Category Archives: Songwriting

A Taste of The Devil’s Buttermilk

pb_tdbm

If you’ve heard The Devil’s Buttermilk before, you know it’s a bit of a different record in the Preacher Boy canon. In my mind, it’s almost a sort of collection of shorts, combined into a larger, longer film.  Every song was really recorded to be its own self-contained universe, it’s own completed circle. The songs seemed to ask for that, and so that’s what I did. There is very little sonic continuity from song to song; this one is lighting fast and loaded with electric guitars, that one is soft, quiet, acoustic. This one is whispery and spooky and moody, that one is full bore and monstrous.

The album is populated with a lot of different characters. The destructive, white -trash-noir anti-hero of “On and on it goes,” the cracked Wiseblood-ian preacher of “Glory Man,” Patrick Jones, whose white bones close “The Dogs,” the neighborhood drunk in “Spaceman,” and more.

The theatricality and comparatively complicated instrumentation has meant that these songs don’t get played live very often—some of them I’ve never played live. But recently, I’ve committed to working out arrangements of a great many songs that I haven’t given much stage time to, and songs from The Devil’s Buttermilk are looming large on that list. Last night I played “On and on it goes,” “Rust,” and “Spaceman.” Two of those I’ve NEVER played live before, and “Spaceman” I haven’t performed live in over a decade. It was an adventurous evening.

Here’s a raw and straight-from-the-stage recording of “Spaceman” from last night:

if you don’t see the embedded media player above, please click below to stream:
Preacher Boy – Spaceman [LIVE]

(lyrics are at the bottom of this post)

The whole show was a bit of a journey song-wise … a pretty diverse mix of country blues workouts, and a great many album tracks I don’t often play. Here’s the whole set list:

  1. if i had possession over my judgement day (robert johnson)
  2. rollin’ stone (rev. robert wilkins)
  3. evil blues (mance lipscomb)
  4. rust (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  5. levee camp blues (fred mcdowell)
  6. my gold canoe (from “demanding to be next”)
  7. black crow (from “crow”)
  8. gun (from “gutters & pews”)
  9. jake j. thomas’ ol’ mission st blues (new)
  10. catfish (willie doss)
  11. chop wood, carry water (new)
  12. that’s no way to get along (rev. robert wilkins)
  13. down south blues (sleepy john estes)
  14. my car walks on water (from “the national blues”)
  15. nehemiah james (from “demanding to be next”)
  16. down and out in this town (from “gutters & pews”)
  17. spaceman (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  18. on and on it goes (from “the devil’s buttermilk”)
  19. change (from “demanding to be next”)
  20. setting sun (from “the national blues”)
  21. motherless children (blind willie johnson/mance lipscomb/dave van ronk)
  22. a little better when it rains (from “demanding to be next”)

~

Finally, here are the lyrics to Spaceman, if you want to read along!

spaceman

god knows where they go, i only know his name was bob
he had a job somewhere, some office that paid him well
he spent his science fiction days dreaming up
all the things that he’d invent, but never sell
i used to see him whenever i was down at “george & walt’s”
and he’d tell me again, like i didn’t already know
that he preferred to start his nights out with three brandy twists
and then finish two beers before he had to go
the bartender, dave, gave bob his nickname
they’d yell out “spaceman!” whenever he walked in
but he confessed to me, in that weary voice that only drunkards get,
that he was pretty sure they were making fun of him
making fun of him
well, they’ve always been
give him half the chance, and bob could talk for half the year
with a mouth full of nothing but an overbite
he was so far past alone not even pity helped
so i’d just sit with him and drink away the nights
the money he earned would have loved to burn his pocket full of holes
but he had no one to spend it upon
for him, love had become some magic instance that never lasts
like the moment when the street lights first come on
sometimes, if bob got a little too drunk
my friend and i, we’d drive him to his house
and we’d talk and sit, and i’d play a bit on his little guitar
and then we’d leave whenever he passed out
whenever he passed out
we’d just let ourselves out
i haven’t been back to “george & walt’s” for so many years
maybe bob doesn’t mean too much to me now
but i’ve always kept that little guitar he insisted that i take
so i guess he still matters somehow
and if you see him, buy him a brandy for me
tell him the kid that took his guitar says hello
and do me a favor, sit and listen to his stories for a while
he’ll appreciate it more than you know
more than you could know
and i ought to know

 


Cornbread: The Story Behind The Song

Preacher Boy - The National Blues - Lyrics

We’ve just published an enhanced lyric booklet for “The National Blues!” It features lyrics, stories behind the songs, insider guitar tips, and more.

