What A Difference 20 Years Makes: The Evolution of “Coal Black Dirt Sky”

Preacher Boy - LIVE

I wrote the lyrics to the song “Coal Black Dirt Sky” pretty much exactly 20 years ago. With The Backyard Funeral Band, we recorded it for the album “Crow.”

Despite the fact that I really love the song, I’ve virtually never played it live. It could be the arrangement. The way we recorded it was very much the evolutionary result of that particular group of musicians coming together, and it just never made sense in any future ensemble incarnations. The same might be said for solo performances as well—I just never wrapped my head around how to own the song on my own.

And so into the brume it went, disappeared into the obfuscatory tendrils of time …

Until recently. The song just started coming back into me for some reason. I wanted to play it. I wanted to own it. I wanted it to be my song again. I wanted to play it on my National.

So I had a go at working up an arrangement, and I played it a couple nights ago. It didn’t go very well. The brume beckoned. But I didn’t give up. I had to get it. The minor tonality of the chorus’ second chord—that had to be nailed on the National somehow, in a way that wouldn’t dip in intensity.

Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” gave me the first third of the answer. It was all about flipping the chord, and pulling the minor tonality out of the bass strings.

That meant the rhythm had to change. Tricky, as the song has a very particular syllabic pattern. That’s where Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” came in—it gave me the second third of the answer. It had to swing.

Finally, I had to bring the slide in. Thank you Mississippi Fred McDowell, for once again showing me the way. This was the third third.

Boom. I have my song back. I hope you like it too. I really do. But regardless, I’m happy. I have my song back. And I love to play it. I played it last night. And I was very happy.

This is bootleg-quality guerrilla audio, but I think you’ll get the gist. Check it out, see what you think. Then, go check out the version from Crow.

A travelin’ song that’s done a lot of travelin’. That’s what this is:

Preacher Boy – Coal Black Dirt Sky [LIVE],  2016

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Preacher Boy (and The Backyard Funeral Band) – Coal Black Dirt Sky [Studio], 1998

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Coal Black Dirt Sky

when you’re alone in wyoming you are truly alone
you look out the window and there’s nothing there but road
and if you make it to nebraska there still ain’t nothin’ ’round
and the night wraps around you just like a gown
you look out the window and the sky is coal black dirt
and you realize you’ve ridden through hell on earth
and you leave behind the creaking night, the whip-slap winds a-moanin’
never again to see the wilds of nebraska and wyoming
it’s a coal black dirt sky
the hills laugh out load as we speed by
between sleep, i spy
nothing in the coal black dirt sky
wyoming is as cold as frost on a metal rail
and the cold wind pins you down like the bars of a jail
and the snow sits at the side of the road like a threat
and you pray for the end of the ride but you’re not there yet
and nebraska is tall as heaven and it’s twice as wide
and it’s bound to take a lifetime to reach the other side
and you don’t know what it looks like ’cause you never saw it’s day
so nebraska lies behind you and just fades away
it’s a coal black dirt sky
the hills laugh out load as we speed by
between sleep, i spy
nothing in the coal black dirt sky

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