Friday, July 11, 2008

The return of the reverend

The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz will play and teach at the Sedalia Blues Festival at Big Island.




Calling all First House of Polyester Worship congregants -- Saturday is go-to-meeting day at Sedalia Blues Festival in Big Island. The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz will be at the pulpit, the piano beside him ready for barrelhouse and boogie-woogie pounding.

The bluesy mail-order preacher and Renaissance man, 53, opens for guitarist Jimmy Thackery. The festival begins at 1 p.m. with the James River Blues Society's talent competition.

Wirtz and Thackery recently performed together out West, and Wirtz said he expects more of the same at Sedalia.

The Roanoke area used to be a regular stop for Wirtz, who played plenty at the Coffee Pot, as well as at an annual gig at Roanoke College. It's been three years since the James Madison University grad played Roanoke.

But he's still on the road, playing plenty. Some of his many road trips have inspired the travel column he writes for the Charlotte Observer and Florida Today.

Wirtz's "Blues in the Schools" program recently took him to Canada. And he hosts a syndicated radio show that features rock 'n' roll, gospel, rhythm and blues, sacred steel guitar music, Mexican garage bands and varieties of strangeness. The show is on three radio stations -- the closest to us is WNCW-FM, in Spindale, N.C. (wncw.org). You can also hear it on: wfit.org, from Brevard County, Fla.; and kpig.com, from Freedom, Calif.

Wirtz said he can't spare the time to pitch it to more outlets.

"I've got all I can handle at this point," he said by phone from his home in Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Wirtz has made a long and interesting career out of pounding the 88s, writing idiosyncratic songs and being flat-out goofy.

Here are some things to know about the good reverend.

1. He was friends with Sunnyland Slim

Albert "Sunnyland Slim" Luandrew (1907-95) was in the first wave of Mississippi-to-Chicago blues guys.

In 1978, Wirtz -- then studying special education at James Madison University -- went to see Slim play with the Allstars from Charlottesville. Slim needed a ride to Lexington after the show, and Wirtz volunteered to take him. The next day, he drove his 1963 Cadillac hearse to a motel to pick up Slim.

"I pull up to his room and honk the horn," Wirtz said. "He looks out the window. He jumped and said, 'Oh my God.' I said, 'No, it's just me.'

"He said, 'I'm going to be riding in one soon enough. Might as well see what it looks like from the front.' "

The road conversation and storytelling sparked a friendship. The next year, Wirtz made Chicago his main stop on a post-graduation, "Kerouac-ian" cross-country trip in 1979. Slim had written him an invitation to stay with him if he ever came through, and Wirtz said he "probably took advantage of it."

"It was one of those opportunities of a lifetime," Wirtz said. "I wound up staying there about a month, and I lived on his couch. He actually chauffeured me around Chicago ... I got to meet all the blues greats and play with a lot of the great blues artists of the time ... And that was kind of a real life-changing experience, because up to that point, I hadn't really considered that I might be playing music professionally. But he encouraged me to keep playing."

Wirtz went back to Harrisonburg, saved up day-job money, played music around town, then hit the road. He said his first road job after the Chicago trip was in Roanoke.

2. Was a professional wrestling circuit 'bad guy'

From 1990 to about 2001, Wirtz adopted a bad guy manager persona for a wrestling outfit in Florida.

"Wrestling is totally one of the most screwball businesses in the world," he said. "I mean, the wrestlers are really nice people. But trust me, for anybody thinking of getting into that business, observe it from a distance, and maybe be very careful about getting into that business."

He's got the scars to show for it.

"It's a rough business," he said. "Don't let anybody fool you. It may be scripted, but I've taken my share of chair shots and had some stitches put in my head from hitting the concrete floor and that kind of thing."

Ultimately, he said, it's another chapter in the memoir he's writing, titled "Maybe Some Day Your Name Will Be in Lights: My 30 Years on the Road as an Itinerant Piano Player."

Another project is in the works -- a collection of songs, articles and sermons called "Selected Writings from the First House of Polyester Worship."

3. He misses Roanoke

For two decades running, Wirtz played an annual show at Roanoke College, a tradition that ended about four years ago. He's played at the Coffee Pot more times than he can count.

"I've played the area around there for years," he said. "I have tons of friends there, so every time I play there, it's a homecoming of sorts. The valley will always be a spiritual if not physical home for me."

Go to this story at roanoke.com and hear more of this interview in a podcast with Wirtz, featuring two of his songs -- "The Visitor" and "What I Used to Do All Night." He says the latter song was inspired by "The Golden Girls" actress Rue McClanahan.