Tag Archives: Songwriting

10 Critical Songwriting DON’Ts

Songwriting

I’ll preface this list by saying that I KNOW you’ll look at each one of these, and immediately think of a pre-existing exception. So I’ll clarify my intentions. This is a list highlighting what should not be done EVER AGAIN. Even if it was a good idea once.

10 Critical Songwriting DON’Ts

  1. Unless you’re a woman named Maria, do not put any women in your songs named Maria.
  2. Do not write about, or even mention, walking on water.
  3. Do not write genre songs about a genre (e.g. do not write a blues song ABOUT blues music; do not write a rock n’ roll song ABOUT rock n’ roll music, do not write a jazz song ABOUT jazz music, etc.)
  4. Do not write songs about waitresses or prostitutes with hearts of gold.
  5. Unless you’re younger than 11, do not ever use the word “hater” in a lyric, or mention any social media platforms.
  6. Do not co-write with Diane Warren.
  7. Unless you’re Van Morrison, do not write choruses made up of words that are not words (Sussudio and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, I’m looking at you)
  8. Do not straight up copy someone else’s song and say you wrote it (Led Zeppelin, I’m looking at you)
  9. If you’re a comedian, don’t write songs. (Pay special attention to this order. It’s not necessarily a DON’T if you go the other direction.)
  10. Do not rhyme “love” with “dove.”

Abide by these rules. Thank you.


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

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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

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.


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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