You can download a free copy in either PDF (multi-use) or EPUB (iBooks) format here, or, if you’d like to enjoy the book on your Kindle/Kindle app, you can get it in the Kindle store on Amazon for just .99¢!

Here is an excerpt from the text; a short essay about the origins of the second track on the album:

Cornbread

The seeds of this song have been with me for probably decades at this point; I think I first hazarded a demo of it when we were living in Brooklyn, though I believe the first time I tried to play a version of it was with Colin Brooks, during a songwriter’s conference in Durango, Colorado that my missus and I drove down to from Denver.

Lyrically, the song has changed little over the years, and it’s the stories of the families in the verses that have kept the song with me across the miles. What finally clicked was the music. I wish I could claim it was a magical, revelatory moment, or the result of years of diligence and experimentation, but in fact, the click was a simple one. I changed the tuning on my guitar from Open D to Open G. That was it.

The characters are largely based on real people from my childhood; the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I left the real names in for the guilty


The 8 Musical Influences Behind The Song “Down The Drain”

 

PB_DTD_Thumbnail

“Down The Drain” is the first official video single off my new album “The National Blues” on Coast Road Records. And like virtually everything I write, its roots go deep, and it draws on a great many influences for its shape and sound.

The origins of the song are actually a little out of step with much of what I write, the bulk of which is largely inspired by the early country blues/delta blues canon. Probably the most important influence is actually a comparatively contemporary musical act, a band called Sixteen Horsepower. For my money, they’re likely the greatest band you’ve never heard of. They came out of Denver about the same time as my first album came out (1995), part of a small, localized, but very wonderful sort of Gothic Americana movement that included acts like The Denver Gentlemen, Slim Cessna, Tarantella, Munly, and more. (Full disclosure,  I later spent about two years in Denver, and shared bills at one time or another with most of these acts).

David Eugene Edwards of 16 Horsepower was fond of using open minor tunings in what sounded to me like an Open Gm form, and while I’d already spent half my life in open tunings, and while I was also deeply fond of minor keys, I’d never really put the two together in an Open Gm form until I heard 16 Horsepower. But listen to South Pennsylvania Waltz, or Coal Black Horses, or I Seen What I Saw, or Prison Shoe Romp, and you’ll surely see the similarities! (The following playlist has a whole host of 16 Horsepower gems):

Another big influence on the sound of “Down The Drain” was actually a song I learned to love from hearing my Dad play it on the record player when I was a kid. It was a great guitar instrumental from an era full of great guitar instrumentals, and I used to just love it. I’m not even sure I was drawing on its influence as “Down The Drain” started to come together, but once I realized what I’d done, it was pretty obvious what I’d done! Give it a listen, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean:

Duane Eddy did a killer version of this as well, which you can check out here, and which I also really love.

The semi-wordless chorus (depending on whether you think “sha” and “la” are words!) of “Down The Drain” is probably the other key component of this song that has clear sonic antecedents. I’ve always loved songs that use vocal “sound” as evocation … think of the “humming” part of Skip James’ magisterial “Hardtime Killing Floor Blues” as but one example (Skip’s melodies on this song are definitely an influence on “Down The Drain” as well!), or Adelaide Hall on Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” both of which are great examples of this kind of thing. Probably more specific to “Down The Drain” of course is something like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl”—the sha-la-la’s tell the whole emotional story! Given the sound of my voice though, the comparison that probably leaps to mind sooner than Van Morrison is Tom Waits, from “Jersey Girl.” And yeah, I’ll confess that was in my mind when I first started toying with doing the chorus this way. But honestly, it’s not one of my favorite Waits songs, and truthfully, while “Down The Drain” may SOUND like “Jersey Girl” the effect I was actually after was more akin to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” which somehow manages to make la-la-la sound somehow so … rueful.

So, where does that get us to so far? 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, and some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop. That’s the music!

