Category Archives: Country Blues

A Scholarly Paper On Preacher Boy?


Preacher Boy: A Citations-Included Scholarly Performance Review, and Guerrilla-Raw Recordings From The Show

I have been fortunate to receive a great many press reviews over the years. Most of them have actually been quite favorable, for which I’m grateful. Some even remarkably so. Many have been funny, some almost frighteningly spot on, and virtually all have had something insightful to contribute.

That Canadian publication that likened my singing to “Motorhead’s Lemmy singing the blues?” That was awesome.

The Seattle newspaper that described my music as “dark, beautiful, desperate, and soulful?” I loved that.

And of course, getting reviewed by Rolling Stone was pretty special, though getting a nod from Living Blues may have even topped that, given that I pretty much grew up reading that magazine. Still hard to believe I ended up in those hallowed pages.

The point being, I’ve been lucky that so many generous individuals have elected to write about my music. But a scholarly article, complete with citations and the like? That’s something new for me.

Yet that’s exactly what has transpired. Jonathan Dryden, one of the finest musicians working today–a true piano virtuoso–and a deep musicological student of all things Americana, has penned what I think is a rather extraordinary article based on a recent Preacher Boy performance, and focused on a suite of turn-of-the-century songs that feature in my rather ramshackle repertoire.

I am humbled beyond imagining by this piece of prose, and honestly hesitated to even share it. Well, at least I hesitated for a second or two. Truthfully, I couldn’t wait to share it. I am proud and humbled both, and genuinely stunned to find what I do so deeply understood, so “gotten.” Mr. Dryden is as sensitive and intelligent a writer as one could hope to be on the receiving end of, and I am so grateful to have been considered in this fashion.

Here is an excerpt from this paper:

“Compared to Len Spencer’s jerky and hurried version from the 1910s [Preacher Boy’s] pace was leisurely but well-timed. In his hands, the song didn’t sound one hundred-twenty years old. It was fresh and exciting, and the lyrics weren’t dated. He played it in a modern shuffle rhythm, alternating between G major and minor from beat to beat in the opening four measures instead of the traditional G major throughout. Where there had only been a tonic and dominant chord in the song, he found ways to insert sub-dominant and relative minor chords that brought out the melody and lyrics even more than a plain rendition would have done.”

You can read the full paper by clicking Preacher-Boy-at-Aptos-BBQ-1232015.

And should you wish to listen to some of the performance yourself, here are a few live guerrilla-raw recordings from the show in question:

Take Me Back


You’ve Been A Good Old Wagon, Daddy But You Done Broke Down

Shine On Harvest Moon

For my versions of the above, I am indebted to recordings by Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Leon Redbone, and Dave Van Ronk.

And for this post, and the story it contains, I am indebted specifically to Jonathan Dryden. Thank you, sir! And I am of course indebted to all at Aptos St BBQ, upon whose stage I had the pleasure of performing these songs. I am also indebted to anyone who has been gracious enough to write about me and/or the music I play. And finally, I am indebted to the music that came before me, and the musicians who made it. Deep bows to all.

#NowPlaying: Music You Probably Aren’t Listening To, But Should Be

Joseph Spence. Yep. That’s right. Joseph Spence. Caribbean Country Blues. Trust me. And here’s the best way to get your head wrapped around the gloriously bent and magic acoustical muttering beauty of this strange and incredible artist. Listen to his version of Sloop John B. Because you know the song, but you have NEVER heard it like this. And it’s so, so phenomenal … I mean, literally cool beyond imagining. Seriously. Dig this.

Dock Boggs. I am a firm believer that proper Country Blues needs to occasionally be a bit creepy. And there is little music in the world that is more creepy than Dock Boggs’ original version of  Sugar Baby.

