Hector Qirko a triple threat in local music scene

Steve Wildsmith, Maryville Daily Times, January 28, 2005

Growing up the son of a corporate executive whose business took him all over Latin America, Hector Qirko was a long ways from the blues clubs of Chicago, and even farther from the hills of East Tennessee.

But in the intervening years, he's called both home and made a name for himself in both music scenes. Fortunately, East Tennessee won out, and without a doubt, the Knoxville music community is all the more rich because of it.

Qirko plays an integral part of three musical affiliations considered to be East Tennessee institutions. He's a member of The Lonesome Coyotes, with whom he's preparing a new album; he's the leader of the Hector Qirko Band, in existence since 1986 and also working on a new album; and he's the musical anchor for local poet/playwright/singer-songwriter R.B. Morris, who often sets his amazing words to Qirko's equally amazing guitar.

``All three of them I find incredibly fulfilling, because I love to play, and I love to play with good musicians, and when they're friends, that's even better,'' Qirko told The Daily Times this week. ``With my band, I get the opportunity to do a lot of my own material. I front the band and do a lot of singing, and we get to do more of a blues thing, although we're not exactly a blues band. With R.B., I get to play his great material and sing harmony, and it's more of an accompanist role. Whether we do it as a duo (like they'll do Saturday at The Laurel Theatre) or in different band combinations, I get to contribute to what someone else is doing, and because we travel a little more, there's the opportunity to play in different cities.

``With the Coyotes, it's just wonderful, first of all because we didn't play together for several years, so to reunite and play is a real thrill. Plus, it's a great, big, powerful ensemble with great vocalists, great instrumentalists and great personalities. And of course, the music there is a little bit different in that it's swing and more country-based, although it too has a lot of different styles that get incorporated in it.

``Each of them gives me a lot, and I feel really privileged to have the opportunity to do all of those things,'' he added.

Qirko's father was a businessman who worked in the international division of a large corporation, so every couple of years during Qirko's childhood, the family moved from one Latin American country to another. As a result, Qirko fell in love with American rock 'n' roll from a distance, cobbling together a collection of albums from friends who brought them back from visits to the States.

He moved to Chicago to attend college, and it was there he fell in love with the blues scene and met the man who would change the direction of his career.

``I was fortunate to play with Lonnie Baker Brooks as his rhythm guitarist and slide guitarist, and I played with him for about four years,'' Qirko said. ``That was really my professional education. We were playing all the time in clubs, which I had really never done before, and he taught me a lot. He was a great singer and guitarist, and backing him up and playing in his band was really musical college for me.''

From Brooks, he also learned the business end of music, and watching how Brooks led his band gave Qirko a model he still draws on today. Once he moved to Knoxville, Qirko switched gears and began learning the ropes of country music while making a name for himself in the Knoxville scene. It was then that he met Morris.

``We've known each other for many, many years, and we've played in different iterations over the years,'' he said. ``In the early 1990s, we were a part of R.B. Morris and the Irregulars, and then, this last seven and a half years, we've been playing together in this context. So he's an old and dear friend, and I get everything you get out of that - not only playing music, but working and traveling with somebody that you care about.

``He's a world-class songwriter, and I think that musically, I get the opportunity to play and contribute to his amazing songs. Whether we're on stage or driving to Green Bay to play a gig, we have a lot of fun, so I get both sides of that.''

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, he played guitar for The Lonesome Coyotes, a Western swing/folk/country rock outfit that ruled the Cumberland Avenue ``Strip'' for years. The group was the house band for the Budweiser pavilion at the 1982 World's Fair before parting ways. (The band reunited in 2002 and has been back together, albeit on an intermittent basis, ever since.)

From that point, Qirko got hooked up playing music for The Nashville Network's various TV shows, an experience that taught him even more about country and roots music.

``We calculated once that we did over 600 half-hour episodes, backed a huge number of different artists and played about 1,400 songs,'' he said. ``So that was the second half of my education. Playing under those conditions and backing up such a great variety of people was really a wonderful experience.''

Currently an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Qirko is in the studio frequently, finishing up the forthcoming Coyotes record and slowly putting together a Hector Qirko Band album, which will be the group's fifth.

``It's been a little slow-going because we're not quite satisfied yet,'' he said. ``It's a little quieter record, and we do some styles of music that I haven't done before. What we are is a band that plays in a lot of styles, and all of them are so flexible. For instance, on our last record, there was a lot of Latin music.

``We incorporate a lot of different styles into the same songs, and it's a big variety of styles and approaches to it. And one thing we pride ourselves in is trying to come up with good arrangements for songs we haven't written and doing covers in some unusual way.

``And even though I get to play in a lot of styles, being able to play the blues means a lot to me, because I came up playing it in Chicago, and I fell in love with that music first and hardest,'' he added. ``Plus, it's great to play that with them, because we've been together for many years. I'm fortunate that I get to play music I enjoy with people I know so well and in a number of styles that have developed in ways I really like.''