By Keith Spera Music Writer
Spencer Bohren is not a particularly religious man, but he has a special affinity for gospel groups, both real and imagined.
At The Parish of the House of Blues on Tuesday, Bohren sat in with the Blind Boys of Alabama, adding his trademark acoustic slide guitar to three songs by the famed gospel singers. So impressed was Clarence Fountain, the Boys’ 80-ish leader, that he declared of Bohren and fellow guest guitarist David Lindley, “Those boys played like they’ve been born again.”
When Bohren was recording his much-acclaimed “Carry the Word” two years ago, he communed with a gospel quartet called the Nott Brothers. The Notts grace the CD with rich, warm harmonies, complementing the intimate arrangements of traditional spirituals, songs that Bohren has performed since childhood.
When his mother first listened to “Carry the Word,” she was struck by how much it sounded like Bohren and his brothers harmonizing with their father years ago in church. A Swiss promoter heard it and called to book Bohren and the Nott Brothers for a series of concerts in medieval cathedrals.
Bohren had to decline. And the Nott Brothers won’t be joining him today at 5:10 p.m. on the Lagniappe Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. But in a way, they will: Bohren is the Nott Brothers and the Nott Brothers are Bohren.
A last-minute change of plans during the recording of “Carry the Word” forced him to sing all the parts he had mapped out for a real gospel quartet; he named the fictional group the “Nott Brothers.” Bohren inhabits the soul of this music so completely that most listeners don’t notice the rues. “Carry the Word” was named the best local album of 2000 by The Times-Picayune, and has earned similar kudos elsewhere.
After a 35-year odyssey of many miles and many forms of music, Bohren found his most affecting artistic statement residing almost completely within himself.
“This gospel record has moved people that none of my other records might have gotten to,” Bohren said. “I don’t want to be branded as some born-again zealot—that’s far from the truth. But this music is meaningful to me. It came out so easily. I didn’t have to think a lot about it, its so deep inside of me.”
Crescent City’s siren song
Bohren, 51, was raised in Wyoming. He does not remember learning to sing or play guitar; it was something he, his parents and siblings just did, often in church. At 14, he started playing professionally in 1964 at women’s clubs, church functions, county fairs. The folk music renaissance was in full bloom then; archival recordings of Mississippi Delta bluesmen that found their way to Wyoming fueled Bohren’s early fascination with acoustic blues.
The day he graduated from high school, Bohren set off on three decades of roaming. First came Denver, then the West Coast. He lived on a commune in Oregon, joined a touring Seattle band and bounced back to Colorado, where he met Dr. John at the height of the good doctor’s hoodoo psychedelic period.
“We were hanging around all these people with pirate suits and snake tattoos and glitter and feathers and beads,” Bohren said. “We were hippies, but we’d never seen anything like this.”
Dr. John regaled Bohren with tales of New Orleans and its Mardi Gras Indians and spiritual churches. “I didn’t know anything about this,” Bohren said. “New Orleans was very undercover at that time.”
Intrigued, Bohren and his wife journeyed south. They arrived in New Orleans just before Fat Tuesday. The city “wrapped its tendrils around us, and the next thing you know, we were stuck.”
Gigs were scarce in New Orleans in the mid-’70s, but Bohren landed on eat a place called Spaghetti Eddie’s. He performed with a legendary crew of hard-partying locals, slowly building a following. In 1983 he packed his ever-growing family into an Airstream trailer and hit the road. After seven years of near-constant touring, the family settled in Wyoming.
In 1996, he and his wife made a fateful visit to New Orleans. Sitting in Jackson Square on a brilliant fall afternoon, they had an epiphany: The Big Easy was home. The family packed up once again and landed in Mid-City.
“We were welcomed back with open arms, as if we’d never been gone.” Bohren said. “There’s something real special here. Touring Europe 30-some times, I’ve seen a lot of amazing things, and played with great musicians from a lot of places. All of that experience makes me realize more than ever how truly unique New Orleans is.”
All parts Bohren
For the first 20 years of his career, Bohren didn’t make a record. “I didn’t feel that it was that big a deal,” he said. “You’re at the gig, everything’s cool, you drink some beers and the next thing you know it’s 20 years later.
“It’s hard for me to believe, because now I make records all the time. I can’t imagine that I deprived myself of that kind of pleasure for that long.”
He now has more than a dozen albums to his credit, including several Japan- and Europe-only releases. The seeds for “Carry the Word” were sown with its predecessor, the acoustic guitar and harmonica meditation “Dirt Roads.” Bohren bookended with a pair of old spirituals. Encouraged by positive response to them, he decided to make an entire album of such material.
He entered a friend’s Jackson, Miss., recording studio in April 1999. A Mississippi gospel quartet, the Williams Brothers, was scheduled to come in on the last day of the session and add harmonies. The band’s leader called that morning with bad news: He and the others were laid up with the flu. With no time to find a replacement, Bohren laid down the gospel himself.
He would sing one part, roll back the tape, add another, then do it again, building the “quartet” one take at a time. He rendered the soul-swoop falsettos, the bass parts, all the gospel harmonies that resonate so deeply throughout the album. And he invented the “Nott Brothers” name.
“It was so different than the plan. In the end, I think it’s much better. It went very quickly, because I knew exactly what I wanted. There was no teaching any lyrics; I just went in and sang it.”
The powerful simplicity of “Dirt Roads” and “Carry the Word” made Bohren rethink his methods.
“I realized that maybe all these records that I was making along the lines of John Hiatt or Steve Earle weren’t really what I had to offer,” he said. “These last two records are these simple, rootsy records and they really struck a chord with people.
An artist’s life
As good as they are, they likely will never sell big numbers. Lean times last year forced Bohren to accept his first-ever day job; it didn’t last. Then in February he appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion,” the syndicated radio variety show with Garrison Keillor as host, and played for 4 million listeners. He’ll return to the show May 19, and hopes the exposure will give his career another boots.
Such are the ups and downs of the life of a musician, the life he’s chosen, the life that chose him.
“At this point, I feel real good about my life and myself and my music,” he said. “I realize that the music is just a reflection of whatever life I’ve got going. Maybe that’s why these records are so calm.
“It’s a great gift to be an artist. My daughter once said, ‘It’s maybe not a good living, but it’s a great life.’ It’s true. We’ve made a life that would be impossible to pay for. It’s been quite a journey.”