Freddie, by Mance Lipscomb. Mance is associated with a great many fantastic things, and rightfully so. But not often with one chord drone songs. And let’s digress for a moment to note that one chord drone songs are the ultimate measure of a musicianer. And Country Blues does it best. Yeah, take that, modal jazz! (which I happen to love, btw). Anyhow, Mance hypnotizes on this one, so dig:

And here’s one from the newden days. Chris Whitley (RIP) laying into Spoonful with the Billy Martin & Chris Wood, the esteemed Medeski, Martin & Wood rhythm section. Just when you thought an ol’ blue chestnut like this one couldn’t be reimagined successfully, here comes this motherfu&*er of a rendition. This, people, is modern country blues. Not … that other stuff. This.

To be continued, but please. Listen to this music. Listen to this Country Blues.

16 Essential Country Blues Recordings By 16 Essential Country Blues Artists

In which I list the 16 indisputably greatest country blues performances ever recorded.

Country Blues Music is aural American Haiku.

Country blues isn’t any of the things anyone says it is.

Country blues is these 16 songs. Rippled out in a funky pond …

These are recordings by Country Blues masters.

Anyone who says Country Blues isn’t poetry doesn’t know a damn thing about anything worth knowing …

How does a song make this list? By bein’ juju-laden with groove and rawness and swamp funk and pathos and lyrical mystery and perfect mystery and perfect lyrics and transformative soul-crawl and rawness and wry gruffness and hair-raiser powers and grease and swamp and funk and weirdness and genius and earth-raw American Swamp Haiku funk soul mojo…

in alphabetical order

  1. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Matchbox Blues

Virtually every Blind Lemon Jefferson recording is a master class of Country Blues. But certain moments within certain songs vibrate your mind’s tuning fork in unprecedented ways. This is such a song. The lyrical pivot from “standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes” to “i ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go” is just magisterial…(recommended recording, the JSP masters version)

  1. Blind Willie Johnson: God Moves On The Water

This’ll mess you up for gettin’ cocky with Mother Nature … dang. Not just the vengeance of the Lord, man, but God MOVES … on the water. As far as I’m concerned, the Country Blues has just a few truly genius slide guitar players. Willie Johnson is one of them. And the Country Blues has only 4 truly great voices, and they’re all on this list, and Willie Johnson is one of them.

  1. Blind Willie McTell: Dying Crapshooter’s Blues

It’s as good a story song as any ever written in the folk tradition. Sophisticated, narrative, compelling, moody, idiosyncratic, sly, somber, perfect. A total masterpiece, a tour de force. The guy was a bloody genius. The 1940 version, recorded in a hotel room, is so raw. The guitar out of tune, the voice creaked and ailing but still all suave and wry and hip, and the delivery so sly, so masterful. It’s incredible. Every version of this song is incredible, but if you get the chance, listen to the 1940 recording.

  1. Bukka White: When Can I Change My Clothes?

“I wonder how long, ‘fore I can change my clothes?”

It simply doesn’t get more powerful than this song. The riff, the taut growl wail, the lyric. Listen to the Takoma recording, by the way. Not the 1940 one. Takoma will put the hurt on ya…

  1. Charley Patton: High Water Everywhere

I can think of a thousand authors on book tours right now who can’t tell a story worth a shit, and here’s Charley Patton with a song about a flood that’s as good as anything Carson McCullers ever wrote, which makes it better than most anything ever written… People don’t talk enough about what a vocalist Charley Patton was, but this vocal is incredible … just urgency incarnate.

  1. Lightnin’ Hopkins: Mama And Papa Hopkins 

You just go listen to the opening verse of this tune, and then just don’t talk to me about Lightin’ Hopkins anymore, about anything, ever …Listen to this one on vinyl. From the album “Autobiography in Blues.” My grandpa gave me this recording on vinyl when I was 16. I’m many, many years older than that now, and it’s STILL changing my life…

  1. Mance Lipscomb: Freddie

He got mad. He got bad. With a gun. In his hand.


