The Gospel According to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz

With a stage name like Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, you’d expect that the man would be an evangelist of some kind. And you’d be right. But Wirtz – born William Wirths in Aiken, South Carolina, just up the road from where James Brown was born 19 years before him – isn’t selling old-time, fire-and-brimstone religion; no, he’s on a mission to spread the good news about American roots music. A bona fide renaissance man of song, Wirtz is a singer, songwriter, humorist, broadcaster, journalist, historian, author and filmmaker.

Like anyone who’s passionate about their chosen vocation, Wirtz will talk your ear off if you let him. But in the process, he’ll teach you a thing or two, and he’ll certainly make you laugh. But he’s serious about his mission. And he considers all of his various creative endeavors as part of one big calling. And that’s been the case ever since long before he got started as a recording artist with 1983’s Salvation Through Polyester. “I still do a comedic live presentation,” he explains. “But within the comedy, I’ll play an old classic and talk about how it evolved.”

A Rev. Billy C. Wirtz concert is a history lesson wrapped in a rollicking, laugh-riot live show. He might start out by playing one of his originals: maybe a new one like “Go Little Golf Cart,” about the alleged naughty goings-on in The Villages, Florida’s deep red, Disneyfied and 95% White community. From there, Wirtz might launch into a lively, fast-paced discussion about “Got My Mojo Workin’,” the blues classic popularized by Muddy Waters.

“But Muddy didn’t write ‘Mojo,’” Wirtz will explain. Composed by Preston Foster in 1956, the song was first cut by a woman named Ann Cole. “She and Muddy were on the same bill at the Manhattan Casino in St. Pete,” he’ll tell the audience. Waters had been looking for a blues song that combined country beats, like Chuck Berry had done with “Maybelline” in 1955.

Helping the audience to appreciate that blues, gospel, country and rock ‘n’ roll are closely woven strands of the tapestry that is American music, Wirtz will then demonstrate that “Got My Mojo Workin’” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” are, in his words, “the identical song with the same beat.”

After pausing to let that fascinating fact sink in, he continues. “I put stuff like that in between ‘Mama Was a Deadhead’ and ‘Roberta’ [from 1989’s Deep Fried and Sanctified] and all the classics.”

Wirtz’s other pursuits dovetail with his own music-making. For years now he has hosted radio shows like Reverend Billy’s Rhythm Revival, broadcast in different forms on Santa Cruz’s KPIG-FM, Western North Carolina’s WNCW and Tampa’s WMNF. “I’ve been doing the show for about 15 years now,” he says. Wirtz says that his broadcasting career actually began when he was a student at University of Georgia. “But when I started playing piano in my 20s, the radio thing fell off to the side for awhile.” But he eventually returned to the airwaves. “I was always a music fan,” he explains. “First and always.”

As a music fan with a deep well of knowledge paired with insatiable curiosity, Wirtz is the ideal person to explore and document overlooked corners of musical history. One of his current projects is a documentary about 92 year old pianist Leon Blue. A member of classic blues band The Manish Boys, Blue’s extensive credits include work with everyone from “king of Western Swing” Bob Wills to Ike & Tina Turner to Lloyd Price to B.B. King. The documentary isn’t quite finished yet, but Wirtz has his title: The World According to Leon.

Wirtz writes often for America’s oldest blues periodical, Living Blues, and other outlets. In 2022 he won an award in Florida for Best Nonfiction Magazine Article. That history of the state’s so-called chitlin’ circuit was, according to a well-connected acquaintance of his, “a bad motherfucker for a documentary.” Work is about to commence on that project. “We begin by interviewing Alan Leeds, who was James Brown’s road manager for 15 years,” Wirtz says.

Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’s passion for music is contagious, and it knows no bounds. He loves the wild stuff, and he has dedicated life and career to spreading that love to listeners, readers and audiences. “When the segregationist preachers screamed about the devil n-word music, they said it would lead to premarital sex, and to interracial couples dancing,” he says with a smile and hearty laugh. “And they were right!”