By Liz Tracy
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As preachers go, piano-basher Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is like no other. While some men of the cloth may pound Bibles, preaching fire and brimstone, the Reverend Wirtz ministers to his flock with a different kind of salvation. The Gospel according to Wirtz includes sanctifying, side-splitting musical tales that herald the funnier side of life's undercarriage. Circus geeks, honky-tonk he-shes, gastrointestinal distress, and other out-of-the-mainstream subjects fill Wirtz's hymnal, making him one of the funniest musicians in America. His urban boogie-woogie blues (and occasional side trips into vintage R&B and piano-heavy country) often lends itself to comic relief. These days, another frequent Wirtz subject -- professional wrestling -- is taking a bigger role in his irreverent ministry.
Wirtz (who performs in West Palm Beach May 13) recently launched Reverend Billy's 'Rasslin' Roundup, a radio call-in program that emanates from Port St. Lucie's WZZR-FM (92.7), near Wirtz's coastal Florida home. The show provides pro-wrestling fans with the latest info about their favorite pastime, along with historic tidbits from the pseudosport's past. "I'll be updating stations on the week's events and the strange, wonderful world of professional wrestling," Wirtz explains with pride. Roundup debuted May 6, and Wirtz says the program is also set to appear on a growing number of stations around the country.
Long before he was preaching like some WWF-sanctioned minister, Wirtz was honing his own unorthodox antics, adopting a title in 1979 as dubious as the pedigrees of his grappling idols. "I sent away $3 to some completely bogus outfit in Kentucky," he recalls, "and I became, officially, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. Then I sort of devised my own denomination" -- a nationwide "ministry" known as the First House of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire Interfaith Apocalyptic Worldwide Love Gospel Tabernacle. His outreach program has included an array of unholy merchandise, everything from his own line of "lucky mojo" oils to Rev. Billy's Healing Prayer Rug, a glorified handkerchief (bearing a six-fingered handprint) designed to cure such afflictions as mental turmoil, bad hair, and "trendy fashion urges."
But it's his stage shows that truly save souls, with revival-type performances that offer divine musical redemption. When it comes to performing, Wirtz's goal is "to lock out the rest of the world and bring the audience some happiness through the healing powers of barrelhouse piano and the songs that come from my twisted imagination." His laugh-until-it-hurts sets are throwbacks to the days of vaudeville and carnival showmen. Armed with nothing more than his keyboard, his electrified wit, and a high-speed gift of gab, Wirtz is the last of a dying breed of entertainer, running on the piano-pounding fumes of Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, and Floyd Cramer. "My strength," he says, "has always been original songs and the stories that connect them, and the whole hellfire way I approach things."
Lately several stories from the House of Wirtz are connected to the pro-wrestling scene. His live shows have long included odes to the topic, such Wirtz classics as "Grandma vs. the Crusher" and "Teeny Weenie Meanie," a boogie-woogie romp about a female midget who knows her way around a mat. Professional wrestling is a subject Wirtz would seem to be more comfortable lampooning than promoting, but he doesn't see it that way. "I think society kind of needs it right now," he says. "Think about it: No matter how you shape it up, wrestling ultimately has a happy ending. It's safe, and people can actually watch it and enjoy the dramatics and the incredible athletics that goes on." Coming from Wirtz, a man whose job involves poking holes in society's foibles, such sentiments seem as shocking as a head-slam on a turnbuckle. But when the reverend proselytizes about his chosen form of sports entertainment, he's a compelling testifier, a man who glorifies the pile driver as eloquently as George Will celebrates the double play.
"Wrestling may be predetermined, but by God, it is not fake," he insists. "Things like power bombs and chair shots and jumping off the ropes into three rows of chairs? The cuts and the bruises and the massive amounts of injuries that these guys take? Those are not fake at all. And when wrestling is done correctly, it's difficult to determine who the winner is supposed to be. But more than just the actual sport of it, your fans and your viewers can identify with the characters and the talkin' smack. It's guerrilla theater, in every spelling of the word."
Theater, he notes, that's every bit as valid as the drama one usually thinks of when discussing acting. "You have a certain group and a certain class of educated people who will go see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and they know the play, and they know how it ends," he says. "But they go to see how it's acted out, to see the interpretation and the various subtleties, and the various forces of society working for and against each other. Wrestling's the exact same thing. They call it rope opera because the story level has superseded, in many cases, the level of the action in the ring."
Those dramatic elements are in full bloom on Wirtz's current HighTonerelease, Unchained Maladies. The CD delivers a dozen giddy blues-based anthems, all keenly backed by a crackerjack supporting cast (the Polyester Prophets) and Wirtz's killer piano playing. "Get Off My Lawn!" is a protest anthem that whips a record collection of song titles into a loopy lament about being too old to rock. "That stairway to heaven's getting harder to climb/I better rock 'n' roll and retire," the singer moans, before revealing that "I had my 19th nervous breakdown/My foxy lady spawned a voodoo child." On "The Visitor," Wirtz mines a frequent musical motif: the maudlin road narratives made famous by Red Sovine. In the Wirtz version, a dying truck stop waitress regrets never meeting Elvis, only to have him appear in her room and croon her off to the Big Sleep in the Sky. Sovine would be proud.
Other Unchained highlights include "Conspiracy Boogie," a jellyrollin' workout for paranoids, and "A Man's Gotta Do (What a Woman's Gotta Do)," a smoky soul number about a cross-dressing dad. The disc also includes a back-from-the-grave cameo by Root Boy Slim (the legendary Washington, D.C., madman with whom Wirtz played years ago) on "I'm Not Too Old For You." The song features such love lines as "I'll get some Viagra and Rogaine,/You get your real-estate license and the world will be ours." Floridians will get a special thrill out of "Tourist Trap," a bluesy send-up of the Sunshine State's biggest industry that's peppered with familiar advertising pitches. Swimming with dolphins and manatees, flea market shopping, and all-you-can-eat buffets come in for cuts from Wirtz's rapier wit, in a tune that Florida's hospitality-trade honchos should loathe.
Wirtz, who relocated to Florida after a stint in Nashville, says his current home state offers much to enjoy, even if he has to be careful where he performs. "I don't even try to play Orlando," he says. "It's too tourist-oriented, and they have the attention span of a hyperactive gerbil on Ritalin. And that's when they're really focused." How about South Florida? "Oh, my stuff goes over great there. People have a pretty twisted, sick sense of humor down there. I do real good in Miami. I always do well in cities with high violent-crime rates." And what about the recent string of criminally insane activity that's been taking place there around the Gonzalez household? Wirtz places himself on the side of Uncle Sam in the controversy.
"Janet Reno was smart," he says, "knowing that the particular people she was dealing with there were (a) volatile, and (b) they were enjoying being on national TV, loving every minute." He's also not buying the argument that the Gonzalez clan were victims of an overzealous federal government. "Storm troopers in the night, breaking into a home? The truth of the matter is the people inside had the door blocked, and there were all kinds of crazy things going on in that house. South Florida," he adds, "is a world unto itself. It's an entirely different reality down there."
As unreal as professional wrestling, perhaps? Not in Wirtz's house of worship. "If you follow what goes on in the world and in the media, at least 70 percent of the time what's presented as the facts of a particular story is a long way from the facts. And the truth is long in coming, or you never even see the other side. We move into a world now that has become so bizarre in and of itself. Well, as the old guys used to say, 'Wrestling is real and the rest of the world is fake.' These days, you look at everything that goes on, and you realize they're not that far off."