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He's Got a Witness

Chris Watkins infuses his music with a literary flair to create an intriguing testimonial.
A. Marinell

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."

"I don't write for a genre or a particular aesthetic," he says. Instead, he tells outcast tales over various music forms, in language that's innovative yet not too obtuse. "That's the fine art of songwriting -- that blend of personal perspective that gives some authenticity, balanced with some universality that doesn't push the listener away but draws them in. There's got to be something other than cliches and trite recycling."

Too much literary detail, painted with too narrow a brush, can also cause trouble. While Watkins admits to a moderate love of sports, he cites the trio of sportscasters on Monday Night Football to make his point. "Al Michaels ends up playing the middle the whole time," he says. "To me, if you had to make the analogy, Al's the best songwriter of the bunch, because he's clever and he knows how to communicate, but he's not deliberately putting people off, like Dennis Miller does. Songwriting is communication."

Watkins's communication skills hit home with Cherry, whom Watkins met while filling the opening slot during a series of European dates last year. The two hit it off and were soon picking together on Cherry's bus as they rode to gigs. When the tour was over, Watkins recalls, Cherry insisted they write songs together soon. "It was great; we really hit it off," Waktins says. "But I was thinking, 'I don't ever expect to see you again.'" After returning home, though, Watkins started squirreling away money to fly to New York and write with Cherry in case he came through on his promise. He did.

"When the call finally does come," Watkins says, "the limousine picks me up from my house to take me to the airport, and another limo picks me up and takes me to his loft in Tribeca. It was ridiculous."

Cherry called Watkins because he was under pressure from producer Rick Rubin to come up with songs for a booked recording session. The pair wrote five songs in six days. Rubin liked them all.

"All of a sudden I'm in the studio with the big boys, recording these tunes I'd written," he says with a mix of glee and bemusement. Heading into the writing sessions, Watkins wondered if the experience would be an artistically satisfying one, or one that would leave him feeling as if he had sacrificed his art for some mainstream exposure.

"Eagle-Eye's made some steps that are very commercial, and he's a pop guy," he says. "But it ended up being a really groovy relationship, because he understood what I do and why, and I could see those devotions in his music, too. I was like, is this gonna be a total sellout? Once I got in there and worked with him, it was like, this guy's a heavy musician who likes to knuckle down and write groovy music.

"In its simplest form," Watkins says, "I think I gave him some raw, edgy kind of outsider qualities that he didn't necessarily have otherwise. He gave me some pop sensibility and some craft sensibility that I wouldn't have had otherwise. The truth is, he likes a lot of edgy, outsider stuff, and I like a lot of pop stuff. We set out to write something good that had meat on the bone, and I feel like that's what we came up with."

Watkins's work with Cherry cemented a friendship between the two that has had unexpected benefits for Watkins, who is currently shopping for a new label to release his next batch of material. For one, it's helped him place songs that don't quite fit in with the rest of his solo work. "The cool thing about co-writing and placing songs with other people is that there's a way to be a songwriter past the confines of a single record," he says. "I don't want to forget about these songs. They're my friends, too."

This fall, Watkins's co-writes with Cherry will find friends among television audiences. One song, "Crashing Down," has been picked for use by the producers of the program Roswell. Another cut, "Long Way Around," will appear in the show Smallville. Watkins also appears on the new Tom Waits compilation, A New Coat of Paint, covering Waits's "Old Boyfriends." He's aware of the payoffs that come through his newfound songwriter role, too, which did much for Waits. "Look at the hipster cult of Tom Waits. It's some sort of badge of outsider aesthetic. This guy's been plugging since 1978, but he did win -- he became a genre unto himself. But that man didn't make any money until Rod Stewart covered 'Downtown Train.'"

Local music manager Marc Bliesener (current manager for Big Head Todd and a former advisor to Lyle Lovett, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others) is now serving as Watkins's personal manager. He's shopping Preach's material to labels around the country. "He's truly original," Bliesener says of his client. "He doesn't sound, look, think or talk like anybody else. That's why I was anxious to work with him."

Watkins is enjoying the benefits of his new niche, one that will add a hyphen and an extra word to his singer-multi-instrumentalist titles. "Yeah, songwriter," he says with a grin. "That's the kind of thing you can do when you're ninety. I can hang out in these groovy studios, making records with the best gear in these great places with these fantastic people. I dig that, and I dig being able to walk across those lines."


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