation save for a characteristic vibrato on sustained notes and Gilmore’s attention to phrasing – would make it at home on classic country records of the 40s and 50s.
“Jimmie is a wonderful pure-voiced singer,” Kirchen said, “with a tremendous catalog of songs, many from his own pen, and Butch Hancock’s and other friends’.”
Gilmore co-founded The Flatlanders in the early 70s with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Although the band’s first album was initially only distributed on 8-track and hardly promoted, The Flatlanders had a heavy influence on the bourgeoning Austin sound and what’s now called alt-country. Gilmore has released several albums with The Flatlanders (including a rerelease of the original, now called “More a Legend than a Band”) and nearly 10 on his own, been nominated for three Grammy awards and been named Rolling Stone’s Country Artist of the Year three years in a row. He has a penchant for writing songs on a kaleidoscope of topics, and is also an actor, most notably playing the pacifist bowler Smokey in the Coen Brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski.”
Blackie Farrell, who first met Gilmore while living in Austin in the 70s as part of Asleep at the Wheel, said, “Jimmie owns what he does, and does it with inspiring soul and grace.”
Gilmore isn’t the only one on this tour who first came to national attention within a seminal, genre-stretching band. Bill Kirchen co-founded Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen in 1967 in Michigan, and the band hit its stride after moving to the Bay Area in the late 60s. His guitar playing was an integral part of CC&HLPA, including providing the defining licks on their hit “Hot Rod Lincoln.” As a solo artist, he’s been nominated for a Grammy and released a dozen albums including last year’s “Transatlanticana,” which climbed into the top ten of the Americana radio charts.
Kirchen can make his electric guitar growl, groove, or glimmer with delicate bell-like runs. It seems such an extension of him that it’s almost a second voice. This, coupled with Kirchen’s sure baritone vocals and deft songwriting, packs a potent punch.
“Bill Kirchen is one smart critter,” said Farrell, “with a relentless serious kick-ass work ethic that I wish I had. He was a music student in school, and has way more grownup chops than I’ll ever have.”
Kirchen and Gilmore will trade lead and harmony vocals as they draw from their own catalogs. At the Sebastopol, Winters and Berkeley shows, Bobby Black will accompany on steel guitar “doing his wonderful thing as the glue and sweetener,” said Kirchen.
Black had a name for himself in country well before joining CC&HLPA in the 70s, with credits including playing on George Jones’ earliest recordings. He’s also been a member of Asleep at the Wheel and New Riders of the Purple Sage.
“Bobby Black is one of the most incredible musicians I have ever worked with,” stated Kirchen.
Considering who Kirchen’s played with – including Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Link Wray – that’s quite a compliment.
“I’ve never heard another steel player who contributes so much to every song, not just solos, not just fills, but all the little subtleties,” Kirchen said. “A rhythm part here, a beautiful chord comping part there, he’s always helping.”
Songwriter, musician and frequent Kirchen collaborator Blackie Farrell will open some of the Northern California dates. While Farrell has been active as a songwriter and musician for decades, he released his first album, “Cold Country Blues,” last year. The album draws from across Farrell’s catalog. Songs such as “Mama Hated Diesels” and “Sonora’s Death Row” that became classics as covers by CC&HLPA, Bill Kirchen, Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen and others finally get Farrell’s own treatment, and are joined by previously unrecorded ballad “Jim Donny’s Gold.”
Farrell says having the CD is “a personal and professional validation stamp that’s been sorely lacking in my career as a singer-songwriter.” He added that having something to finally give fans is a “big fat bass from my bucket list that’s now hangin’ on the stringer.”
“Blackie is an insightful straight-to-the-bone storyteller,” said Kirchen. “He has provided me with at least one song per every album I have recorded, and is on my very short list of all-time favorite songwriters.”
Farrell reflected on why he and Kirchen have had such a fruitful working relationship since becoming friends in 1969.
“We both have a mighty passion for the same kinda stuff, and we’ve worked together long enough to know the kind of fuel our motors like to run on,” he said. “But I think the main glue that binds us musically is our similar sense of humor, the miles, and a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s strengths as wordsmiths.”
Kirchen, Gilmore, Farrell and Black are likely to collaborate on the fly.
“These rascals can get frisky, and just might join me for a tune or two,” said Farrell.
“And I would not be at all surprised if Blackie joins us at some crucial point,” added Kirchen.
Bill Kirchen & Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s California tour:
Wed. July 26: Peacetown Summer Concert Series, Sebastopol, Calif. (with Bobby Black)
Thurs. July 27: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, Calif. (with Bobby Black; Blackie Farrell opens)
Fri. July 28: Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, Berkeley, Calif. (with Bobby Black; Blackie Farrell opens)
Sat. July 29: Lobero Theatre, Santa Barbara, Calif. (with special guest Colin Gilmore)
Mon. July 31: Don the Beachcomber, Huntington Beach, Calif.