Local guitarist, singer, and bandleader Hector Qirko is something of an enigma. A slim, WASP-ish looking fellow, thickly coiffed and younger looking than his 50 or so years would seem to mandate, he’s actually of Cuban-Albanian descent, and spent most of his formative years in various countries across the South American continent.
You could hardly say Qirko has kept a low profile. In his 28 (or thereabouts) years in Knoxville, he has been a member of what was arguably the city’s most influential post-punk outfit; leader of his own Hector Qirko Band—selected as the city’s best blues band on 12 separate occasions by readers of this magazine; and a longtime collaborator of renowned local recording artist and poet R.B. Morris.
And yet, while many Knoxvillians may recognize Qirko’s famously u-less surname, most of them know more about the projects with which he has been associated than they do about the man himself.
“He works with people like me, so sometimes the people watching don’t focus enough on Hector,” Morris says. “He’s a man of great virtue; a man of diverse interests. And as a musician, he’s simply the best around.”
“He’s the weirdest guy you’ll ever meet who you think is normal,” says local musician and studio ace Carl Snow, a guitar pupil of Qirko’s for several years in the 1980s. “I hope no one thinks they have him figured out. They don’t. He’s a college professor. And he’s one of the sweetest guys in the whole world. But under the hood is a crazy person, a musical nut.”
Qirko himself is characteristically modest in light of his friends’ assessment. He will allow that his background is considerably more colorful than that of the average white-guy bluesman. “I suppose my early influences make me somewhat eclectic,” Qirko admits. “I’ve always been interested in synthesis, the cross-fertilization of styles. To me, all styles are good.”
Born in New York—his father was of Albanian descent, his mother Cuban—Qirko moved with his parents to South America at age 5. His father worked for a chemical company, and the family relocated every two years, from Colombia to Peru to Venezuela and Brazil. It was in Brazil that the 10-year-old Qirko, already a Beatles fan (“They hit in Latin America just like they did elsewhere,” he says), first picked up a six-stringed instrument, when his parents won a classical guitar at a community raffle.
“I started noodling, and then I took a few lessons,” he remembers. “And then I never really put it down—much to my parents’ periodic dismay.”
His earliest influences included plenty of now-classic blues-based British and American rock, from Bonnie Raitt to the Allman Brothers to Little Feat and Led Zeppelin, as well as the Cuban and Latino sounds inherent to his family’s way of life. “I played in a few bands in high school, doing mostly covers of rock songs of the time,” Qirko says. “My first band, we didn’t even know how to play anything. We just stood there, trying to look like the Beatles, playing air instruments along to Beatles records. It seemed to make perfect sense, at the time.”
It wasn’t until Qirko, as a young man, moved back to the United States and enrolled at Illinois’ Northwestern University that he was formally introduced to authentic Chicago-style blues, the music with which he is now most commonly associated. “Before that, the blues I learned was all in the context of blues-based rock,” he says. “I really didn’t discover ‘real’ blues until about the time I started playing it.”
He was an apt student of the music, though, and soon dropped out of college to play full-time, mostly as a sideman to renowned bluesman Lonnie Brooks.
But after five years in the frigid windy city, Qirko was ready for a change of venue. “It’s difficult for a South American kid to put up with Chicago winters,” he chuckles. “I moved to Knoxville because of a relationship I was in, and because of the climate. Then I fell in love with the region. Here I was an urban kid, and one trip to the mountains was enough to convince me I’d found a way of life that was better.”
In Knoxville, Qirko resumed his studies in anthropology at the University of Tennessee. He would eventually earn his Ph.D. at UT, and now holds a half-time teaching and research position there.
He also formed what would prove to be a long-lived musical partnership with singer/songwriter R.B. Morris, whom he met at a party. “We spent a lot of time talking about music, and many other things,” Morris remembers. “We started playing as a duo in the late ’70s on Cumberland Avenue. He would also sit in with various people, and what you noticed was that whenever he played with someone, they would have their best night. He always had a very keen sense of the song.”
Qirko became well known in the local musicians’ community during the period, both as an ace guitarist and as an all-around amiable fellow. Among the other musicians of his acquaintance was guitarist Terry Hill, a quixotically gifted player whose influences were as broad and divergent as Qirko’s.
