White-boy blues

The life and times of Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues

Preacher Boy wants to make the blues fresh again. Which isn't to say he doesn't respect tradition, a noble enough aspiration for a musician right there.

So how come the crew he only half-jokingly refers to as “the inner sanctum of blues Nazi-land” resents him so? Why is this white-boy blues man so often snubbed and ignored? Are we talking reverse racism here?

A glaring example was Preacher Boy's absence from a recent Yoshi's tribute concert to Brownie McGhee. A couple of dozen local luminaries gathered to honor the blues legend, but Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues were not invited to attend. Attempting to make some sense of this, Preacher Boy reflects, “Our niche in the blues world is a curious one. For gigs like that, we sometimes just don't come to mind for people.”

The group's omission from that bill reflects the unjust discrimination they've drawn from the hardcore blues community since forming a few years ago. The reasons for this passive hostility, says Preacher Boy, are manifold: For starters, he states, “We're young white guys. So we have to deal with all the inevitable difficulties and associations that come with that.” Additionally, the group's innovative mixture of modern and traditional comes across as unfamiliar, if not downright peculiar, to the contemporary blues enthusiast. “A 26-year-old white guy playing Son House pieces is a large jump in logic. It's not like we're imitating or drawing from our recent heroes, like Stevie Ray Vaughn.”

Preacher Boy's real name is Chris Watkins. He credits his family with first setting him on the path that led straight toward his blues calling; 13 years ago, Grandpa gave the teenager his first guitar, a $25 classical number with steel strings. It took the youngster some time to master the basics on the unusually wide fretboard, but once he tamed the beast, Chris knew there was nothing he couldn't pick, pluck or strum.

Like so many others, Watkins' introduction to the blues came from commercial radio's relentless deluge of pop assimilations by British rockers like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin. Ill-content being a passive listener, the self-described “education kid” — his father was a roving university professor — began to track the artistry. That search led him first back to the Yardbirds, then to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and eventually led to Chi-town, circa 1950, digging electric-blues giants Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Still, the resourceful teen had yet to lay ears on the rural, acoustic foundations of the '20s and '30s. Enter Mom.

One day, when Watkins was about 16 years old, his mother came home with the library book that led to his transformation into Preacher Boy; that fateful tome was Country Blues, by noted folklorist Samuel Charters. Watkins recalls that he was “blown away by the stories and personalities” of players like Charlie Patton, whose rough attitude and “crazy clowning” made up for his fair features and slight stature; preacher Son House, who blamed “booze and women for always bringing him back to the blues”; Mance Lipscomb, who reportedly was so exhausted from sharecropping all day that “he played all night long while asleep”; and the quintessential stereotype — “smokin' cigars, flask of Jack Daniels, womanizin', ramblin', hoboin', lazy, reckless, lyin' son of a bitch” — Lightnin' Hopkins.

So, with book in hand and curiosity blazing, the budding Preacher Boy raced to the local record shop to see if he could find music to match the folklore. Happening upon a Newport Folk Festival compilation LP, he knew that he'd hit the jackpot: “Twelve of these guys on one record … brother, that was it!” Soon thereafter, he sought out recordings by dozens of kindred rural bluesmen, including Skip James, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Willie McTell, John Hurt, Sam Chapman, Mississippi Sheiks — and of course, Robert Johnson.

As the gruff-voiced (think Blind Willie Johnson-cum-Tom Waits) leader of Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues, Watkins is on a threefold mission of sorts. First, the band's working philosophy is based on “putting out a determinedly different sound, not a single Chicago shuffle anywhere in our set, expressly with the purpose of trying to introduce the real old country blues — the songster traditions, ragtime sides, ballad sides — into settings where they may have not previously existed.”

Next, he wants “to prove that you can play your butt off head to head with anybody on that [acoustic] level, and at the same time, be up on a stage with a full band without losing that acoustic vibe.” Finally, although Preacher Boy is by no means a pure traditionalist, he makes it a point to clue in live audiences to the lineage: “I want to make sure that people know what it's about. I mention who the songs are by as we play them. I try to honor this aspect of the genre.”

Despite the snubs the group has suffered, Preacher Boys and the Natural Blues are determined to beat the obstacles and banish the stereotypes. The players include “minstrel spirit” and renowned multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, in-demand electric guitarist Jim Campilongo, Baby Snufkin bassist Tom Giesler and drummer Steve Escobar. It's unfair to dismiss Preacher Boy's valuable extension of the blues tradition simply because he's not some old black guy bending deep blue-notes on his cranked up Stratocaster and moaning about his woman leaving him.

This white boy realizes that “the stereotypes that are bound in blues can be really defeating. I wanted to prove it didn't have to be like that.” Judging from the hordes of fans at recent gigs and the vitality of the group's all-original, eponymous debut for Blind Pig Records, that perseverance is paying off.

In spite of — and perhaps because of — the band's thoughtfully developed idiosyncrasies and inescapable whiteness, it hasn't been an entirely uphill battle. To tell the truth, the anomalies surrounding this band have opened up as many doors as they've sealed. For example, when the fairly insular blues community shut them out, the alternative-rock crowd embraced the group with arms open wide.

Preacher Boy credits the open-mindedness of the Bay Area for the warm reception. “It went great from minute one,” he declares. “I'm proud of [our accomplishments] because we're taking positive advantage of what our situation is like, and I think the real serious praise we've gotten from people in the industry is supportive of that. Like, 'We really need some fresh blood in roots music and it's good to see that younger people are still doing it and have that kind of connection.'”

And as for the inner sanctum of blues land? Well, maybe — just maybe — that gateway will swing open yet.

Preacher Boy and the Natural Blues celebrate the release of their new record Fri, March 3, at the Paradise Lounge in S.F. (861-6906) and Sat, March 4, at Blake's in Berkeley (510/848-0886).

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