Kirchen opens First Frontier Festival: Grammy-nominated guitarist plays before The Clarks July 26 at the Mishler Theatre

Rockabilly guitar great Bill Kirchen is playing The First Frontier Festival, a two-day, eight-act musical buffet in downtown Altoona July 26 and 27.

Dubbed the “Titan of the Telecaster,” by Guitar Player Magazine, Kirchen is a Grammy-nominated guitarist, singer and songwriter whose driving guitar licks sent “Hot Rod Lincoln” into the Top 10 for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

Kirchen opens for the festival at The Mishler Theatre prior to the lead act The Clarks, a Pittsburgh band.

He plans to take the audience through his musical career in both songs and stories.

“It’s not an angst-filled trip though — my songs are fun,” he said “I will do my best to entertain and rock them. I promise to try not to suck.”

Kirchen, who turns 71 on Saturday, June 29, celebrates a musical tradition that encompasses rock ‘n’ roll, blues, bluegrass, Texas Western swing and California Honky Tonk.

“In half a century of traveling, I’ve met geniuses and goofballs,” he said. “I have good stories to tell and tales of interesting scrapes. It’s tales of the road retrospective.”

An early architect of Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll and Americana, Kirchen has performed around the world during his 50-plus year career, presented at workshops and has spoken at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. as part of the “Electrified, Amplified and Deified — The Electric Guitar” exhibition and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

In addition to being a founding member of the legendary Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen released eight critically-acclaimed solo albums; he toured internationally with Nick Lowe and has performed with Doug Sahm, Gene Vincent, Elvis Costello, Dan Hicks, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Hornsby and Link Wray.

While Kirchen formally studied the trombone, he is self taught using a “finger picky technique” on a 5-string banjo. He learned, he said, by watching other players, learning from them and then making it his own.

Raised in Michigan, he grew up listening to music that ranged from classical to Broadway show tunes, however, neither of his parents performed — and performing is what he still enjoys.

“Generally, music is transformative and the most memorable moments are when I access a part of the brain I don’t know much about. I feel there’s nothing in between me and the music coming out of me. There’s no nervousness and no sense of compositions and — at it’s best — it doesn’t even matter who’s listening or where I am.”

He compared such times to “when an athlete is in the zone.”

“Whether I’m playing before a quarter-million people or four people in a church basement coffee house, it’s equally good. When you are in the zone, it is unbeatable.”

He remembers forming a band in the 1960s with a loose floating membership that sometimes grew to up to 10 people on stage.

“It was such fun and a great time in my life,” he recalled. He left Michigan in 1968 for California and was struck by the roots/rock/folk sounds there so he called up his former bandmates and urged them to come to the West Coast. The band became Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airman.

“We ended up starving for two years before we became a national touring act of eight musicians and four crew members. We played an unusual rockabilly style that was high energy … I’ve had a career in music for 50-plus years, I feel very lucky. I’ve made a lot of records and been a part of a lot of good live shows. I’m happy with the way things turned out.”

Altoona Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

If you go

What: The First Frontier Festival: Rockabilly guitar great Bill Kirchen opens for Pittsburgh legends The Clarks

When: 7 p.m. July 26

Where: Mishler Theatre, 1208 12th Ave.

Cost: $25 reserved; $60 Festival VIP available online at www.mishler theatre.org or by phone at 944-9434. VIP tickets sold by phone or in person only at the box office. Box office Hours are: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. VIP Seating seating is available for anyone first come, first serve. VIP ticket includes a seat in the first 3-4 rows, festival T-shirt, and access to VIP tent/lounge for the Saturday afternoon event at Heritage Plaza.