A Fan's Notes: Telecasters and Tele-Masters at Work Print
Tuesday, 10 July 2007 18:09
ImageBy Chip Lovitt
"Well, they put six strings on a maple stick.
Stuck it on a slab of ash.
Sold one to Luther [Perkins], threw in a pick,
Sent him out with Johnny Cash."

That's how Bill Kirchen describes the birth of my favorite guitar, the Fender Telecaster, in the title track of his recent CD, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods. It might just the best song ever written about a guitar.

In the song, Kirchen describes the Tele as a "thunder and lightning rod," and notes that "it was born at the junction of form and function. It's the hammer of the honky-tonk gods."

Backed by a rocking beat, Kirchen pays tribute to Leo Fender's basic but highly influential instrument and the guitar heroes who used it: Buck Owens and Don Rich, Merle Haggard and Roy Nichols, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Bryant, James Burton, Muddy Waters, Albert "Iceman" Collins, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Cropper, and Keith Richards to name a few.

Kirchen is best known for playing lead guitar with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen from 1967 through the mid-70s. He's one of those great guitar players who fly under the commercial music radar, but thanks to constant touring and tons of talent, he also enjoys loyal following of fans wherever he goes.

Kirchen, a master of the Telecaster plays a brown, beat-up '50s Tele (its exact pedigree is unknown). He's the king of what he calls "dieselbilly," a high-octane blend of rock, rockabilly, and country that has all the energy and power of a semi truck in overdrive. His guitar tool box includes tricky, pedal steel-like bends, high-speed boogie bass lines, chiming harmonics, shimmering western swing chords, as well as rich, ringing melodic lines perfect for a slow ballad.

kirchen-towne crier 1.jpg I recently had the chance to see Bill and his excellent band, Too Much Fun, at the Towne Crier, a small club in Pawling, New York. Besides being an amazing guitarist with a million licks and tricks at his fingertips, Kirchen is a warm and witty entertainer, and a solid vocalist whose songs conjure up images of truck stops, fast cars, and the open road. But it's his twangy Tele that's the centerpiece of his sound and style, and few can wield the instrument with Kirchen's taste, tone, and authority.

The two sets featured a variety of original tunes from his new CD and cover songs, including Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changing." The highlight of the first set, though, was his show-stopping rendition of "Hot Rod Lincoln." In addition to the rapid fire rockabilly riffs that kick off the tune and his ability to make his Tele sound like sirens, car horns, train whistles, and squealing truck brakes, Kirchen delivers an amazing instrumental break in the middle of the song.

Riff by riff, he pays tribute to dozens of guitar heroes-playing the signature hooks from songs by Johnny Cash/Luther Perkins, B.B., Albert, Freddie, and even Peewee King, Link Wray, Stevie Ray, Alvino Rey, Duane Eddy, Marty Robbins, Don Rich, Merle Travis, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Beatles, Stones, the Sex Pistols, Jimi, Cream, and even the Monkees. I've seen Kirchen do the tune a dozen times, and it never fails to please and astound the fans.

The highlight of the second set was Merle Haggard's classic cut, "Lonesome Fugitive," where he was joined onstage by another ofkirchen-towne crier 2.jpg my favorite Tele players, Arlen Roth. The two engaged in a jaw-dropping display of country-style bends, twin harmonic leads, and a call-and-response segment that tapped the styles of Roy Nichols-Merle Haggard's original guitarist in the Strangers-and Roy Buchanan, who also did a famous version of the song. It had to have been one of the most dazzling displays of guitar work I've seen in years.

Earlier in the month at the Towne Crier, I had actually seen Arlen Roth do a set with his own band, featuring guitarjamdaily.com's own Matt Rae . Arlen's string-bending abilities are in a league all his own, with double and even triple string bends, lightning fast double-stops up and down the neck, volume swells, and harmonics at every fret. He and Matt engaged in a series of breathtaking guitar duels that wowed the crowd of mostly guitar players. The highlight of the set for me, as usual, was Arlen's instrumental take on Percy Sledge's classic hit, "When a Man loves a Woman." It was a true twin-Tele showstopper.

Another great Tele player who flies under most music fans' radar is Redd Volkaert . Volkaert, a stocky, red-headed guitarslinger currently based out of Austin, Texas, may be best known as for playing lead guitar with country music legend, Merle Haggard. However, he's got a long string of credits that go back to his days as a teenager in Canada when he backed up a variety of country music artists. Later he would move to Nashville, and then Texas, where his lists of credits grew to include the likes of Buck Owens, Hank Williams III, Dwight Yoakum, Merle Travis, Bill Monroe, Alison Krause, Dolly Parton and many others. He's also jammed with the best-Albert Lee, John Jorgenson, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, and Eric Johnson, just to name a few.

Lately Redd's been playing a band called Heybale, featuring among other, the legendary session pianist, Earl Poole Ball, who's backed up countless artists including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, as well as lending his talents to the classic country music album by the Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Fresh from their red-hot weekly Sunday night shows at Austin's Continental Ballroom, Heybale came to New York City recently, and me and the rest of the local chapter of the Tele-toting Redd Volkaert fan club were there. Redd and Heybale brought their swinging country sounds to a brand-new venue in New York City called Hill Country Barbecue, and the music was as tasty as the food and as cool as the beer.

Redd is steeped in the sounds of guitar players like Roy Nichols (Merle Haggard's pioneering lead guitarist) Don "Buckaroo" Rich, and countless pedal steel players. He is equally adept at honky-tonk and western-swing styles, chicken pickin', rockabilly and all-around Telecaster twang. In short, he's a master picker, and a solid vocalist to boot. He's released three solo CDs, of which my favorite is Telewacker, which features a number of red-hot instrumentals that show off just what a Tele can do in the hands of a master.

Redd has also teamed up with Bill Kirchen, in a band called the Twangbangers, who released a CD back in 2001. For Telecaster and country music fans, it's a must.

The three evenings of music fit my musical and guitar tastes to a "T"-as in Teles, tone, and twang!

Photo credits: Frank Wesley