Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Jim McCormick is sitting in his Metairie living room late at night channel surfing. He stops at the George Harrison documentary, watches for a while, drifting in and out of half-sleep. Gradually, the bearded George morphs into Jesus and reaches out from the TV set to command McCormick: “You will form a band…a band of brothers. You will call it…the Righteous Brothers, scratch that, that name’s taken…make it the Right Brothers, but spelled W-R-I-T-E…”
Okay, that’s not how it happened. But the circumstances that brought this Fab Four of New Orleans songwriters—McCormick, Spencer Bohren, Paul Sanchez and Alex McMurray—together is a popular music saga worthy of its own creation myth. The quartet brings a more than impressive resume to the table. Bohren, part of the generation of musicians who started to make their mark on New Orleans music in the mid-1970s, is such an accomplished yarn-weaver that he’s expanded his career as a singer songwriter into that of a professional storyteller who performs at the International Storytellers Convention. Sanchez has written or co-written numerous New Orleans anthems as a member of Cowboy Mouth and as a solo artist. McMurray is an extraordinary writer with a wild creative bent that has seen him participate in groups as disparate as Royal Fingerbowl, All That, the Tin Men, the Happy Talk Band and the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus.
After tearing it up for eight years in New Orleans with the Bingemen, McCormick tried his hand as a Nashville songwriter at the end of the ’90s. Since then, McCormick’s songs (including two number one hits on the Billboard country chart), have sold more records than any New Orleans artist in a generation.
Bohren, Sanchez and McMurray have all been recruited by Chris Joseph in the past to record solo projects for Threadhead Records. When Joseph approached McCormick about doing his own album…
Hold on a second and I’ll let McCormick tell you the story himself.
“I was watching something on TV, late, and it triggered me wanting to hear ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ by Robert Earl Keen,” he began. “So I Googled ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ and the first version that pops up is by the Highwaymen. I’m listening to the song and I glance over to look at the screen while it’s playing for a second and there’s the four of them, just jokin’ around. I had been on the phone with Chris Joseph the day before and Threadhead was on my mind. I saw those guys—Cash and Willie, Kristofferson and Waylon—and I thought, Chris Joseph has pure songwriters on his label. We could get together and do something in New Orleans and it would be a lot of fun.”
Most artists would have taken the opportunity offered by Joseph to make a solo album, particularly an artist with as many unrecorded songs as McCormick. He beat me to the question.
“Why does that notion occur to me? Ever since I started to make some traction in Nashville and I realized the personal and professional rewards of succeeding at this craft of songwriting, I wanted to bring that knowledge back to New Orleans,” McCormick said. “I grew up in a town where there wasn’t even the notion of a job as a songwriter. Allen Toussaint, we hold him up now as a songwriter, but we always thought of him as a musician. Our heroes were great drummers and great horn players. Nobody ever talked about the creative and professional rewards of being the composer, i.e. the copyright holder, of these songs. I realized that I didn’t grow up with any notion that this was an option. I wasn’t really musical but I loved writing. If somebody had ever told me in grade school, ‘If you like writing poetry, you can write song lyrics and if you get with somebody who can play guitar you might write some songs.’ I want to bring that idea home.”
Of course there was more than sheer altruism for McCormick in the idea.
“The Write Brothers was a chance for me—number one—to hang out with three guys that I like a little bit more,” he admits. “I’ve known all those cats for 20-plus years. I’ve known Alex since 1990. He had a band called the Vince Berman trio. I can still see him playing ‘Skin It Back’ at the Maple Leaf in the summer of 1990. When I thought of this crazy notion, those were the three guys that I thought to do it with.”
McCormick became friends with the other Write Brothers during his run with the Bingemen, but he knew about Paul Sanchez before he ever met him because he liked his songwriting.
