Category Archives: Songs From The Vaults

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


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


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

As Rare A Pair Of Preacher Boy Tracks As You’re Ever Likely To Find


After decamping to England to sign with Manchester-based indie WahTup Records, the whole Preacher Boy carnival underwent a fairly radical sonic transfiguration, emerging as Preacher Boy and The Backyard Funeral Band, and featuring the multi-instrumental talents of Danny Uzilevsky, Paul Johnson, Dan Andrews, and Brendan Rush Dance.

Crow was the album born of the change. It was the result of months of rehearsal, and a progressive whittling down from some 60+ songs rehearsed, nearly 50 basic tracked, over 20 songs completed, and 14 songs mixed and mastered.

The album was a sort of glorious disaster, a kind of Captain Beefheart folk opera, as if Nick Cave had produced the Captain recording his own version of Neil Young’s Harvest, with lyrics by Carson McCullers. The reviews were priceless:

“Country blues that marry Nick Cave, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie and Tom Waits, honeymoon in the barroom with accordions and banjos and line the wedding bed with sheets of mutant folk, deviant campfire country and beatnik jazz.” –Melody Maker

“Preacher Boy is a songwriter of startling originality.” – MOJO

In retrospect, it could have been a lot of different albums. With so many songs to choose from, it could have been a blues record, a folk record, a gypsy record, a rock record, a cabaret record. Gothic acoustic chamber blues. Ultimately, it was all of that.

The point being, a lot of great performances were left on the cutting room floor. I’d like to share two of those with you here today. I discovered them recently on an old cassette that was hastily run down at the end of a long day’s session (the sound quality is not great, but the songs are there!). The cassette has been sitting in storage for nearly a decade-and-a-half, and the songs have never been heard publicly before; they were never played live, and never re-done on any other projects. The first is “Cold Trials Of The Dispossessed” and it features outstanding horn from Brendan Rush Dance. The second is “Veleaux.” Check out the outro (don’t be fooled by the long pause!) for some classic Telecaster work from Danny Uzilevsky. The rhythm section (Paul Johnson on drums and Dan Andrews on bass) is exemplary throughout.

Cold Trials Of The Dispossessed


How rare is Crow today? Well, there is a brand-new copy of it currently available on Amazon. Only $75!


It’s worth noting, that despite never having been released stateside, the album had an amazing impact on my career. Among other things, it earned the band a spot at Glastonbury, sharing stage space with the likes of Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, and Portishead. And it was the album that led Eagle-Eye Cherry to invite me on tour.

Anyhow, lyrics below, should you wish them …

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One Of The Old Songs


I played 3 hours straight, no break. Solo acoustic. Just me and my two Nationals. It was a night of rarities. Preachorum Obscurata. In no particular order, I am pretty sure I played:

De Vamp (from debut album Preacher Boy & The Natural Blues)

Dead, Boy (ditto)

The Cross Must Move (ditto)

Like Me (PBATNB again)

Down & Out In This Town (from 2nd album, Gutters & Pews)

In The Darkened Night (G&P again. Last time I played this live? 2001, in Boulder, CO, methinks …)

Railroad (from G&P. This was my Grandpa’s favorite Preacher Boy song …)

Ugly (G&P)

Old Jim Granger (from The Tenderloin EP)

Black Crow (from Crow)

A Golden Thimble (from The Devil’s Buttermilk)

At The Corner Of The Top & The Bottom (fromTDBM again. Written about a lil’ corner just up the street from Biscuits & Blues in SF)

Friend’s Lament (also from TDBM. As far as I can recall, I only ever performed this song once live before tonight. On a radio show in Brighton, England)

Whistleman (from Demanding To Be Next)

Rock Skipper (also DTBN)

My Gold Canoe (DTBN again. Written with the very great Colin Brooks)

Comin’ Up Aces (DTBN)

Jackson Street (DTBN)

99 Bottles (DTBN)

West of the River (new/unreleased. NEVER performed this live EVER before)

Envelope (I think the last time I performed this live was at Two Boots in Park Slope)

My Car Walks On Water (unreleased)

Down The Drain (unreleased)

Cornbread (unreleased)

A Little More Evil (unreleased)

Blister and a Bottlecap (unreleased)

… and some other things as well, which I cannot currently remember. Other than “Sliding Delta.” I know I played that too …

The show was at Jerry’s Front Pocket in Santa Cruz. The cleanest dirty bar in world. Jerry is fantastic. We talked Nick Cave after the show, and MC 900 Foot Jesus.



