Bohren's music has deep roots in folk and blues

Michel Varisco
New Orleans-based folk and blues performer Spencer Bohren introduces his latest album Friday at Otherlands Coffee Bar.

Michel Varisco New Orleans-based folk and blues performer Spencer Bohren introduces his latest album Friday at Otherlands Coffee Bar.

Spencer Bohren

Presented by Memphis Acoustic Music Association

Friday at Otherlands Coffee Bar, 641 S. Cooper. Doors: 7:30 p.m. Cover: $12. Call 901-278-4994, or visit otherlandscoffeebar.com.

New Orleans’ Spencer Bohren wears many hats. A husband and a father, sure, but also educator, storyteller and visual artist.

“But I’m definitely a performer first,” Bohren says. “A singer and guitar player. The rest of it is sort of facets of the same core, I think.”

Performing is what will bring Bohren, 63, back to Memphis on Friday for a show at Otherlands Coffee Bar, sponsored by the Memphis Acoustic Music Association.

MAMA has been hosting Bohren regularly for more than a dozen years, introducing him to schools where he has done more than 15 workshops. In one of his most popular workshops, Bohren uses the folk standard “Down the Dirt Road Blues” to trace the history of American music.

More recently, he worked with 100 children at Lincoln Elementary and 70 at Kingsbury High School, where the students made his blues-inspired decorative cigar boxes.

“We call them shadow boxes,” Bohren says. “It’s interesting to find myself in the academic world sharing my accumulated knowledge in a way. I don’t have a degree or anything like that, but in a way it’s almost better.”

Despite his regular appearances here and his music’s deep rooting in the folk and blues traditions, you can be forgiven for not knowing Bohren’s name. By his own admission, his 40-year career has been peripatetic. He got his start in the American West, not exactly a hotbed of blues talent. Even after settling in New Orleans in the ’70s, he would take off for long periods in a vintage Airstream trailer hooked up to a red-and-white 1955 Chevy Bel Air. These days, most of Bohren’s music work comes abroad, in Asia and especially in Europe.

“I’m such an inveterate traveler; I just never stop,” says Bohren, who is preparing a European tour in the coming months as well as a new album with German producer Reinhard Finke. “In a way, I don’t fit in in New Orleans. I’m from Wyoming. What can I say? But I’ve had this passion. And my journey has been about digging around the roots of America’s music for whatever inspiration I can find.”

Bohren likes to say he could sing harmony before he could speak. Music was a staple of the house in Casper, Wyo., and the Bohren family frequently performed gospel music at local churches, schools and other institutions.

To his parents’ chagrin, Bohren discovered folk music as a teenager, winning a Kiwanis “Stars of Tomorrow” contest with his renditions of Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio. After high school, he lit out for Colorado, where he hung out at the storied Denver Folklore Center and picked up tips from Rev. Gary Davis. Bohren spent the next few years wandering around Northwest and then Los Angeles.

On his travels, he became friends with New Orleans pianist Dr. John, whose tales of New Orleans inspired Bohren and his wife, Marilyn, to give the city a visit in 1973. Enchanted, they stayed for a decade. Bohren says they arrived just in time to be part of a new resurgence of New Orleans’ indigenous music.

“At the time, New Orleans was very much asleep. We got here at a time when it was just getting ready to wake up again,” says Bohren, who was an early regular at Tipitina’s when it opened in 1977. “Now, there are so many young musicians that have come to New Orleans because it’s so inspiring to them and because it’s so much freer musically than most cities in America.”

Despite New Orleans’ powerful creative pull, Bohren spent most of the ’80s and ’90s on the road. He kicked off his solo recording career during this period with 1983’s Born in a Biscayne. Recently remastered and reissued, the record featured Dr. John on piano and a cover photo showing Bohren atop the World Trade Center.

In the late ’90s, Bohren returned to New Orleans, where he has been a staple ever since. Most recently, he has stood out as one of the few non-jazz performers to play the city’s serious jazz temple, Snug Harbor.

In all, Bohren has recorded 17 albums, displaying remarkable versatility. He’s recorded collections of Delta blues and Hank Williams covers. His latest, Tempered Steel, for which the Memphis show is an official release party, is a gift to fans who have long wanted to hear more of Bohren’s lap steel guitar playing. The record features originals and covers of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Blind Willie McTell.

“(The diversity) is not by design,” Bohren says. “It’s a pretty big mess, but it’s all related to me because it’s all rooted in the same thing. So I don’t have any problem putting it all on the same plate.”

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