“We played on gigs together and we were coming and going passing each other on the loading dock areas. I was a DJ at WTUL and there were a couple of cassette carts of Paul Sanchez, ‘Jet Black and Jealous’ and ‘Another Cup of Coffee.’ I played those songs to death and when he played live backed by Jimmy Robinson and Woodenhead I would go see him. He was the only guy in town whose game I really loved as a songwriter. Then when Dash Rip Rock broke up and I heard that crazy drummer Fred LeBlanc was putting together a band with Paul Sanchez and John Thomas Griffin, I was like ‘Valhalla! I gotta go see this.’ And it was. For a time Cowboy Mouth was the most magnetizing, awesome band. When you went to see them you felt something. Great songs, great performances. It was dangerous, it was joyful. They were the greatest live act we had in this town for a good long run. And the Bingemen became the opener of choice for Cowboy Mouth in so many towns. They were good to us. Paul and I did try to write one time although he may not remember it. It was a big brother little brother thing going on, which I needed, and he was generous.
“I met Spencer when I was 30 and I started thinking about going to Nashville. The Bingemen were opening a lot for Tommy Malone and the Continental Drifters and Spencer and his wonderful wife Marilyn would come to those shows and we became friends. Spencer is such a gentleman. We’d always have a conversation, and then we’d go see him live.”
After McCormick suggested the idea, Joseph called the other three. McMurray signed up immediately.
“I’m pretty game for anything,” said McMurray. “I don’t know if I’ve ever said no to anything. I like working with Paul, I’ve worked a lot with Paul. I’ve known Jim for many years, going back to my college days. Since Spencer has been playing with Rory Danger I’ve been with him a little bit. I haven’t done a lot of writing with other people. It seemed like a good way to kind of kickstart that particular muscle and I think it has. It seemed like a good opportunity.”
Spencer Bohren tours constantly, but found a window during which he could participate and signed on. “It was going to be a Threadhead project. The four of us would get together and write, then each of us would perform a song that one of the others had written,” Bohren explained. “I immediately thought of one of my favorite records, that first Traveling Wilburys record. Even though the songs didn’t necessarily make sense, they just were obviously having so much fun. I don’t really know those three guys that well—they were really young when I was in New Orleans all the time and now I’m on the road a lot. I was pleased to have a chance to get to know them a little bit. Alex in particular. I really respect his writing.”
The stumbling block was Paul Sanchez, who had suffered a life crisis that kept him from singing or playing for over a year. Joseph was able to persuade Sanchez because the Threadhead label has backed all of his projects since he left Cowboy Mouth after hurricane Katrina.
“I forgot everything,” Sanchez explained. “I couldn’t play for 13 months. I couldn’t sing in the car. The Beatles would come on and I couldn’t sing along to it. I couldn’t remember how to sing along with it. I could accept that I couldn’t sing with John and Paul, but when a Ringo song came on and I couldn’t keep up I knew that I was in my head deep. Chris called me with this idea. I didn’t have songs, I didn’t have time, I didn’t have head space, but it was Chris Joseph, who’s given me everything, so I said yes. He was really excited about it. We had to decide where to meet, and Spencer has all these guitars in his place and he’s real convivial, so we decided to do it there. So we got there the first day and Spencer had a pot of French pressed coffee waiting.”
Getting the quartet in the same room was one thing. Getting them to write songs together, though, was a whole ‘nother story.
“I know that Alex doesn’t like to write with people,” explained Sanchez, “I’ve tried to get him to write before and he said ‘oh no.’ And the first thing Spencer says is ‘This is gonna be very interesting because I don’t really write with other people very often.’ I was thinking ‘Why did Jim ask these two guys to be part of this?’ Jim said ‘That’s funny, I didn’t realize you guys didn’t like to do this. I figured we’d just get together and write because that’s what I do all the time.’”
McCormick had spent 15 years of his life sitting in rooms with other songwriters. He never doubted that the combination he’d chosen in this instance would click.
