Category Archives: Songwriting

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

 

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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

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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.

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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!


Christopher “Preacher Boy” Watkins To Join Judge’s Team For Songwriter’s Showcase Finals

SongwritersShowcase

It is with both great excitement and grateful appreciation that I announce that I will be joining the judging team for the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase, sponsored by Mars Studios and hosted by The Britannia Arms.

This is a remarkable event, not only for being so explicitly devotional to its local creative community, but for its rigorous adherence to the principles of craft. When first presented with the judge’s materials and documentation, I was pleased and impressed beyond measure to see the extent to which Ken Capitanich (the man behind the whole enterprise, and the guru behind the board at Mars Studios) had spelled out in exacting detail the guidelines for how songs were to be evaluated. Performance was not to be taken into consideration, composition was. Lyrics, melody, harmony, chords, arrangements, structures; this was the compositional architecture we were to listen for, identify, and ultimately, judge.

There is little in this life I enjoy more than the process of listening, learning, deconstructing, analyzing, rebuilding, and finalizing a song. Twisting it, turning it, bending it, pulling it inside it & out and seeing what it has inside; flipping it over and investigating its underside; pulling its flesh off its bones and revealing its underlying forms and formations; breathing and praying with it to understand its soul and its mojo; hanging it upside down to see what falls out; kneading it into myriad shapes and sizes and baking it at varying temperatures; burning it and sorting through its ashes; gluing and taping and sewing it together to see what forms it might yet take; this is the immersive joy of craft, and in undergoing this process, you experience the true joy of the creator and the created both.

With this mindset in my mind I watched the semi-finals earlier this week, and was heartened to witness both the playful camaraderie and precise attention to detail that the best songwriters always have in balanced evidence. As with all great craftspeople, great songwriters are essentially deadly serious about doing that which is ultimately very fun, and both seriousness and fun were much in evidence that evening.

And so it is that I look forward with great anticipation to taking my judge’s seat and experiencing firsthand the full measure of what 8 talented songwriters will deliver on finals night. It’s sure to be something very special.

(It should be noted that proceeds from the event’s raffle are earmarked for the extraordinary organization Guitars Not Guns. If you are NOT in Northern California and cannot attend the event itself, you might at least consider donating to this very worthy group!)

For those of who reading this who may be wondering what on earth it is I’ve done to warrant the right to place my backside in a judge’s seat at a songwriter’s showcase, I humbly offer the following (essentially a chronicle of the privileges I’ve been afforded in this life, to learn from an extraordinary roster of generous talents and wise mentors):

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

Christopher 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 also continuing to immerse himself ever deeper in the country blues that were his first true musical love, Watkins slowly forged the singular songwriting style that would eventually earn him international acclaim.

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 mini-revolution 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

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 Preach 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 

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

Watkins would co-write two albums with Eagle-Eye. The first –Living In The Present Future– saw Watkins 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 Watkins 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, much of which was tracked at Mars!) and famed Nashville guitarist Dave Isaacs. 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 Watkins 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

Watkins then 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 also saw his debut volume of poetry published –Short Houses With Wide Porches (Shady Lane Press)– which 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.)

Watkins then returned to music and songwriting, and 2015 now promises not one, not two, but three new Preacher Boy albums.


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

PreacherBoy_7

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: http://rd.io/x/Rl7WwEErUMw6Xg/

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: http://rd.io/x/Rl7WwEErUOGw0w/

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 …

PB_SettingSun_Still

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

 


Searching For The Perfect Road Song

TheRoadThe perfect road song is a kind of Holy Grail for songwriters.

To write it is to experience a holy striking of compositional lightning, the result of which is ideally a song magically evoking the singular juxtapositions of fear and exhilaration that inevitably define a long, possibly late-night, and certainly lonely drive.

This is something I believe all songwriters pursue.

My most recent attempt did not succeed. It is not the perfect road song.

It is called “My Car Walks On Water,” and while it is not the perfect road song, I will say in its defense that it has certainly stood the test of time. I first tried to demo an early version of this song back in 1993. 21 years later, it is still with me, still alive, still changing, still convincing me it is real, a real road song …

I am safe in here
No need to worry any longer
The rain may break the forest’s bones
But my car walks on the water

To equate one’s car with Jesus is the usual unusual nocturnal moxie of the driver driving, alone …

This new iteration is my favorite version. Somehow, with Bones …


My desert island road song is probably “State Trooper,” by Bruce Springsteen, from his dark acoustic masterwork Nebraska. The imagined conversations (or so I perceive them to be) with a State Trooper play out like a narcoleptic head play starring a driver, and no one else …

Maybe you got a kid
Maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I got
Has been botherin’ me my whole life
Mister State Trooper
Please don’t stop me

And the descriptions of the passing nocturnal nightscape are desperately, dirtily perfect …

New Jersey turnpike
Ridin’ on a wet night
Beneath the refinery’s glow
Out where the great black rivers flow

My first “proper” attempt (meaning, my first published and recorded attempt) at the perfect road song was a cut called “The Drive Goes On” from my debut album Preacher Boy & The Natural Blues:

The rearview mirror shines back my red eyes
And the yawns come on, just before sunrise
I keep my eyes open, cuz accidents happen
My left leg is asleep and the right one’s nappin’

It was not perfect either, but to this day, some 20 years later, I hear the song, and I remember exactly where I was driving on that dark mountain night …

 The Drive Goes On (stream)

 

“My Car Walks On Water” is altogether a different kind of narrative animal; more compressed, bluesier, a broader reconciliation of the simple (It’s rainin’ hard, and I can’t see) and the strange (The rain my soak time’s swingin’ braids).

But is it, “The Perfect Road Song?”

No, it is not.

But it is one more humble and deeply felt contribution to a growing canon of songs that collectively represents our search for harmonic Americana Nirvana.

~

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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:

 


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