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Rev. Billy C. Wirtz brings his R&B gospel to Alley Katz.

The Reverend's Religion

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Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a bit apprehensive about returning to Richmond for a Dec. 10 engagement at Richmond's Alley Katz.

"I've got a mojo problem with Richmond," the 45-year-old lunatic-fringe roots-rocker says in a friendly rumble as he recounts a multiple ticketing of his van in Shockoe Slip and the ensuing legal entanglement. He also remembers getting fired from a mid-'80s Tobacco Company gig on another occasion. "I didn't fit their format at the time," he explains dryly during a telephone interview from his North Florida home.

But then it's never an easy trick for anyone to fit the reverend into a format. Mixing politically incorrect social observations with pumping piano, Wirtz waxes weird on everything from his childhood memories to the virility downers of aging. His characters are generally a "chicken short of a church picnic" and run the gamut from the gay-bashing, closeted Southern minister to the cross-dressing good ol' boy. This could come across as one-joke humor based on overused stereotypes. But Wirtz knows his music as well as the "darker, noncommercial lifestyle" of certain out-of-the-mainstream types.

Wirtz spent his formative years learning the performing ropes in the mid-'70s melting pot of the Washington music scene. But it wasn't until after his 1977 graduation from then Madison College (now James Madison University) that he decided against pursing his teaching ambitions to jump into the music game. He'd met blues piano man Sunnyland Slim and he followed the master to Chicago to learn his chops. In 1979, he returned to Harrisonburg ready for a run on the Virginia club circuit. Playing solo and with bands, he learned how to work the stage and an audience. Wirtz says he always intended to play in a credible blues style but that, from the start, his lyrics had a comic observational style that separated him from other players who were simply aping their heroes.

After all, Wirtz offers, if you can listen to the straight blues piano on an Otis Spann record, "Who'd wanna hear me?" Well, somebody wants to hear him because Wirtz has stayed busy through the '80s and '90s. Biker-bar gigs, festivals and small-theater shows keep him running nationally. He's recorded six CDs for the roots label Hightone and has a 20-year retrospective due out next summer. He has teamed his naturally gregarious style with professional wrestling promotions. He's a former columnist for Keyboard and Musician magazines, and now writes features and reviews for the Internet music guide AllMusic.com. And a book about life on the road is in the works.

"I've developed in spite of myself … a degree of professionalism," Wirtz says, adding that his music is a mix on many levels. "It's an [R&B] history lesson, it's humorous. … I try to hit the feet, the gray matter upstairs. I really don't know where it's going to

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