The unsettlingly strange yet strangely settled life of blues singer Spencer Bohren, his wife and his four children as they crisscross America
Bob Cataliotti for WAVELENGTH
Long before Jack Kerouac ever reeled off a stream-of-consciousness travelogue, American musicians were crisscrossing the U.S.A. and creating the mystique of life on the road. Whether they were in big bands moving between dancehalls or lone bluesmen headed from juke joints to house parties, the lifestyle was marked by an unencumbered simplicity and spontaneity that sharpened their survival skills and broadened the scope of their creativity.
In more recent times, singer/guitarist Spencer Bohren has enthusiastically embraced life on the road, even though his version might not be as simple as Chuck Berry's hero who "carried his guitar in a gunny sack."
Bohren's life on the road actually shatters a few stereotypes. No lonesome wanderer looking for shelter from the storm, Bohren travels with his wife, Marilyn, their four children, and tows their lodging along, too. When the family originally pulled up stakes in New Orleans and headed out on the road in 1983, they were cruising in a cherry red 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet with a vintage Airstream trailer. But after logging over 250,000 miles, the Bohrens recently put together a new touring rig consisting of a 1985 one-ton Ford van and a 1985 thirty-four-foot Airstream.
Comprehending the scope of the Bohrens' travels might be difficult to many people who lead sedentary lives, but some of the sights the family has encountered as they make various gigs lend a certain perspective. "Over the period of last year," said Bohren, "we saw Yellowstone Park, we looked at the Oregon Trail from many different places, we were in the Redwoods, we were at Niagara Falls, the Bonneville Salt Flats. We drove through Reno at night, so we saw all those lights. We were through the Rocky Mountains, St. Augustine and Key West, Florida, New York City, Los Angeles, the Mojave, Big Sur. We saw the Space Needle. We did the Jazz Fest in New Orleans, saw Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, and both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Gulf Coast.
People they meet often have expectations of hearing highway horror stories, but the Bohrens try to maintain a fairly normal existence. "We're just leading our life. We are not really out here to be wild and crazy," explained Bohren. "It was wild and crazy when I was out on the road by myself – all the typical barroom crap. This way I go home at night and sleep in my own bed, with my own wife, and I get to eat three square meals a day, and I get to watch my kids grow up and help them learn."
Life on the road is not looked on as some great odyssey by the Bohrens. They are more impressed by the small "daily miracle" that simply helps them get by. "We live our lives so much in the moment because that's the nature of it," said Bohren.
"We're in one town, that's where we are. When we leave there, it's gone because we're thinking about the next place. You get into a new town and there's a whole new set of people to visit with."
Of course, there are memorable moments that stand out, even if they're not grand adventures. One "daily miracle" Bohren recalls involved a shop of Cuban mechanics in Miami who dropped all their other work one afternoon to do a valve job on the Chevy so Bohren could make it to a gig that night. He also remembers running out of gas somewhere in Kansas and receiving help from back-country folk who had him autograph their Army surplus gas can just in case he got famous one day. Recognition has brought them everything from a good laugh to major financial assistance.
When they went to apply for a loan to buy their new rig, the bank manager in Alabama just happened to have read a profile on Bohren in a local paper a few minutes before Spencer and Marilyn walked up to the desk. The banker was so charmed with their lifestyle that he bent some rules and got their loan approved. Bohren also remembers driving through some highway construction in Montana and having a crew of flagmen drop their flags to their hips and jam on imaginary guitars. It may not be Kerouac stumbling upon the key to the universe, but the simple things, the "daily miracles," are what the Bohrens fondly look back on as they travel the road.
The demands of the lifestyle are many and the main purpose is not simply to sightsee and log miles. The Bohrens are working on developing a musical career and expanding the audience. While Bohren is constantly honing his musical skills, Marilyn has become an able booking and promotional agent. The family is demanding, too, and both parents devote a large portion of their time to nurturing the children, especially through a commitment to home schooling.
After six years of plugging away, including some mighty lean times, the Bohrens' dedication seems to be paying off in some well-deserved success. This summer, an independent French label, Loft Records, released Snap Your Fingers, Bohren's first compact disc. The CD is a compilation of Bohren's first two albums. Loft is run by two young music enthusiasts, Anne Ojaste and Christian DiNatale, based in Vichy, France. Their aim is to work with American artists not well known in Europe and to help them build up a reputation and following.
Ojaste explained how they discovered and were attracted by Bohren's brand of the blues: "We first came across Spencer's debut album Born in a Biscayne last year in a Parisian record shop that specializes in American imports. I remember getting home and playing the record full blast . . . it was so good that we immediately phoned the record shop to ask them if Spencer Bohren had any other albums. Naturally, we ordered his second album, Down in Mississippi, and received it within two days. We fell so much in love with Spencer's voice and guitar playing that we decided to contact him personally."
