View From the Pew

Singer-songwriter Preacher Boy keeps it on the move with a brand of unconventional blues

Tales of loners and outcasts litter The Devil's Buttermilk like dry leaves, but the stories never sound romanticized or posed. If Watkins learned nothing else from listening to his folks' records all those years, he learned how to tell a story; and that talent, more so than the music which buoys it, is what provides the link between this album and the blues, specifically the talking variety.

The Devil's Buttermilk is a "blues" album in spirit only, you see. This isn't a pretty white boy doing an effete John Lee Hooker riff, or a cannibalizing of indigenous musical forms in the service of a trendy, homogenized musical pastiche. Preacher Boy's tales of marginalized wanderers are hoisted aloft on a clanky scaffold of noise and melody, and the most rewarding part of listening is hearing how often the structure holds solid.

As perhaps the central example of that talent, take "Spaceman," the tale of a neighborhood oddball who hangs out at the local bar drinking brandy twists and beer, spending "his science fiction days dreaming up/All the things that he'd invent, but never sell": "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." By the song's end, the narrator has moved on, leaving Spaceman to his own solitary fate. The poor bastard's probably still taking the abuse stoically, but not innocently. And the whole is accomplished without condescension or an easy he-knows-more-than-we-did posturing.

Preacher Boy: Tales of loners and outcasts litter his latest effort, The Devil's Buttermilk.
Amy Marinelli
Preacher Boy: Tales of loners and outcasts litter his latest effort, The Devil's Buttermilk.

"There's a fair amount of thematic obsessions that I write about in general, and I think that isolation is one. For a tune like 'Spaceman,' it's tricky, because there's a lot of material, literature or poetry or whatever, where there's a real ivory-tower romanticizing of that outsider viewpoint. And I think the only truly conscious part of writing that song for me was, I wanted to write it as personally as I could and hope that I wasn't romanticizing him. I think you just kind of have to put it down the best you can, and then show it to the world and hope that whatever authenticity you meant for it to have comes through.

"That's the advantage of the recorded media, is you don't have to stand there and watch while people react to it. But performing live, it's really bizarre . . . you can actually see people listening to what you're saying, and taking it in. I tend to live very solitarily anyway, I think -- I'm a bit of a hermit, for the most part -- and I don't really think about it when I write, because I'm just kind of lost in the process, you know. . . . But the first time I step onstage to do a new song, I always have that feeling, like, 'Oh my God, what have I done? Jesus, I shouldn't've said that.'"

Apart from a few turns by session sidemen on drums and keyboards, The Devil's Buttermilk was written, performed and produced by Watkins alone. "[The time in Ireland] was great, because I was able to get up every day and write, or work on whatever I was going to be working on. By the time I went back into [Revolution Studios, in England], I came in and announced, 'Right. I've got 70 songs. Let's go.'"

Having come through a handful of solo shows in support of Eagle-Eye Cherry, Preacher Boy's approach to the instrumentation on The Devil's Buttermilk displays both a single-minded vision and a respect for the multivocality provided by dozens of instruments flailing at once: "The first time I ever went into the studio [for 1995's Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues, on Blind Pig], I was amazed -- we were working with a producer who really liked the layered sound thing, and he'd say, 'You know what we need on this song? A glockenspiel.' And I'd be like, 'I'll do it! I'll play it! Gimme the glockenspiel!' And I think from that point on I just had the bug. I mean, I'm not terribly proficient on any one thing, but I can get by on a lot of different things. Every instrument has such a unique quality, different sounds you can make with it, and you get to where you learn to respect the individual character of each instrument. And finally you get to sew it all together; it's just so much fun."

No less than 12 instruments are credited to Preacher Boy in the album's liner notes, but it was his grandfather who bought him his first guitar, and it's his grandfather to whom The Devil's Buttermilk is dedicated. It's these connections -- to family, to lovers, to friends -- that inform the humanitarian core of Preacher Boy's music, which is touching without sounding forced. As he sings on "It's Cold Tonight," the final track, "It ain't one more for any baby/It ain't one more for the road/Bill, I just need one more/For the cold/Christ Bill, just one more/For the cold."

Yeah. And the hell of it is, you're always moving. Right now Preach and his companion are based in Denver, getting a bit more settled than perhaps they'd like.

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