By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
"I'm glad you called when you did," the Rev says enthusiastically. "I pulled a groin muscle the other day and was just about to go get some painkillers. You'd-a called later and I'd been a lot less...ahh, lucid," he says with anticipatory gusto.
Talking with Wirtz is a lot like talking with the manic TV preachers he so often imitates during his shows: words tumble out in a mad jumble, propelled by an almost evangelical zeal. "Hope I'm not overloading ya here," he says, pausing during one expository rush to catch his breath. "But I figure you guys would rather have too much stuff than not enough." Then he dives back into his wordstream.
"Not enough" is a complaint seldom heard at a Wirtz show, where the Reverend vends his Miracle Prayer Cloths, instructs the audience on the essential nature of making the proper faces when playing the blues (mouth puckered, features scrunched, head thrown from side to side), and sings punny takeoffs on modern life and culture like "Freeway to Stairbird," "Butt for the Grace," and "Mama was a Deadhead," which sports lyrics such as "Daddy's brains were fried/They named me Casey Jones at birth/My diapers were tie-dyed."
"'Scuze me a second, I gotta call my pig," Wirtz interrupts. "Julie! Jooolie!! JOOOOLEEEEEE!!!" A distant snuffling can be heard in the background. "Hey!" Wirtz is back. "You wanna talk with Willie?" He then puts Willie--the second of his pair of pot-bellied pigs--on the line.
"HnughahnughaSNARFhnamuggahghk," Willie glottal-stops into the receiver, then Wirtz--never one to stay out of the spotlight for too long, a ham every bit as natural as Willie and Julie--is back and talking about how he's tired of comedy and trying to put a bit more straight-ahead musicianship into his act (he studied with barrelhouse piano legend Sunnyland Slim).
"Slim was my mentor...he used to tell me, 'If you can play the blues and entertain them, you'll always have a job,'" Wirtz remembers. "He'd play a song--take you straight into a Mississippi roadhouse in the '40s--and then he'd tell a couple of jokes or a funny story...I can't do that, and I wouldn't try--I've got more of a post-'60s consciousness--and there are just so many great people doing the straight-ahead piano thing, guys like Mac Rebennack, that gradually, the comedy just took over; it's a little bit more accessible."
Comedy extracts its own toll, however. "Comedy clubs have such a jerk-off mentality, they're like a cerebral massage parlor: get 'em in, get 'em off, and get 'em out," Wirtz observes. "I like to waver [between playing and getting laughs]. My tastes are so left of center, I guess I'm kinda like the John Waters of boogie-woogie!" He laughs; in the background, Willie and Julie seem to concur. A goodly portion of the appeal of straight-ahead playing--and his freelance writing career (he has a regular end-page column for Musician magazine, among other things)--is turning people on to things they might not know about. "I just love Moon Mullican, and there's a great Texas piano player that most people don't know about...it's so cool when you can turn people on to things like (definitive gospel group) the Dixie Hummingbirds, and it's good to be humorous about it, because the air gets thin up on that soapbox."
The Reverend's duality--teacher and jester--might seem daunting to some, but he's psyched for his swing through the Lone Star State. "I've got this great Texas-Hawaiian shirt, with a map of Texas on the back," he says. "I can hardly wait to wear it!"
The Reverend Billy C. Wirtz plays Poor David's Friday, January 17.