You got a lyric like that, on a groove like this, you don’t need more than one chord. From Mance’s first album, released on Arhoolie. Get it on vinyl, man…

  1. Mississippi Fred McDowell: Levee Camp Blues

If you work on somethin’ until you go stone blind?  Yeah, man. Fred McDowell just makes the spooky. This song will haunt you. Just grease and dark and soulful and earthy and river-y stunk up and so much slide & vocal voodoo, it’s a masterpiece of unwound pathotic soul fable…

  1. Mississippi John Hurt: Stagolee

Mississippi John Hurt doesn’t sound much like anyone else on this list, but he’s Mississippi Blues, man, and this is canonical American folklore right here …personally, I’ll take one of the later recordings on Vanguard, but the 1928 Okeh version will sure do too…

  1. Reverend Gary Davis: Death Don’t Have No Mercy

What can you say about a song like this? This version, from Newport, is quite simply one of the greatest recordings of American Song ever preserved. Period. And don’t fall for the staged Newport video version, by the way. Gary Davis still kills it, but the version you want to listen to is the concert one. Get it from the “Great Bluesmen at Newport” collection on Vanguard …

  1. Robert Johnson: Love In Vain

Maybe oddly enough, I don’t actually listen to Robert Johnson that much. He’s almost too good. And this song is almost too sophisticated. But this is genuine weird America, man, because how do you craft up so hard on a song like this, and have it end up so perfectly, weirdly, rawly excellent? It’s just a bloody weird blues song, is what it is, and it’s a must-listen…

When the train, it left the station
with two lights on behind
Well, the blue light was my blues
and the red light was my mind
All my love’s in vain

That’s just weird, man. What happened to weird in the blues? Gimme some more weird…

  1. Robert Pete Williams: Ugly

Mama, why I gotta be so ugly in this world?
Son, that’s just a mark that God put on your face.

A mark that God put on your face.

Take that, every other writer of anything.

And here’s a secret for you that I’m gonna let you in on. This was recorded on Fahey’s Takoma album, but it’s seemingly impossible–literally impossible–to find. Except it’s not. You can actually hear it on Spotify. But you’d never know it. It’s one of those horrible albums-without-an-album-cover album covers. But don’t be fooled. Click this link, and go listen to this whole dang album. It’s funky as hell, and very, very, very, very true.

Spotify has the album listed as “Freight Train Blues.” And it says all the songs are “live.” Which is actually right, just not how they mean it…

  1. Skip James: Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

How do you pick one Skip James song? Simple. You pick the best one. And for my money, the first “post-rediscovery” version of this is actually better than the original 1930 version… There’s nothing in the world like Skip James. He’s like the VanGogh of Country Blues, you just wonder, where on earth did this come from? And that voice? I didn’t put it as one of the 4 great country blues voices, because it’s not. It one of the one great Skip James voices. Of which there is no other…

You know that people are driftin’ from door to door
Can’t find no heaven, don’t care where they go

And that ghosty hum after? I been listenin’ to this song for 30 years, I still get chills…

  1. Sleepy John Estes: Mailman Blues

Sleepy John Estes is Country Blues’ greatest short story writer, and one of its greatest voices. He is in fact one of Country Blues’ four great singers. The others being Son House, Tommy Johnson, and Willie Johnson. His is the great broken, cracking plaintive sound that the country blues always wants when it’s not busy gravelin’ itself up. But as a writer, man, Sleepy John just wrote the daily history of his life, and just made it so damn beautiful and compelling and simple in a haiku-simple –read, not simple—way. Just a blues about a drunk mailman. Except it’s fully existential and about death. Sartre in A. I coulda put Lawyer Clark, or Martha Hardin, or Floating Bridge, or Fire Department. But I chose this one, cuz it’s the best.

  1. Son House: Death Letter Blues

The king high motherf&%$er of all Country Blues songs. And you want the 1965 Columbia Records version. Just trust me.

  1. Tommy Johnson: Cool Drink Of Water Blues

Honestly, he could be singin’ about anything, and when that yodel-howl-falsetto thing comes on, man, I just faint. And so what if the lyric is a tossed-around shared couplet. You sing it like this, it’s all yours, man. I asked for water, she gave me gasoline. He sings it better than Howlin’ Wolf, and nobody sings anything better than Howlin’ Wolf. Except Tommy Johnson does. So there.


%d bloggers like this: