Since first showing his wood sculptures at Carl Solway Gallery in 1980, Jay Bolotin has become one of Cincinnati’s most acclaimed artists. He has gone on to make and score a film based on his narratively complex and mysterious woodcuts, Jackleg Testament, that has attracted an international following. Earlier this year, he had an ambitious exhibition at Solway, Leaves From a Cast Paper Novel, that primarily used text and drawings to establish the story for his planned Jackleg Testament: Part Two.
That project could still be years away. But in the meantime, the 61-year-old Bolotin — who lives in North Fairmount and has a Brighton studio — has been devoting time to a related but somewhat separate aspect of his artistic career. He’s finding new attention as a singer/songwriter, for both his past and present work.
That was evident on a recent Wednesday night at Northside Tavern, where some 100 people listened intently during a rare local performance of his strange, vividly imagistic “spoken songs.” He uses that term to refer to his material because the songs frequently contain monologues. He also plays guitar and sings in a plaintive voice with a hint of native-Kentucky drawl. (He was living on a farm in Kentucky when Solway first visited him.)
In the concert, he presented such compelling and unpredictable characters as Molly and Salvador (in one song) and William Bodine, who in “Serpent Song” runs up a hill to beat the sun and is also the subject of Bolotin’s epic “Death of William Bodine.” Bolotin also shared a duet with Ali Edwards (Ruby Vileos, The Kiss Me Everlasting) on a humorous back-and-forth number called “A Strange, Strange Rule.”
Some of the songs performed at Northside Tavern go back 20, even 30 years. One was new — the beautiful “The Mirror,” with its spectacularly evocative passage “The lights from the trucks on the Interstate/Got caught in the mirror in the entranceway/And danced on the ceiling in the living room.”
Bolotin lately has also been thinking a lot about the music he made much earlier, beginning when he was a teenager living in Rhode Island in the late 1960s and performing more straightforwardly Folk songs. He had gone there to study at Rhode Island School of Design, but found himself more interested in music.
Bolotin became friends with members of a group called Tombstone Blues Band, which indirectly led to Bolotin’s self-titled 1970 album on a label called Commonwealth United. Sparely produced in New York with subtle combo accompaniment, the songs are well written and sung in a low and direct voice that fit the ruminative singer/songwriter times. But the label collapsed shortly after release and few albums ever got to the stores.
In 2007, Bolotin returned from performing music in St. Petersburg, Russia, to find a telephone message waiting for him.
“It was from Rob Sevier, who I didn’t know, and he had been a fan of the record and was looking for me,” Bolotin recalls in a telephone interview after his Northside Tavern show. “I had not heard it for 40 years.”
Sevier is a co-owner of Chicago’s Grammy-nominated Numero Group reissue label, one of the new breed of archivist record companies scouring for “lost” Roots material. It has been finding and re-releasing all sorts of obscure Folk, Garage Rock, Blues, Soul and Gospel music from the 1960s-1980s. Sevier subsequently interviewed Bolotin for a music Web-site called Waxidermy, and then included a cut from the 1970 album on his company’s Wayfaring Strangers: Lonesome Heroes compilation. And he also helped arrange for another small, connoisseur Chicago label, Locust Music, to reissue Bolotin’s original album in late 2009.
“It’s good songwriting, singing and playing, and a bit downcast, which I like,” Sevier explains by phone. “And it’s a pretty appealing set of songs that are not bound by any specific time.”
Bolotin not only doesn’t perform any of that material live today but he had already forsaken it by the time he moved to Nashville in the early 1970s. While there for several years, before moving back to Kentucky, he became friends with fellow songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Dan Fogelberg and Mickey Newbury. No record releases came out of that period, but he won admirers. Some artists recorded his songs, including Fogelberg, who released “Go Down Easy” as a single, while Kristofferson paid for Bolotin to do some demo sessions.
“It wasn’t that I was one of the boys,” Bolotin recalls. “They liked what I was doing because I was rather odd. I was telling stories from the stage back then and they loved it. But the bigger people didn’t like it. There’s an article somewhere where Kris called the people on Music Row ‘fools’ for not signing me, and next couple times when I met those people, they introduced themselves as one of those fools on Music Row. I was not part of the ‘in crowd,’ believe me.”
But later in the 1970s, Merle Haggard produced six songs — using a chamber orchestra on one and including an early version of “Death of William Bodine” — for an aborted project.
Because of the renewed interest in his 1970 solo album, Bolotin has tracked down and digitized tapes of his various Nashville recordings, including the Haggard sessions, as well as some 1980s New York sessions. He isn’t sure what to do with them yet, but he has his eye on releasing them. (Bolotin’s most recent album of newer material, Songs of Jay Bolotin Volume One: Shadow of a Beast, came out in 2006)
Bolotin finds this new interest in his early career surprising, since he so long ago had moved on.
“Wow, it’s something one hasn’t thought about for all this time, but all these young bucks with their record labels are interested in it,” he says.
For more on JAY BOLOTIN’s reissued 1970 solo album, visit