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Since 1988 Reverend Billy has recorded six albums of Southern musical satire for Hightone Records with titles like Deep Fried and Sanctified, Songs of Faith and Inflammation, and most recently Unchained Maladies. Many of his song titles are, if nothing else, evocative: "Honky Tonk Hermaphrodite," "Grandma vs. the Crusher," "Mennonite Surf Party," "Sleeper Hold on Satan." His primary strongholds, he says, are in Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Miami. "People in New York and L.A. don't understand a lot of what I do, because there's a regional barrier there . There are people in Manhattan who go out of their way to let the world know that they are from Manhattan. With some of those people, there is still a great prejudice against the South. I mean they like it if that which comes out of the South is something of a rube in a safe kind of Dukes of Hazzard way. But if it's smart, if it's left of center, and it's dark, ya know, they have a hard time understanding it sometimes."
Naturally the press has described Wirtz as a weird, freaky dude. If disturbing appearances, outlandish behavior, and a generally twisted sense of humor are the standards by which weird and freaky are measured, then Wirtz probably qualifies as both. This is a man, after all, who, for six months in the early '90s, was the despised, loudmouthed "manager" for bad-boy wrestlers Steve Keirn and Mike Graham in Professional Wrestling From Florida, a bush league outpost for washed-up and wannabe grapplers. "I was the Rev. Billy Wirtz," he says with the sick, utter glee of a born professional-wrestling junkie, "and I'd go, 'Now if you ignorant rednecks can shut up for five seconds to let a man who didn't jump in the gene pool when the lifeguard was off duty like you people in the front row ,' and they'd all chant, 'Redheaded geek! Redheaded geek!' It was great."
In light of Wirtz's largely one-dimensional public persona as an endearing hillbilly psychopath, it was especially disconcerting to sit with him and a few of his musician buddies in the basement of a blues bar in Pittsburgh late last year and listen to the reverend deliver what amounted to a stirring, animated doctoral thesis in brief on the many virtues of Stax Records and Southern radio in the '50s and '60s. When he and his pals played a set upstairs a while later that night, Wirtz didn't come off as some Bible-belted bumpkin spinning silly redneck yarns for the Iron City crowd. His music was nuanced, beguiling, and quite often fiery. He practically beat the keys off his keyboard when he launched into some rapid-fire barrelhouse number, but then he would bring the room to a silent and stunned state of appreciation when he cut into a slow, smoky R&B original like "The Woman on Page 63," a song about a lonesome boy who fell in love with a Sears-catalog bra model.
He's reminded of that night and the enduring resonance of that particular song as he sits in his room at the Baymont, his piece of blasted kidney stone on the TV nearby, waiting to get off the phone and join his friend for some raw fish at a decent sushi bar down the street. "Yeah, we grew up in a completely different generation," he laughs. "That song is one of those that people like, but it causes them to brush away a manly tear from time to time."
Contact David Pulizzi at his e-mail address: David_Pulizzi@newtimesbpb.com