“I really didn’t have to do much,” said McCormick. “When you have four guys who are all their own leaders, entrepreneurial and driven, things just kind of move forward almost by osmosis. Spencer said we should write some songs. We assembled around Spencer’s table for the first time in the summer of ‘14. We started writing and it was fun. I could tell it was going to be an honest and sincere exchange. There were no airs, it was all laughs. We got together five or six times, some of the times we wrote more than one song. We wrote a song in the studio because we needed one. This is what can happen when you put yourself into unfamiliar territory with good people and just let it happen. Nobody tried to steer it in any particular direction. Underneath all our stylistic differences runs a stream of shared influences and that’s been a nice thing to uncover. You might look at us and say these are four really different guys, but then you have to consider we come from the city of Earl King. We come from the city of Allen Toussaint. We come from a musical culture that not everybody gets familiar with. We all come out of this great love for the music of New Orleans.”
“It was a creative table for sure,” Bohren agreed. “I don’t know that we’d want to gather anywhere else. The first day was a lot of conversation. I didn’t know Alex very well. He was being properly quiet and suspicious I suppose. He and I are both lone wolves in a way—he doesn’t really write with other people and I don’t either. We were talking a lot and think it was Paul who finally said ‘Are we gonna write or are we gonna talk?’ I think I said ‘I’m not sure how to do this.’ How do you write with other people? I do have this book of first lines and titles and ideas that I’ve collected for years and sometimes I just kind of reach in there and pull out a line and start that way.
“I had a line ‘There’s a blue moon every night.’ The incredible thing to me about Paul is that he writes so quickly. He sings ‘looking through a notebook for a memory I’ve forgotten,’ which is exactly what I did. I just went over to my notebook and opened it to ‘the pages I was saving for a rainy day.’ He just described what I was doing and it was kind of amazing that it was so lyrical. Paul’s really good at that. And we were off. Everybody threw lines in, the language gets tweaked a little bit. You might add a word to enhance its sing-ability—that’s what I like about songs is singing them.”
Sanchez remembered being nervous about the lack of progress in the first session.
“We sat down,” Sanchez recalled, “and they all started talking about kids ‘cause they all have kids. This went on for about an hour and a half and I’m thinking, ‘Come on, let’s do it, let’s write something!’ Finally I said ‘Hey guys are we gonna write this song or what?’
McMurray sensed that Paul was restless.
“Paul writes kind of quickly,” said McMurray. “As soon as we sit down, he just spits out lyrics. He’s interested in doing things fast. He really likes to do that. So I think part of the reason it was easy was because of Paul. I think on purpose he wanted to do things fast. ‘Let’s write a song right now.’ It’s a point of pride to him. So that kind of set the tone I think. I think if it was left to Spencer and I, we would have sat and dithered. But Jim and Paul are used to sitting down cold and just cranking it out.”
Sanchez continued the story: “So Spencer pulls out these old note books and starts coming up with lines. Jim says ‘I don’t wanna write from people’s notebooks, let’s come up with some new stuff. I have some titles.’ He started saying some titles he had, I started hearing melodies and after a while he said ‘What do you think?’ so I picked up my guitar and sang the verse for ‘Broken Lines.’ Got to the end of the verse and Jim says ‘Well now we need a chorus’ and I said ‘Spencer what’s that line you were saying before? There’s a blue moon every night.’ And then Alex came in with an observation: ‘Yeah, well that progression is kind of typical, can we do this?’ And suddenly there was this kind of bent chord progression in there, which is what Alex is known for. Spencer hears folk traditionally and once he came to the idea that he could write with other people he just went and did it. If you give him half a melody he can totally complete it because he knows the traditions of folk music more than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”
McMurray’s first instinct was just to sit around and size up the situation.
“I think the first day I didn’t say anything, I just kind of sat there,” said McMurray. “I think I corrected somebody about an article or something. I was like the spellcheck guy. I think by the second or third time, one of the songs, ‘Cup Full of Soul,’ I think, I actually kind of took charge for a little bit and sort of steered that song for a moment as I recall. It’s a little weird writing with other people. It’s hard to loosen up around folks. Paul and I have done some writing together but kind of like over email. He’ll send me an idea and I’ll work with it and send it back to him. I’m much more comfortable with that kind of thing. As I kept doing it I certainly felt a lot more at ease than when we started. We wrote three or four songs. I missed one of the sessions. By the end of it we got kind of used to one another. It’s a pretty friendly bunch, and all ideas are welcome, there’s no judgment. Jim is obviously very good at writing with other people. Paul is very good at it. But Spencer and I…Spencer doesn’t write with other people either. So we were kind of new to this.”