It was epic.

John the Conqueror

The John the Conqueror root. Mystical, magical, mojo-laden.

It lies in the earth of a song I sung last night: “There Go John” (click below for some straight-from-the-show, raw, guerrilla audio)


It’s a spooky song, and last night’s version was a spooky one.

But here’s a possibly even spookier version, recorded in a turn-of-the-century barn on an island off the eastern coast of America, with the incredible, soulful, funky spiritual grace magician swamp king hill lord Will Scott.

Roosevelt & Ira Lee, recording "There Go John" in the barn

Roosevelt & Ira Lee, recording “There Go John” in the barn

We were together under the swamp spell of his highness Tony Joe White, in an ensemble we called Roosevelt & Ira Lee, and we recorded both “There Go John” and “In the River,” the latter of which is probably the greatest song from the 80s that you never heard. You can listen to both below:

There Go John, by Roosevelt & Ira Lee

In the River, by Roosevelt & Ira Lee (originally performed by The Call)


there go john

all ye who are lost
must return to the seashore
you can’t be lost as long as you can feel
the ocean’s holy roar

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul

the wheel of life keeps turnin’
just like rings inside the trunk
of a holy redwood sovereign,
troubadour, knight, minstrel, monk

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul

the river of my baby
the ocean of my lover
the farmland of my father
and the sunlight of my mother

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul


for the guitar and National Resonator heads out there, the git is tuned to open Dm, and the song features a somewhat unusual progression in the instrumental sections: a IIm – IVm turn w/ a chromatic walk between them, followed by a lil’ counterpoint section undergirded by a bass note walk in Dm …

You’re No Townes Van Zandt


It was a classic bar heckle, and it happened at Jerry’s Front Pocket earlier this month. But the story doesn’t start there. The story begins in Colorado, at the Durango Songwriter’s Expo, back around Y2K days.

I don’t normally attend events of this nature, but the missus and I were livin’ in Colorado at the time, my manager was keen on amplifyin’ my songwriting efforts, I’d just come off a run of lovely publishing mojo courtesy of my work with Eagle-Eye Cherry, and so we figured, why not? Let’s go be a pro songwriter …

Lots of meetings with agents, lots of listening and perfoming, and lots upon lots upon lots of song critiques. Which leads to the beginnings of my story. I was on a Townes Van Zandt kick of fairly epic proportions at the time, and apparently that was in evidence on my new demos. What happened was this, in a room of some 30 songwriters, a to-remain-nameless publishing VP listened to my tune, announced that it sounded a great deal like Townes Van Zandt, then said to me, “But you’re no Townes Van Zandt.” Shades of Lloyd Bentsen, what?

Well, the room let out the requisite groan, and we moved on.

All was not lost, however. I killed it at the closing show with –if I do say so myself—rippin’ good versions of Spaceman and Comin’ Up Aces.

And I also met my certified brother-of-another-mother soul mate Colin Brooks. In another song critique session, this was the song he played:

#NowPlaying Nobody by Colin Brooks on @Rdio:

And I was completely, totally, floored. Just incredible stuff … Colin and I ended doing a lot of writing together, including this one:

#NowPlaying Wheels on the Ground by Colin Brooks on @Rdio:

Colin is a king high motherfucker. Plain and simple.

Anyhow, fast forward to Jerry’s. Announcing the next song over the mic, I said to those assembled something to the effect of, this song was my attempt to write a Townes Van Zandt song. To which someone in the crowd responded, “Do you know any REAL Townes Van Zandt songs?”

Damn …


Anyhow, here is a live recording of the song in question, recorded live at Aptos St. BBQ just last week. The song is called “Seven’s In The Middle, Son” and this performance includes an appearance by a wonderful accordion player. Please click the link below to listen:

Seven’s In The Middle, Son: recorded live at Aptos St. BBQ

What’s particularly delightful about this whole saga, is that the individual who heckled me at Jerry’s, happens to also be the accordion player on this recording! So of course I told him the Durango story, and it was in fact him who reminded me of the Lloyd Bentsen bit, which if you know your political debate history, was an awesome slice of political pie.

Anyhow, the point is, I’m still trying to write Townes Van Zandt songs, and I hope you like this one! Lyrics below (and p.s. the heckler/accordion player is none other than Jon “Captain Ahab” Dryden!):

seven’s in the middle, son

made a deal with a strange man
he could deal his deck with either hand
winked at me and said goodbye
then switched his patch to the other eye

i did my best to play my song
but he stopped me before too long
took my guitar off my lap
tuned it up and then gave it back

rise and shine, and give god the glory, glory
rise and shine, and give god the glory

wrapped himself in an overcoat
silver necklace ’round his throat
rattlin’ keychain in his pants
sounded like bones when he danced

i faced myself in the mirror glass
swear to god i heard him laugh
felt his name rise in my gut
seven years of bad luck

rise and shine, and give god the glory, glory
rise and shine, and give god the glory

he said “seven is in the middle, son
pick a side and ride that one”
like jewels hangin’ on the vine
it’s a pendulum that’s drowning time

i lay my head down window-side
neon lights like a reaper’s bride
i tried to sleep beneath the black
of the space behind that devil’s patch

rise and shine, and give god the glory, glory
rise and shine, and give god the glory

he put a shiver in my soul
shook my hand and froze it cold
walked me ’round that endless shore
’til i knew i’d never been before

i hear him singin’ from the road
it’s a children’s song he knows i know
i lay myself down on the ground
emptied both my ears of sound

rise and shine, and give god the glory, glory
rise and shine, and give god the glory


Live Blues, Every Night

You know you got a good town when you got a good place that’s got good blues, every night.



Ain’t so many of these around any more: Live Blues, 7 Nights A Week. I’m awful grateful we’ve got one of ’em right here in this town. Aptos St. BBQ.

Live Blues. Every Night.

How ’bout you? You got a blues club in yer town? Place that’s got blues every night? If you do, let me know, yeah? I’d like to say thank you.

And as to you? Well, go on down and drop a fiver in somebody’s kitty soon as you can, and tell ’em it’s from Preacher Boy. Thank you.


Lovely night tonight. Some family came down to hang out. A lil’ 17-month ol’ girl by the name of Charlotte came and danced. I tried a new song out and didn’t f&*K it up too bad. And best of all, my ol’ mate Captain Ahab from The Useless Bastards came down and squoze some box. Always a treat. The man’s a bloody genius.

What a band that was, The Useless Bastards …


If you’ve never heard the inspired Americana-Mayhem that was the Bastards in their cups, I offer you the following: a recording of a tune called “My Ruby Mandolin” … written about … a ruby mandolin. Which was bought for me by my lovely missus in Galway, when we was livin’ in lovely County Clare … Anyhow, here’s the Bastards in all our glory: Park Miller, Preach, Bullpork, Sinnerman, and Captain Ahab:

 My Ruby Mandolin


As to the songs we actually played tonight at the BBQ …


… this one hyperlinked below was a particular favorite of mine; a not-yet-released-ever-on-an-album rarity called “Down The Drain.” You can listen to it by clicking the link:

Down The Drain, live at Aptos St. BBQ, with Jonathan “Captain Ahab” Dryden on Accordion

And here’s another lil’ blast from the Bastards past. This is a live version of Down The Drain from all the way back in 2002. The show was at The Knitting Factory, and I had the pleasure of bein’ on the bill to support my good friend Park Miller — of Useless Bastards fame — who’s band Miller’s Farm was celebrating an album release that night. Park sings harmony on the tune, and I am joined by some other unbelievable talents as well, including Jim Campilongo on guitar, Tim Luntzel on bass, and Brian Fay on the drums. Check it out:

“Down The Drain” live at The Knitting Factory, NYC

What a night that was …


The point being: Love your local. Live Blues. Every Night. Amen. Goodnight.

The Bottle And The Pen -or- The Secret History of Joe Louis Walker’s Mean Streets Records

I have a new column that has just debuted on Grape Collective, entitled “The Bottle & The Pen: An Exploration Through Wine & Literature,” and I wanted to offer a little bit of backstory to the title, as it’s actually derived from a Preacher Boy song.

After completing the sessions for “Crow,” I stayed on at Revolution (the English studio outside Manchester where we recorded the album) laying down a bunch of publisher demos of additional songs I was working on at the time. Among these tracks was a song called The Bottle & The Pen. I recorded a solo acoustic version with just voice & The National, thinking I’d revisit it at another time to explore arrangement possibilities with the band.

Fate intervened, however, in the form of Frank Klein, and Biscuits & Blues. Frank was the manager of Biscuits at that time, and was pushing hard, and with great imagination, to broaden the ways in which B&B could contribute to the world of blues music.

The answer was a record label! Frank launched Means Streets Records, as presented by Joe Louis Walker, with this release:

Mean Streets Blues – A San Francisco Collection – 13 Stompin’ Tracks

Mean Streets Blues - A San Francisco Collection - 13 Stompin' Tracks

The album reads like a Who’s Who of Bay Area Blues from that era, and to the endeavor’s credit, nearly all of these artists are STILL vibrant presences on the scene. Check it out:

Mean Streets Blues - A San Francisco Collection - 13 Stompin' Tracks

Tommy Castro, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Lavay Smith, Mark Hummel, Rusty Zinn, Big Bones, James Armstrong, and more; it’s a remarkable collection.

Remarkable all the more for the fact that, like so many great blues projects with great blues intentions, this would prove to be the only Mean Streets Records release.

That said, I am extremely proud to have been a part of this project, and was honored and humbled both when Frank asked for a song. Having just completed the Revolution sessions I mentioned earlier, I had quite a few new recordings to consider, and The Bottle and The Pen, in its original solo acoustic format, was the final selection.

Strange journey, that it now lives on as the title to an article about wine & literature. Prophetic in a way, I suppose. The chorus lyrics:

If you wanna know where I come from
I’ll tell you this my friend
I was born beneath a bottle and a pen

You can here this recording of The Bottle & The Pen by clicking here.


Big Bones and I recently reunited for a very special show at Biscuits & Blues: you can see footage from that performance below:


Songs From The Vaults: Old Jim Granger

For this edition of Songs From The Vaults, we’re going to look at a tune called “Old Jim Granger.” This was recorded for, and released on, The Tenderloin EP, a joint release between US-based Blind Pig Records, and UK-based Wah Tup Records.

It was recorded at Coast in San Francisco (if memory serves?), and features Steve Escobar on drums, Danny Uzilevsky on bass, Big Bones on harmonica, and yours truly on National and vocals.

The sessions were engineered by Bryan Zee.

The tune is in Dm, and The National is tuned to Open Dm (D A D F A D).

You can listen to the cut here: Old Jim Granger

And here are the lyrics:

Old Jim Granger

Old Jim Granger was an angry man
He had a fence so high you couldn’t see his land
His house was hidden by trees as well
We only knew he was there when we heard him yell

Us little boys, we didn’t have much sense
We only wanted to see inside of his fence
So we dug a hole and crawled through to his place
Waited to see if he’d show his face

He come runnin’ right outta his house
Screamin and cursin, we could hear him shout
“Get off my land unless ya wanna get shot,
Say yer prayers, cuz my shotgun’s cocked”

Well, we broke and ran, to the left and right
Tryin’ to get out of Mr. Granger’s sight
We heard him shout, “Boys, you can’t hide from Jim!
I’m gon’ release my hound, he’ll tear ya limb from limb”

Tearin cross the yard that old hound came
And Mr. Granger’s gun was out and aimed
I jumped up to run, and I swear to Gog
He don’ missed me and he shot that dog

Old Jim Granger was a lonely man
He didn’t have no wife, he didn’t have no clan
That old hound dog was like his only kin
And when he died, that was it for Jim

Well, I’m a grown man now, but I remember still
What happened right after that dog got killed
When he saw what he’d done, into the house he walked
To say goodbye with his shotgun cocked

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