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Music Inside Out: Spencer Bohren

Spencer Bohren (photo: Scotty Hall)

Singer-songwriter Spencer Bohren (1950-2019) was raised in Casper, Wyoming, in the long, quiet lead up to where the Great Plains end and the Rocky Mountains begin. Hot springs and waterfalls in the region signal strong underground forces at work. Geologists say the area will look vastly different in the eons to come. But right now the land is moving as land usually does, imperceptibly, under the feet of people who’d swear there was nothing going on.

As a child in the 1950s and ‘60s, Spencer be-lieved that the people of Casper were even more intransigent than the land appeared to be. His and other families attended church a dozen times a week at Calvary Baptist and secular music wasn’t welcome in many households. At the age of 14, Spencer was restless. He knew he couldn’t stay.

“There was this artist who was a couple years older than me — like all my friends — and he drew this picture of a guy with shaggy hair,” Bohren told Gwen. “And he had a guitar on his back and he was wearing sandals and there is dust on the road and he was walking away … I think that image really had a lot to do with my wanting to be a traveling guitar picker. In the end, I did it on the road with four kids and it was a very much larger version of the troubadour walking down the road. I think that was my inspiration. I wanted to be that guy. I believed in musicians and art and I knew that was the real reality for me. ”

Over the next 55 years, Bohren made other homes for himself — in Colorado and Louisiana and even back in Casper for a while. But he actually lived in motion — applying the practical skills he’d learned in Wyoming to any number of scrapes that he, his wife Marilyn and their growing family met along the way. Not many people can keep a 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air on the road for seven straight years, pulling a silver bullet Airstream trailer. But he did.

“I could rebuild that engine on the side of the road with a flashlight in my mouth,” Bohren said. Turns out, the car and trailer said as much about the Bohren clan as the music Spencer played, underscoring a love of unusual things, time-tested stories, Americana, open horizons and possibility. “We were just outlaws,” he recalled of their meanderings in the 1980s. “Marilyn did all the bookings. She booked gigs all over the world from pay phones. There were no computers, or any of that.”

But there were lots of friends whom the Bohrens met on their travels from year to year, music lovers who appreciated Spencer’s songwriting and his take on American folk and blues traditions. Marilyn scheduled a Southern sweep in winter and the family headed North in the spring. They saw the redwoods, the Atlantic seaboard, the Gulf Coast. Then there were the solo trips Spencer made overseas — more than 140 tours to Europe and Japan. “It’s been such an amazing thing to go over there, on their dollar, and find that language sometimes doesn’t even matter,” Bohren recalled. “ I can communicate — simplicity communicates.”

Looking back, Bohren said he probably should have begun recording music earlier than he did in 1983 and maybe not stressed his blues playing over the folk songs. But he was proud of his mastery of the lap steel guitar, of his harmonic singing, of his guitar students and of his reliquaries — art work that combines found objects and a craftsman’s attention to detail. They’re on his website, along with images of the Bohren family, perhaps his greatest achievement.

During his lifetime, Bohren released nearly 20 albums. And in his final months, sick with cancer, he recorded songs for future releases with his son André and a variety of other New Orleans-based artists, including Aurora Nea-land, Alex McMurray, Jim McCormick and Paul Sanchez.

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.