WELBILT'S eponymous EP is up for best rock recording at Sunday's 2002 Washington Area Music Awards at the State Theatre. Sponsored by the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA), the Wammies annually recognize significant achievements by local musicians, and the Fairfax-based band, which will perform at the ceremony, had some pretty significant achievements last year.

Unsigned they may be; unnoticed they were not.

Last May, Welbilt beat out 1,200 local and regional bands to win the DC101 Chili Cookoff and got to play in front of 40,000 people downtown in a concert featuring Puddle of Mudd, Remy Zero and Soul Asylum. In the fall, they outdid thousands of aspirants to win the Rolling Rock/Hard Rock Cafe's Road to Town Fair battle of the bands. That got Welbilt the opening slot at the Rolling Rock Town Fair 3.3 in Latrobe, Pa., and another crowd of 40,000. (Okay, maybe the presence of Godsmack, Outkast, Nickelback, P.O.D. and Sevendust helped goose the attendance.)

Vocalist and guitarist Nate Ihara, who writes most of Welbilt's songs, expected the band's average attendance figures to slip after a show in College Park a couple of weeks ago.

Still, Welbilt's recent gig at the Santa Fe Cafe (4410 Knox Rd., College Park; 301-779-1345) drew a few hundred young folk. The Santa Fe Cafe is looking to reclaim its status as a hot spot for live bands, plunking a high stage at one end of the Southwestern-style room and, for now, booking bands on Fridays only. But the University of Maryland isn't back in session this particular night, and much of the crowd has stepped out of vehicles with Virginia license plates.

What they came to hear is a tight quartet playing high-energy melodic rock infused with reggae, a sound not that surprising because the 22-year-old Ihara lists Sting and The Police, Sublime, The Wailers, Squeeze and Elvis Costello as influences. Locking into a hard groove with guitarist Buddy Speir, bassist Nick Briscoe and drummer Bill Ledbetter, Ihara proves a charismatic frontman, serving up assured originals like "Bombs Away," "Digging Holes" and "Anthem," with very occasional covers like Toots and the Maytals' "54-46 Was My Number" recast as more rock than reggae.

Such covers are really just time-fillers for a band that favors taut 3 1/2-minute pop songs. According to Ihara, "it's just enough to keep the crowd interested" while the band continues to create new material. Though Ihara and Ledbetter played together in high school bands, Welbilt has been together for only a year. Its repertoire is strong, but not yet deep. It's also evolving from the rock/reggae feel evident on the band's EP to a more concise, hard-edged rock sound.

Welbilt has been getting some local airplay -- "Bombs Away" on WHFS, "Digging Holes" on DC101 -- and they recently returned from a two-week working vacation in California that could lead to the next level. Winning the Rolling Rock/Hard Rock Cafe competition included a three-song demo deal with Virgin Records under the tutelage of Godsmack producer Andre "Mudrock" Murdock.

Apparently, Welbilt made a good impression. The band was supposed to go to Los Angeles for four days; they stayed 13, getting in a fair amount of industry schmoozing around the demo sessions. Virgin will soon have to decide whether to sign Welbilt, and a number of other labels have already requested a New York showcase should a Virgin deal fall through.

Meanwhile, Welbilt continues to hone its craft, play select dates (their next local gig is March 17 at TT Reynolds in Fairfax with Fidel; check www.welbiltmusic.com) and survive on assorted day jobs. "We're just focused on loving what we do, having fun doing it, making it work basically," Ihara says. "When you do that, the rest follows behind you -- the songs, the shows, building a following. A record deal will come along. We're not focused on getting rich and famous just yet."

UNCLE BILL WANTS YOU!

Bill Kirchen has enlisted more than two dozen pickers, plunkers and string-benders in the DC Guitar Army, which will make its debut, and possibly its farewell appearance, at Sunday's Wammies, where they will perform a precision arrangement (Okay, we made that up!) of John Lennon's antiwar anthem, "Imagine." Kirchen became recruiter and commander-in-chief by virtue of his seeming ownership of the Wammies. Since moving to Washington in 1990, he's received about 30 of them.

"Oh God, I don't know, they've been so generous to me I'm embarrassed to count," says Kirchen, who last year was named both musician and artist of the year, received best album and song of the year awards and was inducted into the WAMA Hall of Fame. According to Kirchen, the Guitar Army, which could be at platoon strength by the time they meet for the first time at sound check, includes "a wide variety of people: some bluegrass people, Tom Principato, Linwood Taylor, Rick Whitehead, Mike Jones from McGregor, Alan McKeuen, Chuck Underwood, Ruthie Logsdon, Melanie Mason, John Thatcher, a guitarist and judge in Fairfax County Circuit Court."

"I've transcribed the piano part for guitar chord charts that I hope we'll all play at the beginning -- simple first-edition guitar -- and if we all play that in unison, it will sound nice," Kirchen says. "Then I'm hoping we'll branch out into four or five distinct parts that people can play, so it's not a complete train wreck, and then leave space for four or eight bar solos, going down the line with whoever selects themselves to be soloists. I'm trying to figure out how to make it sound good without micromanaging it or squeezing the life out of it."

The Guitar Army was originally going to perform the national anthem, but it's not really the best tune for such an ensemble, and, Kirchen says, "I wanted to have something with a peace message. And 'Imagine' has a definite peace message."

Meanwhile, the guitarist has just released a new album, "Dieselbilly Road Trip" as part of Cracker Barrel's new Heritage Music Collection. The series consists of 15 CDs produced by the Washington-based National Council for the Traditional Arts to celebrate the richness and diversity of American music, from blues, bluegrass and gospel to Cajun, zydeco and Dixieland jazz. Cracker Barrel was looking to upgrade the music it sells in its restaurants, the NCTA was looking for a way to champion roots music, and Kirchen was happy to provide "a travel record for roadside restaurants."

"Being a road warrior, I eat at Cracker Barrel -- it's our chain of choice when we're on the interstate," Kirchen says. The album has a definite travel motif: All the songs are about particular cities, from "The Streets of Baltimore" to "Eight More Miles to Louisville."

Says Kirchen, "I'm up for anything. The record industry's in such disarray, and my niche, the indie label stuff, is getting hurt like everybody else, so I'm into marketing music in different ways."

Kirchen's not the only local artist in the Heritage Music collection: others include John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, Danny Doyle, The Seldom Scene and Dudley Connell, singing traditional Southern gospel with the Stony Point Quartet.The albums are being test-marketed in 50 Cracker Barrels nationwide; the closest are in Frederick and Bel Air, Md. They are also available online at www.crackerbarrel.com.

2002 WASHINGTON AREA MUSIC AWARDS -- Performances by DC Guitar Army, Storm the Unpredictable, Little Pink, CommonbonD, Welbilt, The Northeast Groovers and others Sunday at the State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church. 703-237-0300. www.wamadc.com. All seats are general admission, and tickets do not guarantee a seat. $20 for non-WAMA members, $15 for WAMA members and $5 for nominees. To charge tickets by phone, call 703-368-3300 or toll-free at 888-843-0933. www.wamadc.com.

From left, Welbilt's Nick Briscoe, Nate Ihara and Buddy Speir perform at the Santa Fe Cafe in College Park.Bill Kirchen has received about 30 Wammies since 1990. For this year's awards, he has enlisted about two dozen guitarists to perform John Lennon's "Imagine."