“Cup Full of Soul” is a useful example of the interaction between the four in the writing process. McCormick had a title he liked, “Go-Cup Full of Soul,” but McMurray nixed the idea, suggesting “Cup Full of Soul” as an alternative. Spencer had a pair of characters he wanted to work into a song.
“A couple of characters I’ve had in a line for years,” said Bohren. “I’ve never taken it anywhere. But I can see them very clearly. They’re like denizens of the French Quarter. The line is: ‘Smokehouse Turner and Flex Fontaine were walking downtown in the pouring rain.’ Paul immediately said ‘Make it “Fleet Fontaine”.’ This is what you do in a collaboration, you say ‘Screw it, it’s Fleet, who cares?’ We all had to do that. We all improve each other’s ideas. We were writing together. We can’t be too precious about ourselves or we can’t be a true collaboration. So then we went and wrote a saga about these guys Smokehouse Turner and Fleet Fontaine. Alex went off into a corner and came back with a complete verse, a great verse. If I read the song right the characters end up living in a brothel in the French Quarter for 25 years. That was quick. They were all quick. I don’t think we spent more than two hours sitting in my house at any one sitting. It holds up I think. I like every song on the record.”
With a couple of songs under their belt, the others wanted to know how this experience stacked up against writing in Nashville, Sanchez recalled: “And Jim said ‘Well, it’s not like this. I go into a room and there’s a guy who has a verse and a guy who has a chorus and a guy that has a hook, that’s what you’re responsible for. You don’t try to step on the other guy’s turf. I just write the words.’ I said ‘You never come up with melodies?’ And he said ‘Nah, that’s not my job.’
“So when it came time to trade songs,” Sanchez continued, “we said to Jim ‘Give us some songs that you wrote’ and one of them was this bare bones acoustic song called ‘New Orleans’ and that’s what Alex chose.”
McCormick was floored by the selection.
“I sent demos of 10 songs,’ said McCormick. “Alex didn’t know this but for the last 15 years all I’d done is collaborate except for maybe a half dozen songs. ‘New Orleans’ is one of those half dozen songs. So out of the ten I sent him, all collaborations, he picked the only one I wrote alone—which gives a writer some confidence. He sings it so beautifully. That song is very much me looking back from where I am now at all my dreams and journeys.”
One of the funniest moments of the writing sessions involved “The Ballad of Lito Benito.”
“This one made me a little nervous,” said Bohren. “I have a good friend whose name is Lito Benito. He was involved in the New Orleans scene for a while because he made guitars in Chile. They were called El Benito guitars. I was a consultant for the company. For maybe a full year these El Benito guitars were all over New Orleans. They were wonderful instruments. Whenever Alex would come over he would just play one of my guitars. He was playing this little guitar and he said ‘This is a nice little guitar, what is this?’ I said it was made by a friend of my named Lito Benito. Somebody at the table said I wish my name was Lito Benito. The next thing you know we’re writing a song and I thought ‘Oh shit, I hope Lito never hears this.’ It’s like a runaway train. There’s no truck lane at the bottom of the hill. You start writing and you’d better just contribute cause you’re not gonna stop it. So ‘The Ballad of Lito Benito’ is actually just having fun with this beautiful name.”
Sanchez recalled that McMurray declared “We can’t NOT write a song about a guy named Lito Benito who makes guitars,” then started to sing “I want to be Lito Benito…” Sanchez continued: “Everybody started cracking up and saying ‘That’s a song!’ Alex just kept going, he sang the whole first verse. We were just pissing ourselves laughing and Spencer says ‘Where does it go from here?’ and I sing ‘ai, yi, yi-yi.’ I laughed the first 200 times I heard it on the record.”
