It is with both great excitement and grateful appreciation that I announce that I will be joining the judging team for the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase, sponsored by Mars Studios and hosted by The Britannia Arms.
This is a remarkable event, not only for being so explicitly devotional to its local creative community, but for its rigorous adherence to the principles of craft. When first presented with the judge’s materials and documentation, I was pleased and impressed beyond measure to see the extent to which Ken Capitanich (the man behind the whole enterprise, and the guru behind the board at Mars Studios) had spelled out in exacting detail the guidelines for how songs were to be evaluated. Performance was not to be taken into consideration, composition was. Lyrics, melody, harmony, chords, arrangements, structures; this was the compositional architecture we were to listen for, identify, and ultimately, judge.
There is little in this life I enjoy more than the process of listening, learning, deconstructing, analyzing, rebuilding, and finalizing a song. Twisting it, turning it, bending it, pulling it inside it & out and seeing what it has inside; flipping it over and investigating its underside; pulling its flesh off its bones and revealing its underlying forms and formations; breathing and praying with it to understand its soul and its mojo; hanging it upside down to see what falls out; kneading it into myriad shapes and sizes and baking it at varying temperatures; burning it and sorting through its ashes; gluing and taping and sewing it together to see what forms it might yet take; this is the immersive joy of craft, and in undergoing this process, you experience the true joy of the creator and the created both.
With this mindset in my mind I watched the semi-finals earlier this week, and was heartened to witness both the playful camaraderie and precise attention to detail that the best songwriters always have in balanced evidence. As with all great craftspeople, great songwriters are essentially deadly serious about doing that which is ultimately very fun, and both seriousness and fun were much in evidence that evening.
And so it is that I look forward with great anticipation to taking my judge’s seat and experiencing firsthand the full measure of what 8 talented songwriters will deliver on finals night. It’s sure to be something very special.
(It should be noted that proceeds from the event’s raffle are earmarked for the extraordinary organization Guitars Not Guns. If you are NOT in Northern California and cannot attend the event itself, you might at least consider donating to this very worthy group!)
For those of who reading this who may be wondering what on earth it is I’ve done to warrant the right to place my backside in a judge’s seat at a songwriter’s showcase, I humbly offer the following (essentially a chronicle of the privileges I’ve been afforded in this life, to learn from an extraordinary roster of generous talents and wise mentors):
Christopher “Preacher Boy” Watkins: A Songwriter’s Biography
Christopher Watkins began his professional songwriting career working with a string of legendary producers who mentored his early endeavors, including Sandy Pearlman (The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath), Norm Kerner (Jewel, American Music Club), and Todd Rundgren. Absorbing all he could from these early influences, while also continuing to immerse himself ever deeper in the country blues that were his first true musical love, Watkins slowly forged the singular songwriting style that would eventually earn him international acclaim.
This style was first heard on his debut release for Blind Pig Records, the album Preacher Boy and The Natural Blues. The album ignited a mini-revolution in the Roots & Blues community, released as it was long before “Americana” even existed as a modern genre. But while controversial, it was also a critical success:
“With some of the most innovative roots music on the scene today, Preacher Boy will make a believer out of even the most skeptical. The album creates dusky lyrical landscapes littered with hobos, ghosts, drunks, loneliness, love, and salvation. The result is a totally unique twist on roots music.” –Blues Access
Publications as diverse as Rolling Stone, Living Blues, and Sing Out gave it glowing reviews, and by his second Blind Pig release (Gutters & Pews) Preacher Boy had won a coveted Bay Area Music Award (a “Bammie”), shared stages with everyone from Chris Isaak, Cracker, and Counting Crows, to Jimmy Vaughan, Los Lobos, J.J. Cale and John Lee Hooker, and been anointed “Charlie Musselwhite for the Lollapalooza Generation.” (This quote would become a running joke between Preach and Charlie when they toured together some 10 years later!)
Touring took Preacher Boy regularly to the UK, and he eventually signed with an English record label, once again working with extraordinary production mentors –Jon Astley and Andrew McPherson (The Who, Eric Clapton)– on the album that would lead to his greatest success yet as a songwriter:
“Preacher Boy is a songwriter of startling originality.” –MOJO
His genre-bending album Crow was the debut release for the new label, and upon hearing it Eagle-Eye Cherry –then riding high on his breakthrough single “Save Tonight” and his contributions to Santana’s Supernatural album– personally invited Preacher Boy to join him on tour.
Watkins would co-write two albums with Eagle-Eye. The first –Living In The Present Future– saw Watkins working with yet another legendary producer/mentor, Rick Rubin. These sessions were recorded at New York’s famed Magic Shop, and one of the songs –“Long Way Around” (featuring Eagle-Eye’s sister Neneh Cherry on vocals)– would earn Watkins his first Gold Record.
Co-writing become a consuming passion, and the Preacher Boy name began to appear on more and more projects, including albums by Bryan Miller (two-time Nashville Songwriter’s Association award-winner), Colin Brooks (Band of Heathens), Will Scott (Independent Music Awards winner for Gnawbone, much of which was tracked at Mars!) and famed Nashville guitarist Dave Isaacs. Brooks returned the songwriting favor for Demanding To Be Next, the first solo-acoustic Preacher Boy release, co-writing both “My Gold Canoe” and “Whistleman.” This album earned Watkins some of his most effusive critical praise to date, with “Whistleman” even being compared to the great man himself:
“(Preacher Boy’s) voice, a cross between those of Kelly Joe Phelps and Tom Waits, has an otherworldly quality that makes him sound like no one else and suits his quirky songs well. ‘Whistleman’ packs detailed, offbeat imagery that recalls Dylan’s best.” –Blues Revue
Watkins then took a musical hiatus to focus on another written form: poetry. He received two writer’s grants (one of which saw him working alone for 3 months in the house where Jack Kerouac was living when “On The Road” was published and where he wrote “The Dharma Bums”) and earned an MFA in Creative Writing. He also saw his debut volume of poetry published –Short Houses With Wide Porches (Shady Lane Press)– which received significant critical support from the poetry community:
“The poems of Christopher Watkins are, at once, tender, shrewdly observed and enormously vital.” -Baron Wormser (former Poet Laureate of Maine, a Guggenheim grant recipient, and the author of many award-winning collections of poetry.)
Watkins then returned to music and songwriting, and 2015 now promises not one, not two, but three new Preacher Boy albums.