Spencer Bohren's story reads like a classic novel.
Soon after Spencer Bohren received his first guitar in 1964, a friend presented him with a drawing of a sandaled, determined vagabond, obviously bound for some unknown destination. Walking away from the viewer with a guitar slung across his back, that drawing epitomized Spencer's naïve vision of his destiny as a traveling folk singer. As things turned out, he more than got his wish.
Born in wind-swept Casper, Wyoming, in 1950, Spencer's gospel-singing parents provided the foundation for a musical style and career that remain healthy after more than four decades. Like all of the Bohren children, Spencer learned to sing the third above the melody around the same time he learned to speak in sentences. And in the 1950s, with Hank Williams and Elvis Presley on the airwaves, he spent hours gathered around a piano, singing with the family choir. Spencer says, "My mother didn't have boys and girls. To her we were sopranos, altos and tenors." The family sang in churches, schools and nursing homes around the state in every conceivable combination: duos, trios, quartets, quintets, solo, and full ensemble.
In the early 1960s, the harmonies of The Kingston Trio caught Spencer's ear, and soon he was singing 'Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley' with some other adventurous boys from the church. In 1964, much to the chagrin of his Baptist parents, Spencer acquired his first guitar, and formed the first of many singing groups. According to Spencer, "I won the Kiwanis 'Stars of Tomorrow' talent contest at fourteen, singing 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'Greenback Dollar,' and I just never looked back."
Of course, being the '60s, the English Invasion with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan's meteoric creative streak, San Francisco's psychedelic scene and its resulting experimental stew of musical styles all influenced Spencer's music to some degree, but his abiding interest continued to be the traditional music that had inspired everything else he was listening to. On the very day of his high school graduation, Spencer watched Casper, Wyoming, fade in the rearview mirror as he set out for Denver, where he haunted Harry Tuft's hallowed Folklore Center on 17th Street. With Eagle-Ridin' Papa, Spencer and his guitarist friend, Don DeBacker, explored the blues idiom intensely. They greedily devoured every country blues re-issue available at that time and received invaluable first-hand experience from the eccentric ragtime genius, The Reverend Gary Davis, whom they housed and transported when the great blind bluesman made a week-long tour stop in the Mile-High City.
The early 1970s found Spencer wandering both musically and geographically. While playing guitar with the Funston Brothers in Southern Oregon, Spencer learned fiddle tunes and Jimmie Rodgers songs from elder musicians in the area. During his stint as lead singer for Seattle's Butterfat, he embraced Hank Williams and swapped songs with the zany Holy Modal Rounders, all the while perfecting his stagecraft from town to town in the Pacific Northwest.
Lured by an invitation to join the band of folk-blues legend, Judy Roderick, Spencer returned to Colorado in 1973, playing with a series of country-rock bands culminating with Gone Johnson and their trip to Los Angeles to court the big record labels. During this time, Spencer kept several side projects alive as a less commercial outlet for his beloved blues and folk music. Eventually, disillusioned by the focus on commerce over artistry, he embarked on a year-long odyssey with his future wife, Marilyn, sorting out musical and personal quandaries while exploring large parts of America. During that sabbatical year, inspired by an ever-larger repertoire of original and traditional songs, Spencer rediscovered the freedom of solo performance. He and Marilyn also visited New Orleans for the first time, never dreaming of the close association they would share with that most atmospheric and inspiring of cities over the coming decades. It happened to be Mardi Gras, and the Crescent City thoroughly seduced the young lovers, who returned a few months later, pregnant with their first child, eager to set up housekeeping, and hoping to find a niche in the city's historic music scene.
As luck would have it, that music scene was awakening from a period of slumber, and Spencer's arrival in 1975 coincided with the genesis of a powerfully creative cycle in the Crescent City. Young hipsters created venues for their contemporaries as well as the rhythm 'n' blues luminaries from the '50s and '60s. The inevitable mix often paired Spencer and his peers with legends like Professor Longhair, Earl King, Clifton Chenier or James Booker. This fecund musical atmosphere nurtured many new bands and artists, The Neville Brothers, The Radiators, Beausoleil and the subdudes among them.
Spencer was right in the thick of all this music and experimentation, hosting a steady Monday night jam session at the renowned Tipitina's. Friday and Saturday nights were spent at the storied Old Absinthe Bar on Bourbon Street, and opening slots with dozens of big-name touring artists plus endless public collaborations with the stellar cast of musicians available during that time, rounded out the calendar. Spencer's decision to concentrate on his solo career followed the birth of a second son, and offers to perform in neighboring states reflected his rising stature in the New Orleans musical community. Before long, out-of-town dates outnumbered local performances, and too much time away from his growing family, which now included a new daughter, precipitated another dramatic decision
In 1983, encouraged by friends who traveled with the circus, the Bohrens refurbished and old silver Airstream trailer, hitched it to their pristine red and white 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air, and set out on a mythical journey that was to last seven years. Spencer kept the machinery in order between engagements while Marilyn perfected the fine art of booking a continuous concert calendar from pay phones all over America. As this adventurous idea gained traction, the Bohrens created a vibrant life in motion, home-schooling the children and attuning the itinerary to the four seasons... north in the summer, south in the winter.