Now, as to lyrics, that’s a little harder. I don’t entirely know WHERE they came from! I will certainly admit that the drink has played a lot of roles in my songs over the years, and Shane MacGowan has certainly been my patron saint in that regard, so the reference to “your Chardonnay sky will go black & tan” can probably be attributed in no small part to the influence of The Pogues. And I’m not sure one can write a song with rain as a central metaphor and not be thinking of Ann Peebles singing “Can’t Stand The Rain”:

There is actually a LOT of country blues in Peebles’ song, most notably in this verse:

Alone with the pillow
Where his head used to lay, yeah
I know you’ve got some sweet memories
But like a window you ain’t got nothin’ to say

Which definitely calls to mind these lyrics from Son House’s immortal Death Letter Blues:

Got up this mornin’, just about the break of day
A-huggin’ the pillow where she used to lay

I actually first discovered Ann Peebles’ song being sung by a band at Your Place Too in Oakland, back in the late eighties. (Check out my friend Pete Devine’s bio on the Howell Devine website for a nice little reference to Your Place Too). I don’t remember the band, but I’ve always remembered the song!

So, now we’re up to: 16 Horsepower, Bill Justis, Skip James, some combination of Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Iggy Pop, Shane MacGowan, and Ann Peebles.

And I think that’s where I’ll stop. Eight! And I tell you what, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to write songs, if for no other reason than you get to listen to so much music! Thanks for helpin’ me continue to get to do it! To borrow (and mutate!) a great quote from the world of creative writing, to be a good songwriter, you must be a good songlistener!

~

Buy “Preacher Boy – The National Blues” direct! Just click the image below:

PreacherBoy_TheNationalBlues_Web

 

 


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

Seven Songs You Must Listen To If You Want To Be A Songwriter

First, “I Did It All” by Tracy Chapman. Few artists would dare tread on Sacred Sinatra Soil, but that’s exactly what Tracy Chapman does with this song. This is “My Way” for a new generation. Tracy Chapman is a badass, plain and simple. I knew it when I saw her beat out Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen for best set of the day at that Amnesty International Concert so long ago—she did it with just a single guitar, when she was just a young woman with one beautiful and strange hit on the radio called “Fast Car.” If you ain’t down w/ Tracy Champan, you ain’t down with much.

Next, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Because you can’t believe it was WRITTEN. That one writer, with a pencil and a guitar, actually sat down and created this. It didn’t grow out of the ground like some bent and peculiar flower. It didn’t fall out of the sky like some permanent snowflake. It was WRITTEN. And it is perfection.

Third, “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Yes, I have him on the brain. We all do. But this was a classic the second he released it. It is a classic as we mourn him. And it will be a classic for decades to come. THIS is proof that pop music and vision don’t have to mutually oppose. For me, this song is like the great, pathos-laden girl group songs of the 60’s, those rockabilly-meets-torch songs that broke and mended hearts, then broke them again. In that strange, baffling, all-consuming emotional eco-system where love and loss of parents and love and loss of love—where romantic love and parent love—are inextricable, there is a song playing, and it is the soundtrack of this crazy emotional realm, this neo-natal origin story of the heart, and it is this song.

Next, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Because anyone who can fit an entire play, an entire movie, an entire novel, and entire life, an entire world, an entire species, an entire galaxy, into a single, mutant art-folk song, deserves to be recognized as a bloody genius. The man David Bowie has given us the man Major Tom, and he has entered our consciousness through song.

Fifth is “My Funny Valentine.” The song was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and it is quite simply one of the most gorgeously weird songs every written. The melodies are almost crippingly beautiful, and when voices like Chet Baker’s take it on, it’s almost too much to bear. Hearing the notes emerge from Miles Davis’ horn is akin to drifting into a gossamer trance. And then there are the lyrics:

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But dont you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

This is an emotional perversion of the highest order, and there is something both hopelessly earthy and trancendentally romantic afoot here. This isn’t a song you could sell, or pitch, or even explain. One just has to write it. Fortunately, this one was written, and we’re the better for it. Care to argue about the definitive version???

Next is “Ugly” by Robert Pete Williams. Because if you don’t think Country Blues produces incredible songwriting, then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because this song ends with the lines:

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

Because if you don’t think that’s poetry, you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because when you HEAR this song—with it’s raw, howling vocal, it’s emotive, impressionistic lyric stream, and it’s rivetingly funky, minor-chord stomp, you WILL know somethin’ about somethin’.