Balboa, the four-piece rock/punk outfit founded by Qirko and Hill in 1979, was an epiphany of sorts for prosaic Knoxville. Mixing elements of traditional rock with the renegade sounds of punk and the virtuosic experimentalism of its two guitarists, Balboa forever altered the musical landscape of a city that at the time seemed immovably grounded in the leaden Southern and blues-based rock that dominated FM radio.
“One day, there was the normal world, and then one day Balboa landed,” says Snow. “And everything changed in Knoxville. No one here had heard a fucking thing like it before. When they hit the stage, there were maybe five people in the whole city who weren’t freaked out.”
The band stayed together four years, eventually relocating to New York for a time, in an effort to break through in the Big Apple’s burgeoning post-punk scene. They didn’t succeed—much to the surprise and to the chagrin of their compatriots back home. But their influence hereabouts is still palpable nearly three decades hence.
“They were like that one kid who was crazy enough to jump in the pool,” says Snow, who played in a number of edgier, punk-influenced local bands that followed in Balboa’s wake. “They gave a lot of other bands the courage. They laid out a template for future ‘punk’ bands and other risk-takers in this city.”
“There weren’t many bands exploring that kind of music in town at that time,” Qirko admits. “But exploration goes hand in hand with playing with Terry, because he was always pushing beyond the familiar,” Qirko says. “I’m just happy that at least a few people remember Balboa, all these years later.”
After Balboa, Qirko spent three years with the house band at the former Cinetel Productions (later bought by HGTV), where he backed up dozens of renowned country artists who were guests on Cinetel’s Nashville Network cable-television programs.
And in 1985, the Hector Qirko Band debuted with Jim Williams on bass, Steve Brown on drums and Dirk Weddington on sax. A smooth Chicago-style blues outfit, its music colored by occasionally jazzy overtones, the Qirko band would evolve over the years to incorporate most all of its founder’s myriad influences, including the Cuban and South American rhythms of his boyhood.
The band’s latest album, 1999’s South, is a case in point. Scattered among covers of Howlin’ Wolf (“Cause of It All”), the Beatles (“She’s a Woman”), and Van Morrison (“Satisfied”) songs are a country-tinged Morris tune entitled “Louise” and a handful of Hector originals that variously reflect his Cuban and Latin American roots (“Marigot”), his southern influences (“Fireball”), his jazzier inclinations (“The Last Time”), and even a taste for reggae (“Long Cold Night”).
“When it moved to New Orleans and Memphis, blues music became part of the national language,” Qirko explains. “The Hector Qirko Band is a ‘blues’ band, but in that more generalized sense of the word. I sometimes think of us as like a magazine, where you read some very different articles, but they’re all connected by being in the same publication.”
Nowadays, Qirko busies himself with no fewer than three significant collaborations, including his own band and his work with Morris, with whom he recently toured parts of Europe. Qirko has appeared on all of Morris’s solo releases save his initial major label effort Take That Ride. Quips Morris of his longtime collaborator, “Whether you play for kings and queens or for the neighborhood bar, Hector has your back.”
He’s also working again with the Lonesome Coyotes, a local six-piece honky-tonk and trad-country outfit with whom he played in the early and middle 1980s. The Coyotes have freshly released a 12-song CD entitled Just Like New on the local Leap of Faith Music imprint.
But perhaps closest to Qirko’s own heart is UWP, a four-song EP released last year which features his last collaboration with the late Terry Hill, who died after a long illness. Proceeds from its sale go toward the Terry Hill Memorial Fund, providing music instruction for disadvantaged youth.
“I can’t tell you what UWP stands for; it’s a band secret,” Qirko says with a characteristically unfathomable smile. “It was originally supposed to be a solo record, with Terry playing on four tracks. But when he died, rather than finishing the record I had in mind, I put it out as an EP. It’s more experimental and outside than most of the stuff I play.”
Which is, perhaps, an understatement. Full of discordant loops, odd textures, and free-form improvisation, UWP offers compelling testimony that Snow is right when he says no one has truly figured out what makes this lank and serene-looking college professor with the slow smile and the lethal Telecaster tick.
“Hector has the mind of a mad scientist, but it’s all wrapped up in this all-American, apple-pie-and-custard sort of thing,” says Snow. “Don’t ever let it fool you. He’s not just a good ol' boy who plays the blues.”