During the inaugural year of this amazing journey, Spencer stopped long enough to record his first solo album, 'Born in a Biscayne', featuring the piano genius of Doctor John and picturing Spencer with his guitar atop the World Trade Center in New York City. The following year, he accepted an invitation for a series of concerts in Scandinavia, beginning an important relationship with the European audience that continues to this day.
For the next few years, Spencer's touring and recording careers shifted into overdrive. He released a Delta blues album, 'Down in Mississippi,' and a live record in the states. A Spencer Bohren compilation in France led to contracts with Virgin Records in Europe, and an album recorded in Sweden produced a top forty hit there. European tours, sometimes five or six in a year, alternated with family life on the road in the states. During this period, Spencer could be found as easily on the stage of L'Olympia Theatre in Paris as in a blues club in Nebraska, and the legend continued to grow. A fourth child in 1989 necessitated a larger trailer, but the Bohrens didn't miss a beat. They kept rolling down the highways and byways of America until a series of business reversals eventually made the gypsy lifestyle untenable, forcing them trade their "Chrome Home" for a more traditional dwelling, first in Colorado and then in Spencer's native Wyoming.
While living in Colorado, SONY / France released another album called 'Present Tense,' and a Japanese compilation led to a tour of Japan. All of the foreign opportunities, however, had left Spencer's American fans untended, and as activity in Europe began to subside, Spencer faced the challenge of reclaiming his audience in the US. A phone call from an old friend unexpectedly illuminated the way.
Most of Spencer's previous albums had reflected his interest in songwriting, and the musical direction could typically be described as roots-rock. European tours required a small band to compliment these albums, and Spencer was pondering the financial advisability of continuing to tour with other musicians, when harmonica ace JAB Wilson offered to produce a new Spencer Bohren disc in 1986 with only guitar and harmonica accompaniment. Uncertain whether such a bare-bones album would fit his current musical direction, Spencer decided to view the recording as a nod to the timeless blues that had so moved him as a young musician and had always informed his music on a deep level. The simplicity and warmth of the music on 'Dirt Roads' surprised and delighted his fans, old and new alike, and reinvigorated Spencer's connection to America's great heritage of songs. It also indicated a singularly comfortable new musical direction, unhindered by the expectations of the music industry. Coincidentally, the 'Dirt Roads' album cover pictures a man with a guitar, walking away from the viewer down a country road… subliminally recalling Spencer's teen-age troubadour fantasy!
Before long, the sirens called Spencer and his family back to New Orleans, where they were welcomed home by the familiar artistic community. With their creative children involved, the Bohren family quickly became a cultural force, contributing to the ambience of the city on several fronts. Spencer's next album was an homage to the gospel music he grew up with. Titled, 'Carry the Word,' it was named "Best CD of the Year 2000 by a Louisiana Artist" in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The CD also sported cover art by Spencer himself. Inspired by a small art show he viewed while searching for art for his new CD, Spencer assembled an atmospheric scene in a small cigar box, added his own image, and photographed it for the cover.
The process of making art, however, deeply affected Spencer. He created another box, and then another. These mysterious little boxes quietly became a consuming passion for Spencer, the recipients of his formidable creative energy, and an inspirational way to inhabit the lost hours and stolen moments inherent in the lengthy tours that make up much of a musician's life. While Spencer shows almost no interest in exploiting or marketing his wonderful creations, he regularly mounts exhibitions of his work, often in a university setting. In conjunction with lectures, workshops or residencies that take advantage of his passion for artwork, Spencer also shares his accumulated knowledge and love of America's music, and, of course, his well-known musicianship and songwriting.
Four decades as a "road scholar," concert performer and general fan of humanity have given Spencer Bohren much to share. "I've never envisioned myself in front of a classroom, but it turns out that I'm a good teacher, and I love the feeling of passing my discoveries on to music lovers of all ages, especially the next generation." He offers a veritable treasure trove of guitar technique, lapsteel tricks, and musical knowledge to enthusiastic students around the world.
Contemporary with his recent welcome into the academic world, Spencer has developed a performance/lecture that sheds light on the origins and development of the traditional American music he celebrates so lovingly in his concerts. Entitled 'Down the Dirt Road Blues,' it follows a single song's journey from 16th Century Africa through America's culture and history up through the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, utilizing appropriate vintage instruments to orchestrate the story.
Still actively touring in Europe, Spencer has recorded and released four CD projects with Germany's Valve Records. The second one, 'Southern Cross,' displays a small gallery's worth of Spencer's artwork. In recent years, he has performed in France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Italy, as well as Germany, and is gathering an enthusiastic following in England and Ireland as well.
While the horrific events resulting from Hurricane Katrina's devastating visit to New Orleans in 2005 have dramatically affected Spencer and his family, he, like so many others, is in the process of rebuilding his home and life. His career is healthier than ever, and a new song, 'The Long Black Line,' currently functions as a sort of post-traumatic touchstone for every New Orleanian who hears it.
And the story is far from over. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode...