“Is this Kevin Bowe?,” recounts Bowe, with an exaggerated rasp, sitting in the basement studio of the Linden Hills home that he and his wife, Ruth Whitney Bowe, have lived in for the past eight years. Hanging on the walls of the studio, amidst Paul Westerberg tour posters and a delicious assortment of guitars, are gold and platinum records that Bowe earned from his songwriting work on albums by Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
“Yes it is,” said Bowe, who earlier that year had been contacted by a producer friend about writing tunes for a new James record, and ended up landing four tracks on the late soul legend’s 2003 Grammy-winning CD “Let’s Roll.”
“Well. This is Etta James, and I just listened to these songs you wrote,” she/Bowe continued, and then raved on about the material in a sexy gush that concluded with, “These songs are so bad, you bring it on back home like the Rolling Stones. Are you a white boy?”
To be sure, the 51-year-old Bowe has some stories to tell.
The latest is about his new CD, “Natchez Trace,” his first project in 12 years with his band the Okemah Prophets (bassist Steve Price and drummer Peter Anderson). The roots-blues-rock collection is highlighted by “Everybody Lies” (co-written by Westerberg), “In Too Deep” (violin courtesy of Scarlet Rivera, of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue fame), and the poignant pop-rocker “Fallen Satellites.”
Friday night Bowe and the Okemah Prophets join singer/songwriter and Bowe collaborator Alison Scott for a double-CD release party at the Varsity Theater.
“This record is purely for my own amusement,” said Bowe, whose main line of work is as a producer and songwriter-for-hire. “I didn’t compromise one thing. I don’t give a [bleep] if anyone else likes it. If they like it, it makes me happy, but if they don’t, I don’t care, because I do plenty of other music where I have to work as part of a team to make something great, but not this one. This one’s for me.”
With a little help from his friends, and co-workers. The 15 tracks (including a cover of Spirit’s “Nature’s Way” and John Lennon’s “I Found Out”) were recorded piecemeal over the last five years, and include cameo performances from Bowe pals Scott, Westerberg, Wilco’s Nels Kline, Communist Daughter’s Johnny Solomon and Molly Moore, Farewell Milwaukee’s Lubeck, the Jayhawks’ Tim O’Reagan, the Meat Puppets, Freedy Johnston, Scarlet Rivera and Chuck Prophet.
What has he learned from them all? Enough to tell a few more tales:
Alison Scott: “She’s taught me that soul is enough. Over style, over any of that stuff. She’s got soul, and she reminds me all the time that that’s the kind of music I love. And she works hard. She sells more concert tickets, CDs, and tours harder than any other female artist in town that I can think of other than Dessa.”
Chuck Prophet: “Guitar. I love his writing and I love his singing, but man, it’s so fun watching him play guitar. He really reminds me of Richard Thompson, but he doesn’t get the respect as a guitar player that he deserves.”
Freedy Johnston: “Songwriting. And a true dedication to being a troubadour, because he never stopped working. He was the flavor of the year for a couple years there, and his star may have dimmed in the public eye, though not mine, because his last record is as good as anything he’s ever done, and we’ve been recording some stuff here in my studio that’s really fun.
“And just the way he uses language and melody … just love that dude. I would jump in front of a train for that guy. Peter and Steve and I don’t make a lot of money playing in his band, but we’re all like, ‘Let’s get more gigs.’ ”
Paul Westerberg: “Everything. He taught me what rock ’n’ roll is when I first started. He taught me what songwriting was, back in the day. He came over to my apartment on 20th and Aldrich and we were having coffee and I said, ‘How do you do it? How do you write those songs?’ Which is an asinine question.
“And he said, ‘You know, you’re a pretty funny guy. You should write like you talk.’ Unfortunately it took me several years to understand what he meant, but the minute I started doing that, then I was making gold records and making a living at it. So, originally what I learned was songwriting, and then when we toured together he schooled me again, somewhat severely, to be in the moment. He reminded me. He doesn’t want it good, he wants it his way. He’ll trade a whole night of competence for one 30-second burst of spontaneity.
“He laid down here on the couch about a month ago and said he wanted to hear every song [on ‘Natchez Trace’]. So I started playing the songs, and talking over them, and he told me to shut up. When we got to the song ‘Fallen Satellites,’ he said, ‘Goosebumps! That’s the best song you’ve ever written.’ ”
The Meat Puppets: “There’s plenty of bad punk rock music and plenty of bad classic rock music, but the Meat Puppets taught me that it’s about what you like and what you don’t like, good music and bad music, not about the style or genre.”
Scarlett Rivera: “How to grow old gracefully. She is just a cool hippie chick grandma who still has a twinkle in her eye and a childlike enthusiasm for music. When she heard my song and she could tell it’s very much like the stuff on [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Desire,’ she looked at me and said, ‘I know what to do.’ I just knew she still had that spark. She still rips.”