When it came time to cut the record, Mark Bingham was brought in to match the easygoing vibe of the writing sessions with an appropriately laid back recording session. Bingham hung four microphones, placed four chairs in the studio and had them record the songs live.
“It’s just the four of us,” said McMurray. “No overdubs. It’s more nekkid I guess. I’m not a fan of the studio. I don’t know why, but I’ve never looked forward to it. If the songs are good, it has nothing to do with the studio. I do the best I can and move on.”
“We cut that record so fast,” added Bohren, “and it sounds so upright, so together.”
The sessions went so smoothly that on the final day there was six hours left when the project was finished. So they wrote another song, “We’ll be Together Again.”
Sanchez recalled: “From the moment we got into the studio, Spencer kept saying ‘We’ve got to write one more song.’ So on the last day he came to me and said ‘I wrote this chorus this morning.’ He sang me the chorus, and then he picked up his guitar and sang the melody for the verse. So I had to come up with lyrics, and Spencer said it’s a standard folk progression. So I started playing something and I liked how it came out, my really crude guitar style against Alex’s melodic, smooth guitar style.”
“That song came together in 20 minutes,” Bohren said. “I love that song—it’s such a commentary on our comradeship. Part of it was Jim recalling ‘When I was young we used to ride the ferry, we’d get on that ferry and ride up and down, you could go to Jackson Avenue. We’d be on that ferry all day long.’ I just loved that image.”
When it was all over there was nothing left for the Write Brothers to do except play some gigs and think about the future. The experience led to a few observations about songwriting in general and the Write Brothers in particular.
“I guess it proved I actually can write with other people,” McMurray mused. “I’m of the Dorothy Parker School—I hate writing, I love having written. A guy like Paul Sanchez just goes out and does it, whereas I’ll spend a lot of time tinkering with it. It doesn’t come very naturally to me or easily and I think that kind of shows.”
For Sanchez the group is the realization of a long dreamed-of fantasy.
“All my life I’ve been trying to build a songwriters scene here to no avail,” said Sanchez. “New Orleans is such a chops town. The money’s in the performance. I think this group is going to do exactly what Jim thought it would do. It’s going to combine our fan bases and bring the whole thing up to another level. There’s a buzz. If nothing else, it was a great experience working on the record. It’s a terrific record. You can improve as a singer or instrumentalist, but writing, good or bad, I don’t even think of it. I just exist there. Somewhere along the line writing with other people just became a logical thing to do. Back in the day we’d just do it for fun without even thinking about releasing records. For me I just try to get out of the way and let a song become what I think it should be. I can come in with a verse and a chorus. I have to let Alex change the chorus and maybe let Spencer change the melody. Everybody has to be able to contribute whatever they can bring to it. It’s been fun. For me I like songwriting more than I like playing and singing. I got to know these guys better because I got to write songs with them.”
Bohren also sees the Write Brothers as the moment when New Orleans begins to stake its claim as a songwriters’ town.
“I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going yet,” said Bohren. “I have a lot of ideas about where it could go. We did a performance in Pensacola in a theatrical setting where everybody is listening carefully and the audience is very attentive so everyone can be just as chatty and clever as they want to be and everybody in the place is on the team. It’s obvious that we have something that would work. I do a lot of these venues, small theaters and listening rooms, and this group would work perfectly in those. It could go a lot of different ways, but there are four separate careers here that are all healthy in their own right. None of us are famous, but none of us are completely obscure either. All of us together add up to something people who might not come to just see any one of us alone would be interested in coming to see. It would be easy to promote this as a New Orleans songwriter project because that’s not something that I think has ever been done. We need to keep writing and make another record. We’d like to keep doing it. Its very pleasurable. It’s fun to have these buddies to sing with.”
McCormick echoes Bohren’s last sentiment completely. After all, he’s going to go back to that Nashville publishing house and start all over again.
“It’s tough,” he admitted. “Every day you start with that blank page again. The anxiety is always there: do I still have it? Am I gonna get it again? It’s such a high wire act, writing a song. Unless you have three other knuckleheads around a table in New Orleans. In which case it’s a real circus.”