The Write Brothers: Crescent City Collaboration
Names like Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint, Earl King, and Dr. John a.k.a. Mac Rebennack come to mind when talking about hit songs emanating from New Orleans. Over the past few years, however, the biggest hits from a Big Easy songwriter have come from the pen of Jim McCormick. A New Orleans native, McCormick divides his time between his hometown and Nashville, where, working with songwriting teams, he has co-written such chart toppers as Jason Aldean’s “Take A Little Ride” and Brantley Gilbert’s “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do,” as well as songs for the likes of Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travers, and Trace Adkins. While he’s carved out a place for his talents in the Music City, he remains deeply connected to the Crescent City and the music scene where he developed his skills. McCormick explains: “It has long been a real goal of mine to highlight the rich songwriting history and present down in the Crescent City. It’s something that’s pretty overlooked given the extraordinary caliber of musicians and bands in New Orleans with the jazz and the funk, so many great things, but the quiet practice of songwriting kind of gets overshadowed. A trumpet is louder than the pen. But there’s great history here when you start scratching at it.” Asked by Threadhead Records president Chris Joseph to come home to do a solo recording, McCormick suggested a collaborative project involving three of his favorite songwriters and stalwart performers on the New Orleans scene — Spencer Bohren, Paul Sanchez, and Alex McMurray. Clearly signaling that songwriting is at the heart of the project they call themselves The Write Brothers and, earlier this year, took off with an eleven song CD, First Flight.
The co-pilots that McCormick chose for the project—all three sing and play guitar—boast some impressive credentials. Sanchez, a New Orleans native, was a founding member of Cowboy Mouth and has released 14 solo CDs. In 2000, he was voted “Songwriter of the Year” by the Gambit Weekly reader’s poll. Bohren, a blues and roots master, comes from Wyoming and first moved to New Orleans in the mid-1970s. He has released 15 solo recordings, and The Times-Picayune named his Carry the Word “Best CD by a Louisiana Artist” in 2000. McMurray arrived from Red Bank, New Jersey, as a Tulane University student, immersed himself in the local music scene, and has been the driving force behind a number of bands, including the Royal Fingerbowl and currently The Tin Men. He has released three solo CDs and won Offbeat magazine’s 2010 “Album of the Year” for How to Be a Cannonball. McMurray agrees that although the city has a renowned music scene, the songwriting there is often overshadowed: “The musicians are so strong here. New Orleans has its own piano style. New Orleans has its own drumming style. I mean, Duke Ellington once said, ‘if you’re looking for a good drummer get someone from New Orleans’—that’s coming from Duke Ellington. So musicians are so strong here the songwriters haven’t gotten much attention.”
McCormick’s initial conception of placing a spotlight on the city’s songwriting didn’t include composing new material: “I had no notion of the four of us writing together. I thought we would be doing each other’s songs the whole way through the record. The entire record would be each of us doing one or two of our own catalog and then each doing two or three of another guy’s songs or doing them in duet. I joke and say, ‘The mailman doesn’t take a walk on his day off,’ and as a guy who writes one hundred and fifty-plus songs a year, I wasn’t thinking I wanted to write more songs when I made the phone calls to these guys, but that was me taking my hands off, that was me saying who am I to say we ain’t writing songs for this. They wanted to do it and maybe that’s why it went so well. There’s very little I love in the world more than songwriting, so they wanted to do that – it’s not a hard thing to get me sold on.”
Initially, the four writers gathered at Bohren’s shotgun house located in the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood, a few blocks from the Fairgrounds Race Track, sitting around a table talking and drinking coffee, feeling each other out and hoping to see how this collaboration was going to work. Like McCormick, Sanchez has extensive experience with co-writing songs, but Bohren and McMurray have worked primarily as solo writers. Sanchez described how they broke the ice: “I think Spencer pulled out a notebook and went, ‘Well, I have these lines I’ve been saving. I’m thinking maybe we could use this one or that one.’ And Jim went, ‘Oh I don’t really want to work from people’s old notebooks. I’d love to come up with new stuff; I have some ideas for titles,’ and he started reeling off some titles he had in mind. And I just kind of drifted, and at one point someone said to me, ‘What do you think Paul?’ I said, ‘Well I was listening to what Spencer was talking about, and I was listening to what you said about titles, I was thinking’ . . . I picked up my guitar and went: ‘Looking through a notebook for a memory I’d forgotten / The pages I’ve been saving for a rainy day.’ And they were like, ‘Wow that’s great’ and we started writing the verse, and we got to where there should be a chorus, and Jim said, “Yeah but now we need a chorus,’ and I said, ‘Hey Spence what was that first line in that notebook of yours?’ Spence looked and said, “There’s a blue moon every night” and I said, ‘Great, let’s just take it from there.” By the end of the afternoon, The Write Brothers completed “Broken Lines,” a song that emerged organically from their initial songwriting experience. The chemistry between the four writers even surprised McCormick, the professional collaborator: “It was more like improvisation and spontaneous composition than anything I’ve ever been a part of.”
