The buzz is building down here in New Orleans around the city’s first songwriters supergroup, The Write Brothers. Last month’s local debut at Chickie Wah Wah was well received, leading one of the city’s premier sit-down clubs, Snug Harbor, to book them for a follow-up performance. The rapport Jim McCormick, Spencer Bohren, Paul Sanchez and Alex McMurray demonstrate in live performance is likely to make the quartet a strong draw at small theaters and clubs around the country.
The idea for the band came from McCormick, a New Orleans native who’s made a name for himself as a country music songwriter in Nashville over the last 15 years.
“I wanted to hear Robert Earl Keen’s ‘The Road Goes On Forever’ and dug up the Highwaymen’s version late one night,” explains McCormick. “Songwriters singing each other’s songs — that’s a good time. Songwriters in New Orleans — there are plenty of great ones. I was just daydreaming. But the next day I was reaching out to three friends who happen to be three of the best songwriters I know in my hometown. Soon, we were hanging around a kitchen table, writing songs and lining up recording dates. It got fun quick. And it was all over too quick. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed as much making a record, or if we four will ever make another record. But hey, the road never ends.”
The band’s standard set is built around material from its debut album, First Flight, but the possibilities for expanding the live repertoire are endless, given that between the four of them they have literally hundreds of original songs to choose from. That’s why in addition to co-writing seven songs for the album, each member picked one of the other’s songs and covered it on the record.
McMurray’s version of McCormick’s previously unrecorded “New Orleans” turns into a statement of purpose for the project. He chose it from a group of songs McCormick sent him.
“The deal was, every one of us was going to do one of the others’ songs,” McMurray says. “So I was going to do one of Jim’s songs. It was really kind of hard to choose, but this one just seemed to be the most kind of up my alley.”
Sanchez brings heartrending poignancy to McMurray’s darkling lament “Wedding Day,” originally written for his old band Royal Fingerbowl.
“I liked Paul’s version of it,” McMurray offers. “It’s a little bit of a different feel. I wrote that during the death throes of Royal Fingerbowl, 2001. At the time (bandmate) Carlo Ditta was looking for up-tempo stuff, so I said, ‘Fuck you, I’m going to write a slow song.’”
Spencer Bohren’s rich baritone is the perfect match to the Sanchez classic “Jet Black and Jealous,” which is getting a lot of airplay.
“I thought Paul’s song sounds really good,” McMurray says. “That’s one of the highlights to me.”
McCormick, a rocker with the New Orleans band The Bingemen before he went to Nashville, puts on his rock and roll shoes for a spirited version of Bohren’s “Borrowed Time.”
With just their guitars and voices to work with in the live show, the Write Brothers have an unusual kind of sound for a New Orleans group.
“The older guys in the band are acoustic guitar players, so it’s kind of a quasi-country kind of thing,” McMurray says. “It does sound like an Austin or Nashville kind of thing; that’s just the nature of that.”
McMurray, who is associated with the St. Claude Avenue scene through groups like the Happy Talk Band and the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, sees the Write Brothers as part of a neo-folk movement that a lot of the city’s young bands, like Hurray for the Riff Raff, are part of.
“Yeah, there does seem to be, like, another folk scare out there,” he laughs. “Alynda (Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff) is certainly a great emblem of that. Luke Allen (Happy Talk Band) as well. Then there’s Luke Winslow-King doing that sort of thing as well. I think there is a sense in this town of a kind of Jimmie Rodgers tradition — he was a country guy but he had trumpets on his records, ya know? And it swung. It’s a place where the kind of old-timey thing meets the swing thing that’s kind of where we are right here geographically. It’s pretty hip.”
McMurray, who plays in half a dozen different bands around town, is pleasantly surprised by the reception The Write Brothers have received.
“It’s strange,” he says, “an odd bit of notoriety or something from the get go. We’ll see what happens.”
Jim McCormick – The Middle of the River
Alex McMurray – How to Be a Cannonball
Spencer Bohren – Tempered Steel
Paul Sanchez – Everything That Ends Begins Again
The Write Brothers – First Flight
John Swenson has been writing about popular music since 1967. He edited the award-winning website jazze.com for Knit Media and has worked as an editor at Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World, OffBeat magazine and been published in virtually every popular music magazine of note over that time. He was a syndicated music columnist for more than 20 years at United Press International and Reuters. Swenson has written 14 published books including biographies of Bill Haley, The Who, Stevie Wonder and The Eagles and co-edited the original Rolling Stone Record Guide with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide. His most recent book on New Orleans music after Katrina is called New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Future of New Orleans. In another role Swenson is a veteran sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, writing pieces for outlets from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press. Swenson is also a veteran horseracing columnist and handicapper who covered the New York racing scene as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Orleans Fair Grounds meet for The Daily Racing Form. His profile on jockey Steve Cauthen: Rise To Stardom, Fall From Grace in Spur Magazine was nominated for an Eclipse Award.
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