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To many observers, the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate sect who recently committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, are tragic figures. To the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, they're something more: material. The good reverend, who specializes in comic entertainment of an especially Southern-fried sort, has already been working up a new ditty inspired by the event.
"The guy's name was Do," Wirtz notes in reference to Marshall Applewhite, the onetime Boulder resident who led Heaven's Gate. "So right away I'm thinking, 'Do, a deer. A female deer.'" In the midst of humming the melody of this Sound of Music chestnut, he begins brainstorming fresh lyrics: "Do, a nut. A space-age nut."
Most reverends would steer clear of such, um, irreverence--but Wirtz is not most reverends. Even his religious title, which he picked up in 1979, came to him in an uncommon manner. "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. Shortly thereafter, Wirtz assembled a one-man traveling revival show offering an earthly form of musical salvation that's close to divine. When it comes to performances, he says, his goal is simple: "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."
Lately, these ideas have been turning up in places other than clubs and theaters: For example, Wirtz has become a regular contributor to Musician magazine. But this heavily tattooed, six-foot-five-inch force of nature is best appreciated on stage, where he regularly stirs souls with his dazzling keyboard skills and evangelical compositions such as "Honkytonk Hermaphrodite" and "Mama Was a Deadhead."
Wirtz's fifth and latest CD, a collection of live and studio recordings dubbed Songs of Faith and Inflammation (issued on the Hightone imprint), captures much of Wirtz's in-concert appeal, and it's even spawned something of a hit, "Right Wing Roundup." A razor-sharp square-dance track that takes shots at everything from Bob Packwood and the NRA to Rush Limbaugh and Operation Rescue, the cut was hugely popular around the time of last year's elections, earning heavy airplay on National Public Radio and morning talk shows across the nation.
But Faith has far more than current events on its mind. The platter also includes witty odes to time-tested Wirtz themes like gastro-intestinal disorders ("It's a Gas," "Everybody Must Get Stones") and inbred culture ("Hillbilly Sue"). Such material implies that Wirtz is merely a novelty artist, a charge that's not quite fair; his shows always feature some straight blues numbers and classic-country piano pieces. Moreover, Wirtz displays genuine affection for many of his creations--even the title characters of Faith's "Grandma vs. the Crusher," one of his regular tributes to professional wrestling. The topic is one he knows well, having become an actual participant in what he calls "the pro-wrassling thing" in the early Nineties after filming the video for "Teeny Weenie Meanie," a boogie-woogie romp about a female midget who knows her way around a mat. "I was a manager on TV for about six months," he reveals. "I was one of the bad guys. Rednecks would drive by me in their Novas and throw stuff at me and yell, 'We're gonna kill you!' It was great. I still keep in touch with all the wrestlers."
Wirtz served his pro-wrestling stint in Florida, a state to which he relocated not long ago after spending six years in Nashville. Part of the reason for the move was economic: "I do well in cities with high violent-crime rates," he observes, "I do real good in Miami and places like that." But he also came to the conclusion that his work wasn't especially in tune with Music City. "It's a hard town to get people out in," he says, "because people there are jaded, and every week there's someone ramming something new down someone else's throat." He adds, "My end of the business doesn't have a lot to do with what's going on there, because they're just interested in turning a buck any way they can, as fast as they can. If they could get a Tickle Me Elmo doll to do the latest line dance, believe me, they'd be doing it."
Of course, Wirtz has been known to peddle products of his own, including healing potions and so-called "lucky mojo" oils that have become treasured souvenirs among his fans. Another favorite is "Rev. Billy's Healing Prayer Rug," a glorified handkerchief that allegedly cures afflictions such as mental turmoil, bad hair and "trendy fashion urges." Wirtz is currently sold out of this merchandise, which previously could be purchased through a mail-order catalogue; he hopes to have more available later this year.
In the meantime, Wirtz intends to concentrate on his strengths. "You go to hear Paul Anka and you're going to hear 'You're Having My Baby,'" he points out. "You go see the Reverend Billy and you're going to hear 'Mennonite Surf Party' and 'Stairway to What-the-Hell-Are-You-Looking-At-Freebird.'"