View From the Pew

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

Preacher Boy is on the run.

The artist formerly known as Christopher Watkins is somewhere just past the exit to Boise, trying to get the hell out of Utah as fast as he can. "We are really in the wilds now, man. I don't know how long it's gonna hold out," he reports over a crackling cell phone connection.

Truth be told, last night's show -- the first on the western leg of Preacher Boy's current jaunt -- went as well as could be expected. Alone on stage, but accompanied by a collection of guitars (acoustic, National slide, 12-string, nylon-string), mandolins, banjos, harmonicas and sundry other instruments within easy reach, Preacher Boy delivered a set of solo acoustic music that seemed to go over well, and encountered no significant tech problems. However, he's taking today off just the same.

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.

"Opening night you never know what's going to happen, how many instruments are going to snap in half, so I tried to give myself one night where I could fix whatever went wrong. It was kind of a guinea pig show, 'cause I'd never really done that kind of setup before."

The multi-instrumental Watkins is no stranger to playing with a lot of gear cluttering up the stage, but this time out, the context is unique. "Last time I was out and with a band, we'd set up a situation where every guy had to play like five different instruments, and at the end of every song, everybody was scrambling, trying to figure out what to pick up next. This time, I can pretend like I'm still in a band and have lots of crap equipment to carry. But doing it all on your own is a lot different.

"Playing a song in a solo acoustic version," he says, "is sort of like finding out what a song sounds like when it's drunk."

The eminently quotable Christopher Watkins began performing as Preacher Boy in 1992, in San Francisco's roots-blues scene, backed by a rotating group called the Natural Blues. A mournful-eyed fellow who looked far too young and Caucasian to be singing the blues in any capacity, Preacher Boy's credibility lay in his voice, which sounded (and we mean this in the most complimentary way possible) like an angry giant gargling rock salt. Every single bit of press Preacher Boy received remarked on Watkins' vocal delivery, and rightly so. Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues recorded two albums for contemporary blues label Blind Pig, revivalist exercises rooted in the country-blues tradition Watkins had absorbed as a kid, listening to his parents' Howlin' Wolf records.

But in 1997, Preacher Boy, by mutual agreement with Blind Pig, signed exclusively to a British label called Wah'tup; and the following year he released Crow, a grab-bag album that found him stretching his generic affiliations more than a bit, relying heavily on noise and instrumental experimentation. It was a significant departure for a young man who'd received generally affable, if reserved, critical praise. Crow, by contrast, got uniformly excellent press, and Preacher Boy and his girlfriend went backpacking through England and Ireland to take a bit of a needed break.

While traveling, they fell in love with the Irish countryside; when Preacher Boy's companion, a painter, found an art school in the area built into a 16th-century tower on the coast of Galway Bay, they decided to pack up and move to Ireland for a bit. "We had both been in San Francisco for years, and kind of dug ourselves into whatever trenches you dig yourself into when you've been in one place for too long. So we both agreed that a gradual change of scene wasn't gonna work. We were both ready to cut all ties, burn every bridge and just hit the road. In retrospect, it was one of the best years of my life."

Committed to the extended stay, they got set to make the move, but along the way, Preacher Boy stopped in London to perform a single solo acoustic show. In the audience that night was a scouter, a man who worked for an agency called Primary Talent, who approached Watkins after the set. By morning he was signed as a solo performer, and the scouter told Watkins he'd be in touch.

"I didn't expect to hear from him, really. My girlfriend and I were living in a tiny fishing village: Two pay phones, one grocery store, five pubs. I was having to call my label and say, 'Okay, give me a call back at this time on this day; I'll be at the pay phone near the third pub.'" But three weeks later, Primary Talent asked Preacher Boy to open up a three-week, 17-city European tour for Eagle-Eye Cherry -- son of Don, brother of Nenah -- on two conditions. One, you have to do it solo acoustic (". . . to which I said, 'Okay, that's good, because I don't have a band and I don't know anybody here anyway . . .'"); and two, you have to leave in four days.

The shows went swimmingly: Eagle-Eye featured Preacher Boy in his own sets each night, songs got written, paintings got painted, and late last year, Preacher Boy released The Devil's Buttermilk, a not-really-blues collection that serves as a jangly tour-de-force showcase for a devilishly talented performer.

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.

"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.

"Compared to San Francisco, which is the last place we spent a lot of time, the cost of living here is really low. We've been able to trick out the house a little bit. I've got a little kind of studio in the basement, and the missus has an easel and space out back, you know, we've got a Guinness keg in the house. It's hard to leave. We're saving money . . . maybe we'll move to the country and disappear from the earth.

"Or maybe we'll move to another city and do it all over again."

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