First Flight features seven collaborative compositions that draw upon the diverse stylistic approaches of the four writer/ performers—the contemporary country of McCormick, the blues and folk roots of Bohren, the alt-rock/R&B of Sanchez, and the quirky blend of funk, blues and jazz of McMurray—to forge a distinctive sound that ranges from the reflective country rocker “Broken Lines” to the full tilt, roadhouse rock and roller “Too Many Times,” from the sea shanty/mariachi amalgam “The Ballad of Lito Benito” to the bluesy ballad “Cup Full of Soul.” Equally surprising as the simpatico relationship that the four musicians forged as songwriters is the effective blending of their four voices, both in the compelling textures they achieve in alternating verses or lines and in their soulful harmonies. Bohren comments: “The harmonies were a huge surprise. They’re these nice, what I call, ‘hound dog harmonies,’ kind of like The Band would sing those harmonies that didn’t sound all perfected but they sound somewhat better than that. This band has a natural harmonic mix that we really didn’t know was gonna happen and that was a great discovery. There were some songs, I suppose all of us wanted some of the songs to be communal, like again, I think of The Band or The Travelin’ Wilburys, where one guy sings part of a verse and another guy sings the other half. So there were some songs that lent themselves to that.”
While the new songs The Write Brothers produced bear witness to the songwriting talent on the contemporary New Orleans music scene, the compositions they each chose to record from a fellow band member’s catalog—Bohren on Sanchez’ “Jet Black and Jealous,” McMurray on McCormick’s “New Orleans,” Sanchez on McMurray’s “Wedding Day,” and McCormick on Bohren’s “Borrowed Time”—not only provide additional testimony to that talent but also help to distinguish the musical identity that each artist brings to the mix. For McCormick, however, performing another band member’s composition came with a degree of intimidation: “It’s scary to perform live in front of him, and it’s scary to record it. I never really thought about it from the point of view of, like ‘wow, other people do this with my songs.’ I guess I’m for the first time standing on the other side of the coin.” Yet the four reinterpretations also illustrate the vitality of the songs as creative vehicles. This is particularly apparent on McCormick’s version of Bohren’s “Borrowed Time.” While the original rides a dark, driving Delta groove over which Bohren delivers a series of foreboding images, McCormick transforms the song into a self-reflective, Dylanesque monologue constructed from colloquialisms: “For crying out loud! Read between the lines / It’s now or never. It ain’t your fault or mine / The road never ends, but it’s downhill from here / This is the real deal, and there ain’t nothing to fear.” For Bohren, his band mate’s version was a revelation: “It’s one of my spook blues kind of songs that I’m kinda known for. And then to hear Jim do it, I find that it’s a way better song than I really gave it credit for. So he took that song, as basic as my stuff tends to be, he took it down a notch further, and it really animated the lyrics.”
First Flight certainly validates McCormick’s initial impulse to bring together four very diverse musicians from his hometown: “We all have walked very different paths in songwriting and in music. I wanted it to be a New Orleans-centric project for reasons of putting the spotlight on the craft in that city.” The results also reflect the freewheeling, absorptive, improvisational spirit of so much music that has sprung from the city’s fertile musical soil. The chorus to the album’s final track, “We’ll Be Together Again,” a folksy sing along that could easily have been written six decades ago by Woody Guthrie for the collaborative Almanac Singers, features the line, “All too soon comes the end of the tune / And who knows when we’ll be together again.” Based on the response to their recording and their live performances, it’s likely The Write Brothers will soon be together again, back around that table taking off on another song journey.