Finally, for song number seven, we have “Broken Arrow,” written by Neil Young. This is one of those songs that sort of proves what’s possible when it comes to song itself. In many ways made possible only by the studio (it famously took some 100 hours to record), it is also at heart a simple folks song. The images are so powerful, the melodies so compelling, the oddities so appealing, and the simplicities so magical, it’s simply hard to know how to name its accomplishment. It’s a song I come back to time and time again, to just marvel at what’s possible when one believes in song.

The streets were lined for the wedding parade,
The Queen wore the white gloves, the county of song,
The black covered caisson her horses had drawn
Protected her King from the sun rays of dawn.
They married for peace and were gone.
Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?


Judging the “Songwriter’s Showcase” Finals: Year Two

 

SongwritersShowcase

It is with the utmost pleasure that I announce my return to the judge’s seat for the Annual Songwriter’s Showcase event, held at The Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA. This will be the 14th year of this incredible event—14 years of honoring the noble craft of songwriting!

The Finals

The finals will be held Tuesday, April 26th, starting at 7pm, and I will be there in my seat, sheafs of lyrics before me, my space pen and moleskine at hand, with a regular stream of coffee at my disposal. I will hear songs from those who’ve performed their way through rounds and rounds of stiff competition, who’ve earned their spots in these finals through the sheer strength of their compositions, and who will come to the stage prepared to share the very best of their heartfelt work. I will be there, and I will be humbled.

To Be A Songwriter

I have been some form of a professional writer/songwriter for over 25 years now (you can read my “songwriter’s bio” here, if you wish!), and I still think songwriting is simply the most magical of worlds. I TREASURE being able to call myself a songwriter. I LOVE to answer “writer” when asked what I do for a living. Why? Not vanity, tho if I’m honest, there’s probably a bit of that there too! But no, honestly, it’s because I’m so kid-in-a-candy-store’d to be in any way tangentially in the proximal company of giants! To think that I too am a songwriter? Remarkable. Simply remarkable! I still can’t believe it. It’s as exciting to me today as it was when I first saw my name on a published songwriting credit back in 1989! The giddy thrill I feel has waned not a bit lo these many decades, and it is with this undimmed and ecstatic appreciation for the form and for the word that I’ll be taking my seat at the finals tomorrow night.

The Permissible Delights Of The Soul

“Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”
― Johann Sebastian Bach

When I wrote about the Songwriter’s Showcase last year, I went out on an aesthetic limb of a kind and recommended 23 songs for holy songwriting canonization. I’d like to recommend a few more to you right now. These are must-listen songs. These are songs that remind us that telling ourselves stories is what makes us human. That singing ourselves melodies is how we survive. That dancing ourselves with rhythm is how we move, and move forward. That listening to our music is how we live. These are songs that astonish, for we can’t believe they could actually be written, for surely they simply arrived fully formed. These are songs that delight us, move us, change us. And for our purposes here, these are songs, that teach us to write songs. That compel us to write songs. That make us songwriters, if we let them.

Let us begin!

Seven Songs You Must Listen To If You Want To Be A Songwriter

First, “I Did It All” by Tracy Chapman. Few artists would dare tread on Sacred Sinatra Soil, but that’s exactly what Tracy Chapman does with this song. This is “My Way” for a new generation. Tracy Chapman is a badass, plain and simple. I knew it when I saw her beat out Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen for best set of the day at that Amnesty International Concert so long ago—she did it with just a single guitar, when she was just a young woman with one beautiful and strange hit on the radio called “Fast Car.” If you ain’t down w/ Tracy Champan, you ain’t down with much.

Next, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Because you can’t believe it was WRITTEN. That one writer, with a pencil and a guitar, actually sat down and created this. It didn’t grow out of the ground like some bent and peculiar flower. It didn’t fall out of the sky like some permanent snowflake. It was WRITTEN. And it is perfection.

Third, “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Yes, I have him on the brain. We all do. But this was a classic the second he released it. It is a classic as we mourn him. And it will be a classic for decades to come. THIS is proof that pop music and vision don’t have to mutually oppose. For me, this song is like the great, pathos-laden girl group songs of the 60’s, those rockabilly-meets-torch songs that broke and mended hearts, then broke them again. In that strange, baffling, all-consuming emotional eco-system where love and loss of parents and love and loss of love—where romantic love and parent love—are inextricable, there is a song playing, and it is the soundtrack of this crazy emotional realm, this neo-natal origin story of the heart, and it is this song.

