Question: Who are your Top 5 Most Influential Vocalists?
Depending on whether you’re at all familiar with my musical career, this may or may not be a surprising list.
But it’s definitely the list. I will never, never, never forget the first moments when I heard each of these singers. Thank you Yazoo Records. Thank you Takoma Records. Thank you Chess Records. Thank you Folkways Records. Thank you to my parents for having a record player in the house. Thank you to Samuel Charters for writing The Country Blues.
And while I’m at it, thank you to my first grade teacher for making fun of my voice when I tried to sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” You set me on a whole different vocal path, lady. And I thank you.
The thing is, if you’ve ever read a review of a Preacher Boy album, you’re probably thinking, why isn’t Tom Waits on this list? After all, virtually every Preacher Boy review in the last 25+ years has managed to mention Tom Waits.
Well, he’s not on my Top 5 list, because he doesn’t belong there.
The thing is, I was intimately and obsessively familiar with the music of the five artists in the title of this post long before I had any idea who Tom Waits was. The reason someone hipped me to Tom Waits in the first place was because they knew the other stuff I was into. It was a former roommate of mine; a college radio DJ. He gave me a Memorex. One side was Mose Allison. On the other, Swordfishtrombones.
Now, was Waits an influence? Absolutely. But not because of his voice per se. He was an influence because THAT voice was writing THOSE songs. That was what made the difference for me.
See, I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices. Charley Patton’s voice made sense to me. Bukka White’s voice made sense to me. Blind Willie Johnson’s voice made sense to me. They were the right voices for their music. That made sense to me.
I knew what my voice sounded like. It wasn’t pretty. But that was ok. I didn’t like pretty voices.
And I knew how I was going to play guitar. I’d heard Mance Lipscomb. I’d heard Fred McDowell. I’d heard Robert Pete Williams. I’d heard Son House. I got it, man. I got it. Ever since I heard Mississippi John Hurt playing Sliding Delta, I knew what I was going to do as a guitarist.
And I knew I was going to be a songwriter.
But that was the problem. How to connect it all? I wasn’t going to write songs like Charley Patton. That wouldn’t have been honest. I knew who I was, and even at a young age, I expected authenticity of myself. So what to do? I didn’t know. I didn’t think I was going to do anything.
Then, I heard “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six.” Vocally, I got it. The man had clearly listened to a lot of the same things I had. And the groove, the rawness, the hypnotic stomping drone-ness of it; I got that. Those were country blues ingredients. But the lyrics. The lyrics. Here was something different. A new sort of language, a new sort of poetry. A sort of rustic, sordid, gritty, earthen, American poetry that was both mystical and soiled. It was at once visionary and hallucinogenic, but also totally raw and present and real and folky and outlandish. A kind of literate and bent hobo prosody. It was Nelson Algren and Gary Snyder and James Wright and Tony Joe White and Jack Kerouac and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’ Connor and Raymond Chandler and Erksine Caldwell and Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley and Townes Van Zandt and Toni Morrison, all rolled into one. I got it. I dug it.
So that’s the Waits influence in a nutshell for me. His music—as represented by that blessed trio of Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, and Rain Dogs— made clear to me it was possible to weld voice and music and lyrics together in ways I hadn’t previously believed entirely possible.
But here’s the thing … and I’m probably gonna get some flack for sayin’ this … but the thing is, Tom Waits can’t play country blues. I can.
So back to my list. Charley Patton. The rawest of them all. Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for. Bukka White. You can’t get heavier than that. When he sings the line “When can I change my clothes?” you hear the whole history of masculinity and pain in his voice. That’s what I strive for. Blind Willie Johnson. Jesus, listen to my first record. It’s almost embarrassing to me now, how obviously derivative some of my songs are. The Cross Must Move? Please … Still, I’m really proud of that song! It’s still with me today. Derivative or not, it IS authentic to me. I’m still singin’ it and playin’ it today, 21 years after it was released. Howlin’ Wolf. Synonymous with nuanced ferocity. When I first heard the song “Who’s Been Talkin'” I thought, right. That. How do I do that? Dave Van Ronk. This should be obvious. Virtually the only white guy from the whole folk-blues thing in the sixties who could actually sing and play country blues. So yeah, when I heard him, I had hope, man. His approach still informs so much of what I do. But mainly, I just loved that he sung with total and complete full-throated abandon. No mic needed. That’s my barometer of true vocal authenticity. If you NEED a mic? Ain’t interested …
Listen to Charley Patton’s vocals on High Water Everywhere. He sounds insane, and like he’s about to die. That’s what I strive for.
Here’s my recommendations, if you’re not familiar with these voices. Start with these songs:
- Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 & 2
- Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes
- Blind Willie Johnson: God Moves On The Water
- Howlin’ Wolf: I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)
- Dave Van Ronk: Po’ Lazarus
Such beautiful music, man.