Spencer Bohren: Taking Roots on the Road, from Wyoming to Europe
Spencer Bohren grew up in a gospel-singing Baptist family in Casper, Wyoming, but roots music has long been the variety closest to his heart. His repertoire ranges from the old (blues written before slavery times) to the new, such as his original “Long Black Line” that became an unofficial anthem of a New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.
Nowadays, Bohren–who’s appearing August 2 and 3 at the Beartrap Summer Festival–is widely known as a music educator, not just a singer and picker, and his school-residency gigs keep him on the road to universities, K through 12s, and festivals around the U.S. and Europe and points beyond.
But the wildest musical road trip Bohren has ever made was one that lasted seven years: when he took to the highway with his wife Marilyn and their three young children in a classic 1955 Chevrolet, pulling a vintage Airstream trailer.
“In retrospect it was such a bold thing,” Bohren now says of the adventure. “But the bottom line was, I was a musician working on the road and we still wanted to be a family. The thing that amazes me is how many new skills we had to learn.
“It wasn’t a living, it was a life. And I think we could never have done it without the kindness of strangers. With the ’55 Chevy it was like Donna Reed on the road. We had these beautiful children. We’d stop for gas and people would gather around because they had to know what was up with us.”
“A lot of people were living vicariously through us,” Marilyn adds. “We ended up with a whole network, across the country, of families. We’d have a great time with them, their kids would play with our kids, then we’d go on down the road. And it always seemed like a part of them wished they were going with us.”
Nowadays the Bohrens travel to gigs by more conventional means from their adopted home of New Orleans, and son Andre has his own band, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes (also appearing at this year’s Beartrap).
One of Spencer’s most popular presentations is a history of American music, told as a story punctuated with the evolution of a single song. Supported by photos and video, it’s called “Down the Dirt Road Blues” and follows the song’s evolution from pre-slavery Africa through Muddy Waters, to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.
By contrast, Bohren’s newest CD “Tempered Steel” was recorded as an answer, he says, to the most frequently asked question at his CD table after concerts: “Which album has the most steel?” This one is all-steel, ranging from classics such as “Wayfaring Stranger” to Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.”
“I began playing it for Marilyn while she made dinner,” he says of the latter song, “and I fell in love with its delicate contours. I do it as an instrumental, because (a) Dylan’s perfect, soulful vocal is the only one the world will ever need, and (b) you already know the words anyway.”
His 2008 CD “Live at the Tube Temple,” recorded onstage in Solingen, Germany, contains the song “Long Black Line” that he wrote in response to seeing his familiar New Orleans neighborhoods decimated by Hurricane Katrina. It earned him a standing ovation at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival:
“Everywhere you look, everywhere you go / You read it like a book, it’s the only way to know / How high the water got, August twenty-nine / That hurricane last summer left a long black line…”
“I’m so honored that song came through me,” he told a reporter from Offbeat Magazine. “I was riding in Montana when I wrote the song; it just came out of the sky.”
Today, he has at least one positive souvenir of those dark days: an 1897 Bruno parlor guitar. “I found it floating in the house after the storm,” he says. “I thought it was ruined, but a friend told me just to keep it in a dry place and it would be okay. Sure enough, it came back.”