Next, “Space Oddity” by David Bowie. Because anyone who can fit an entire play, an entire movie, an entire novel, and entire life, an entire world, an entire species, an entire galaxy, into a single, mutant art-folk song, deserves to be recognized as a bloody genius. The man David Bowie has given us the man Major Tom, and he has entered our consciousness through song.

Fifth is “My Funny Valentine.” The song was written by Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and it is quite simply one of the most gorgeously weird songs every written. The melodies are almost crippingly beautiful, and when voices like Chet Baker’s take it on, it’s almost too much to bear. Hearing the notes emerge from Miles Davis’ horn is akin to drifting into a gossamer trance. And then there are the lyrics:

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But dont you change one hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

This is an emotional perversion of the highest order, and there is something both hopelessly earthy and trancendentally romantic afoot here. This isn’t a song you could sell, or pitch, or even explain. One just has to write it. Fortunately, this one was written, and we’re the better for it. Care to argue about the definitive version???

Next is “Ugly” by Robert Pete Williams. Because if you don’t think Country Blues produces incredible songwriting, then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because this song ends with the lines:

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

Because if you don’t think that’s poetry, you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Because when you HEAR this song—with it’s raw, howling vocal, it’s emotive, impressionistic lyric stream, and it’s rivetingly funky, minor-chord stomp, you WILL know somethin’ about somethin’.

Finally, for song number seven, we have “Broken Arrow,” written by Neil Young. This is one of those songs that sort of proves what’s possible when it comes to song itself. In many ways made possible only by the studio (it famously took some 100 hours to record), it is also at heart a simple folks song. The images are so powerful, the melodies so compelling, the oddities so appealing, and the simplicities so magical, it’s simply hard to know how to name its accomplishment. It’s a song I come back to time and time again, to just marvel at what’s possible when one believes in song.

The streets were lined for the wedding parade,
The Queen wore the white gloves, the county of song,
The black covered caisson her horses had drawn
Protected her King from the sun rays of dawn.
They married for peace and were gone.
Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty quivered,
Brown skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?

 


Christopher “Preacher Boy” Watkins: A Songwriter’s Biography

preacherboy_thenationalblues_lyrics

Christopher “Preacher Boy” 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 simultaneously digging ever deeper into the country blues that were his first true musical love—Preacher Boy slowly forged the singular songwriting style that would eventually earn him international acclaim.

PBATNB

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 not-insignificant degree of controversy 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

GuttersAndPews

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 Preacher Boy 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 

CROW

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” as well as his contributions to Santana’s Supernatural album– personally invited Preacher Boy to join him on tour.

Preacher Boy would go on to co-write two albums with Eagle-Eye. The first –Living In The Present Future– saw him 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 Preacher Boy 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, an album produced by—and co-written with—Preacher Boy), famed Nashville guitarist Dave Isaacs, English art-punks The Hungry Dog Brand, and more.

DemandingToBeNext_1

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 Preacher Boy 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

Preacher Boy’s songwriting has appeared on a number of soundtracks as well, including “Approaching Union Square” the critically-acclaimed independent film by writer/director Marc Myers, and “Smallville, the long-running, award-winning TV show.

Preacher Boy eventually 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 saw his debut volume of poetry published –Short Houses With Wide Porches (Shady Lane Press)– and 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.)

Preacher Boy then returned to music, and to songwriting. He recorded and released a new album—The National Blues (Coast Road Records)—and is regularly performing both solo and in various group formats.

 

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Everytime I hear “Preachin’ Blues” I think of Will Scott

From the moment I heard Will Scott play, I have esteemed him greatly. I have for him a love that is brotherly, and a competitor’s admiration. I have been both his student and his teacher, and I remain the former forever more. I am proud to call him friend, and put simply, as a musicianer, he is a motherf&*#er.

We got to do an album together. It’s called Gnawbone, and it’s an incredible bloody record. If you don’t own it, own it.

Will Scott: Gnawbone

His next album is Keystone Crossing. It’s essential listening.

Will Scott: Keystone Crossing

Here’s the thing about Will and I. When I heard him sing, I knew I was f&#*ed. He came from a RL Burnside, Johnny Shines kind of thing, whereas I was more Bukka White and Blind Willie Johnson. We met in the middle at Son House. He could sing like Son House, and that was hard for me, cuz I couldn’t. But, I could PLAY like Son House, and that helped.

We started doin’ shows together, and it was one night in some weird place in Williamsburg (of 15 years ago, mind you), and here he comes out with the slide lick from “Preachin’ Blues” and I about fell about the place. Cuz now he was singin’ like Son, and playin’ like Son, and everytime I hear that lick I think of Will. Everytime I hear “Preachin’ Blues” I think of Will Scott.

So this song, really, is several notes of appreciation for Will Scott, because when I play it, I think of him. He’s a couple thousand miles away from me right now, but I’m thinkin’ on him. This is a brand-new song called “Obituary Writer Blues.” And if you know your Son House, you might think I copped a lick from him to build this song on top of, but honestly, I stole it from Will Scott.

Obituary Writer Blues

I’m gon’ quite writin’, gon’ lay down this pen I use
Oh, now I’m gon’ quit writin’ gon’ lay down this pen I use
And you know by that I got the obituary blues

I been at the typer, lord, honey, ’til my fingers sore
Honey, I been at the typer, lord, ’til my fingers sore
I ain’t gon’ write no obituary anymore

Black was the color, one after another
They lay down on sheets of white
Time may erase me, but I ain’t so crazy
That I don’t know my wrong from right

Oh, sweet mama don’t ‘low me to stay out all night long
I may act like I’m crazy, but I do know right from wrong

It was rock, paper, scissors ’til the sword get the better of the pen
Oh, it was rock, paper, scissors, ’til the sword got the best of the pen
I seen it printed in the paper, somebody shot up some poor kids again

Black was the color, one after another
They lay down on sheets of white
Time may erase me, but I ain’t so crazy
That I don’t know my wrong from right

Oh, sweet mama don’t ‘low me to stay out all night long
I may act like I’m crazy, but I do know right from wrong

~

On the subject of thievery, I owe nods to Sleepy John Estes and Nina Simone as well. Dig.

 


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.

Yep.

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.

 


On The Eve Of The Songwriter’s Showcase Finals, A List Of 23 Genius Songs We All Wish We’d Written, But Didn’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 7-10pm, Britannia

Tomorrow night, it’s the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase (sponsored by Mars Studios, and hosted by the Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA), and I am to be a judge. Which is very exciting for me, and an honor I accept with the utmost seriousness.

Because said event is nigh, I have songwriting on the brain.

Now, in re: said event, based on what I know to date about the competitors, I think it is safe to say that we are not working with the broadest definition of singer-songwriter (i.e. anyone who sings a song they have written), but rather, we are operating within the more precise realm of the “Singer-Songwriter”; that is to say, within the folk-troubadour tradition. Operators within this space may claim as their ancestors and inspirations the likes of, say, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading; James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, or Townes Van Zandt; Bill Withers, Billy Bragg, or Neil Young; Tracy Chapman, Dolly Parton, or Nick Drake; Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, or Carol King; Phil Ochs, Suzanne Vega, or Ben Harper; Greg Brown, Indie.Arie, or Bruce Springsteen; Kris Kristofferson, Sam Cooke, or Ani DiFranco, or even, yes, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. This IS Santa Cruz County, after all.

The point being, there is singing a song one has written, and then there are “Singer-Songwriters.” For this event, I think it is safe to say we are considering the latter.

And so, bearing that in mind, I have elected, almost strictly for personal kicks, to assemble a list of some of the greatest songs (fundamentally — with just a couple stretches– in this mold) ever written, songs that you and I both wish we’d written, but didn’t.

With no apologies for what I’ve left out or what I’ve included, and in no particular order, I proffer the following:

1. Willie & Laura Mae Jones, by Tony Joe White.
Dear ALL aspiring political songwriters. This is how you handle racism in a song. Funkily, powerfully, honestly, and narratively. A masterpiece.

2. The Ballad of Hollis Brown, by Bob Dylan
Devasting. One chord. That is all.

3. Here Comes A Regular, by Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
If you understand the difference between this and “Piano Man,” you’re on to something. If you don’t, you’re not.

4. Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers
Can YOU be this powerful, soulful, beautiful, muscular, and emotional, while singing about YOUR grandma? Yeah …

5. In the River, by Michael Been (The Call)
White gospel, from an 80s indie band. Incredible.

6. Straight To Hell, by Joe Strummer (The Clash)
Just an unbelievably great song; epic, monumental; spooky, depressing; vivid, political, social, emotional, gut-wrenchingly raw, pathotically weird and funny and sad and strange and perfect. And so cool …

7. Glory Box, by Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
Incredible lyric movement, traveling from the personal and idiosyncratic, to the most fundamentally raw, sensual, and real. Killer … And that melody line, over that bass line? Killer …

8. Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris
As good a “story song” as any ever written, coming from out the folk-blues-southern thing …

9. Our Mother the Mountain, by Townes Van Zandt
Because if you write this …

Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another.

… then your s&%t is amazing.

10. Four Women, by Nina Simone
Because if you can powerfully and successfully address sexism AND racism in a song with a final line of “My name is Peaches,” and not only get away with it, but kill it? Then your s&$t is amazing.

11. Amsterdam, by Jacques Brel
Epic in every sense of the word. Dirty, seedy, and romantic; beautiful, tragic, and raw. And it ends with an image of pissing. Such an achievement … just towering.

12. State Trooper, by Bruce Springsteen
Simply one of the best road songs ever. And that’s saying something.

13. Death Don’t Have No Mercy, by the Reverend Gary Davis
It’s admittedly hard to concede ACTUAL songwriting credits when it comes to the “shared” folk-blues-gospel cannon, but this is pretty close to clear, so I’m just going to say it’s Davis’ song. I played a version of this recently, and someone from the audience spoke to me afterwards, referring to this song as “dark gospel, but true gospel.” To which I say, yes.

14. Psalm, by John Coltrane
There are technically no lyrics to this song, but if you know the story of this song, then yes there are lyrics. And this song is INCREDIBLE. Listen to this while reading the “lyrics,” and you’ll have one of the most moving poetry/music experiences of your life …goose bumps. Forever.

15. 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six, by Tom Waits
Because Tom Waits should be on this list somewhere, and because for my money, it was with this song that Waits not only created a language all his own, but became a genre all his own.

16. Back Home In Derry, by Christy Moore
No one does homesick like the Irish, and few do it better than Christy Moore with this song.

17. Fairytale of New York, by Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
Ditto the above, except way, way, way sadder and more f&#*ed up …

18. Washington D.C. Hospital Blues, by Skip James
Most country blues artists didn’t really “write” songs in the way we think of it being done, and few if any wrote any new material later in life. The eerily excellent Skip James is the exception; he not only wrote brilliant songs of his own, he wrote NEW songs of his own post his “re-discovery.” This is one such song, and it’s utterly, totally brilliant for capturing in a single story (being sick in the hospital), and in a single couplet (I’m a poor man, but I’m a good man, you understand) an entire universe worth of the relationships between pride and shame, poverty and pride, and everything else about what it means to be both strong in, and at the mercy of, the world.

19. Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez
Any song that can sound amazing as sung by both the composer (Baez) and Judas Priest, HAS to be incredible …

20. I Shall Be Released, by Bob Dylan (The Band)
Is it possible someone actually sat down with pen and paper and just WROTE this song? Not possible …

21. Think, by Aretha Franklin
Yeah, she wrote it.  Well, co-wrote it. But she wrote it. And it’s so, so, so badass. It’s like singer-songwriter soul haiku, distilled down to the resonant power of just two words: Think. Freedom.

22. Cities In Dust, by Siouxie Soux
Apocolyptic, graphic, poetic, with a hook from the gods. One of the greatest songs from a great era, transcends all boundaries to simply be great, resonant, and powerful. Just play it on acoustic, solo. It swings so hard, and runs so deep …

23. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, author unknown
I don’t know who the hell wrote this lil’ lullaby of Gothic Americana, but it’s a monster lesson in The Weird Old America … Possibly the first song I ever learned, and possibly the song I’ve been trying to write my whole life …

~

Here’s to tomorrow night, and discovering something new to add to this list!


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