Ojaste and DeNatale eventually made their first trip to the States in December of last year and met with the Bohrens in New Orleans to discuss the licensing of twelve tracks from the two albums for European release. They fondly recall meeting Bohren in person for the first time outside of Tipitina's, followed by a night of genuine New Orleans-style partying. The tracks were digitally remixed by Bohren and engineer Rand Everett at Terminal Studios in Jackson, Mississippi, and the CD with vintage Imperial/Ron Records- style cover art was released in mid-July.
Another recent boost to Bohren's career was the release of a third album, Live in New Orleans. The New Orelans based Great Southern Records held an option for Bohren to record an album since Born in a Biscayne had been leased for distribution. With the option due to run out at the end of 1989, Bohren, along with ownld/executive producer John Berthelot, decided to develop a live album project. In March of this year, Bohren invited old buddy, harmonica player JAB Wilson to accompany him, and they performed a warm-up concert at the Columns Hotel in New Orleans. A live audience was invited to Ultrasonic Studios and the album was recorded in concert format.
Live in New Orleans accurately captures Bohren's versatility and amiable stage presence as he moves through a repertoire deeply rooted in the sounds of the American south. There's plenty of strong blues material on the album, ranging from the lap-steel rendition of "The Sky is Crying" to the driving, Delta-style "Dark Road" to a bouncy, Piedmont-flavored "Eight More Miles to Louisville." But Bohren does not exclusively serve up a blues menu: he also delivers a soul ballad ("When a Man Loves a Woman", an a capella gospel number, a couple of electric R&B boogies ("Your Mama and Your Papa" and "Hoodoo You Love", and even a finger-picking showcase ("Maple Leaf Rag").
While Born in a Biscayne mixed solo acoustic blues with rocking New Orleans R&B numbers featuring Dr. John and John Mooney and Down in Mississippi focused mainly on Delta blues, Bohren found many of his fans wanted a record that captured the sound and variety of his live show. "I have so many people ask me, "Do you have a record that sounds just like what you're doing?" Bohren explained, "I felt for me, selling records from the stage, that it would be a good thing to have a live record."
Bohren's mastery as a guitarist is one of the most appealing aspects of Live in New Orleans. He adds variety to his repertoire by applying his talents to four very different guitars: a 1928 National Triolian, a 1975 Krimmel Acoustic, a 1959 National Ranger, and a 1949 National Lap Steel. While he considered himself primarily an acoustic guitarist for years, the many performances on the road have made him realize the potential of the different guitars.
"I like to use all those guitars because each one brings out different things," Bohren commented. "Obviously, the electric guitar, aside from volume, is kind of tricky to play alone because it's got that big electric sound. The National, well that Mississippi Delta sound only comes from the National guitar. It doesn't come from a dobro or anything else. It comes from a National. And the lap steel is my new baby. I'm just so in love with the lap steel. It speaks to me."
The versatility that Bohren displays on Live in New Orleans makes it clear that he does not approach his music with the kind of blues purist mentality of many modern blues players. "I'll take great liberties with a song," said Bohren. "I figure as an artist I have poetic license, and the folk process is something I believe heavily in. And at this point I feel I am a legitimate folk-processor."
Just as Bohren sidesteps some of the stereotyped images of life on the road, he also doesn't fit into the typical "bluesman" mold. "I feel that the basis of what I'm doing is definitely coming straight out of the Southern blues idiom, the Delta blues. But obviously I'm not a ‘bluesman.' I love singing blues songs. I'm touched deeply by these kinds of songs. I think that is particularly so because I come from a gospel background. But as far as being an archivist or one of these cats that has to lead the blues life, I'm a very happy man. I've got a lovely wife and four beautiful children, and I try to be as normal as I can be under the circumstances."
Despite preconceived notions about his lifestyle or image as a performer, the important thing about the years Bohren has spent on the road is that his music has gotten across. Audiences hear his singing and guitar playing and they recognize his talent, hard work, and ability to keep the "folk process" alive. "Right now, we're doing exactly what we want to do, and we're doing it on our own terms, and I think we're actually starting to become a success. I mean, we're not broke all the time," said Bohren. "We beat the streets for all these years and it has worked. It's like the American Dream," he continued. "You bust your ass, you put one brick on top of the other, and one foot in front of the other . . . not that we're making it but we have a good week now and again."
Spencer Bohren and his family will continue on the road, carried along by his love for singing the blues and people's appreciation for his art and craft. "The amazing thing to me is that we've been able to hang in there," Bohren concluded, "by hook and by crook and with a lot of help from our friends."