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By Tom Murphy
Like many musicians, Chris Watkins has a tough time putting a label on his sound.
"I'm one of those hyphenated people," says Watkins, who plays under the name Preacher Boy. "You know, folk-blues-roots-jazz-soul-blah-blah-blah. The influences I pull off of are rooted in the folkie, storytelling kind of songwriting thing." Watkins speaks with the mild beatnik drawl of a jazzman hipster. His sculpted features and a dark soul patch give him the air of a Calvin Klein model with genuine cool. That feeling of authenticity carries over into his unique and varied brand of music, which blends full-moon folk, slacker rock and the bluesy textures of Beck and G. Love with Tom Waits's Gin Pan Alley themes and Howlin' Wolf's spooky imagery.
While Watkins's sound is not an easy thing to reduce to a soundbite -- or to file in a specific record-store bin -- it is a mixture that has served him well over the past few years. Before relocating to Denver last year, Watkins released four albums and toured extensively across the United States and eleven other countries. A multi-instrumentalist who has been playing solo shows around the Denver area for several months, he is also a budding fiction writer: At 32, he has completed a novel that's slated for publication soon, and his lyrics appear in In Our Own Words, a new Gen-X collection by MWE Press.
These days, Watkins's byline appears in another high-profile place: He co-wrote six songs with Eagle-Eye Cherry, all of which appear on Cherry's new, Rick Rubin-produced disc, Present Future. Watkins (or "Preach," as his friends call him) will perform with Cherry when he comes to the Bluebird Theater next week. The show should help boost Watkins's profile, which he's been quietly building up as a solo performer and backing artist for locals including Boulder's Marie Beer.
"It's a stamp of authenticity," Watkins says of his collaborations with Cherry. "Now I can say I worked with Rick Rubin and Eagle-Eye, and the songs have sold this many copies."
Watkins is glad to be discussing sales figures these days, but he's more anxious to discuss his foot-dragging acoustic stylings and boot-stomping rock. His music pairs bygone blues and modern rock textures with touches that draw from both the musical and literary realms: There are traces of Tom Waits, John Prine, Flannery O'Connor and others who paint intricate and often dark pictures of American life. Though literacy and wordplay may seem like dying art forms these days, Watkins views using them almost as a duty.
"I uphold, to the best of my ability, the idea that songs are stories, character sketches -- not just verses and choruses," he says. He maintains those standards nicely, with songs that are rich in detail, color and cleverness and refreshingly free of posturing or cliche. His music is aimed at those who savor the combination of good music and equally strong prose.
"Writing pap for the masses is a mutually destructive way for an audience and a creator to relate to one another," he says. "I miss the days when people would go to music like they would go to poetry or painting. It's great to go to music for entertainment, to dance, get a little lovin'. But I believe you also go to music to get the most profound, revelatory, emotive responses. You go to feel and to learn and to commune in that folk-based thing."
Watkins has been successfully communing with his fans for some time. After gaining a following in his then-hometown of San Francisco, the Iowa City-born Watkins signed to the Blind Pig label, which released his debut, Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues, in 1995 . The disc -- a collection of revamped country blues, rags and other vintage forms -- earned glowing reviews and sold well enough for Blind Pig to release a second Preacher Boy offering, Gutters and Pews,in 1996. That disc expanded on Watkins's first recording with a few non-blues influences. But the shifts in style caused problems with the tradition-based label, which Watkins says saw him as a conduit to reaching more rock-oriented audiences.
After hearing his newer stuff, Blind Pig told him, "'Nope, this is the Preacher Boy sound,'" he recalls. "I think they wilted under the pressure. They didn't realize that to break a fringe-y artist takes a bit more effort than to just put it out there in the normal channels." In 1997, he left Blind Pig and signed with English label Wah Tup, which released Crow,an album Watkins describes as a "Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart opera," which covered many genres and also earned good ink in Europe.
His current disc, The Devil's Buttermilk, appears on the Manifesto label and includes fourteen songs that run a gamut of styles: "Golden Thimble" and "The Dogs" are dobro-powered, undertaker blues; "End of the Moon" recalls Nick Cave's brooding mood music; and "Rust" and "On and On It Goes" sound like second-cousin cuts to 16 Horsepower's brimstone rock, complete with pleas for salvation. In "At the Corner of the Top and Bottom," Watkins's growled vocals and lurching rhythms call to mind Tom Waits backed by a band of bluesy vipers. All of these tunes are packed with social misfits: In Preacher Boy's street church, members of the congregation use old court summonses for toilet paper and pass out each night over their guitars. Drifters pray for help but get their redemption in liquid form: "The closest they come to religion is buying a bottle of Blue Nun," Watkins sings in "Rust."