Long a folk and blues festival favorite, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz wraps his humorous stories and songs into carefully orchestrated sets that feature his stellar piano playing. His package is hard for festival organizers and club owners to resist.
Wirtz was born in Aiken, S.C., the son of a federal employee father and a sociologist and writer mother. His family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was nine, which was then a melting pot of classic soul, classic R&B, and country music. Wirtz listened to R&B radio shows and attended concerts by James Brown and Aretha Franklin, learning to play guitar to mask his awkward feelings in his teenage years, when he was already over six feet tall. Working in an R&B record store as a teen, he broadened his knowledge and love for blues and classic soul, and a revelatory moment came in 1970, when he attended a gospel show in Augusta, GA. He wept openly by the end of the show, and it changed his life. Wirtz attended a number of colleges before finally graduating in 1976 from James Madison University with a degree in special education. He began working at a camp for mentally handicapped children in Gore, VA, playing piano on weekends with a band called the Four Countrymen. In 1979, blues and barrelhouse piano player Sunnyland Slim came to his area; Wirtz introduced himself and ended up driving Slim around to his other nearby shows. Wirtz quit his day job and went with Slim to Chicago, where he shared the aging bluesman's walk-up apartment, meeting other players and getting his blues education in the clubs there. Wirtz credits his time in Chicago with Slim as his real blues education, and as the time he began to develop his stage persona. (Slim passed away in 1995.)
In 1982, Wirtz began to pursue his own career as a solo artist. He attempted to incorporate what he saw as the best elements of Slim, Muddy Waters, rockabilly and early rock & roll legends like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley into his live performances. He added to the mix the country icons like Merle Haggard and Red Sovine, and later threw in a mix of Deep South evangelist types like Jimmy Swaggart and Ernest Ainsley. Basing himself in Virginia and North Carolina, Wirtz developed his act over hundreds of performances and half a dozen years. Although he succumbed for a while to alcohol and drug problems, Wirtz got clean by 1988 and got his music career off to a good start a year later when he began to record for Kingsnake Records, a label based in Sanford, Fla. In 1990, Hightone Records released Backslider's Tractor Pull, which won an award for Comedy Album of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD). In 1991, Wirtz moved to Nashville, and with that city's emphasis on the business end of music, found easy fodder for more songs. He also met his wife there and the couple later moved to Florida, where he's still based.
Although by no means a straight-ahead blues player, much of his material is based in blues and classic R&B, and his sharp social commentaries, sprinkled with humorous observations about politics and life in 20th-century America, make Wirtz one of the most sought-after performers on the festival and club circuit. He's also a featured columnist for Musician magazine.