In the years that preceded the release of his new Decca album Join the Parade, Marc Cohn passed through several life-changing events. These events are what enabled him to reconnect with his songwriting muse, and they are in large part, what make Join the Parade an artistic, insightful and soulful statement.
Despite his time away from the recording studio, the acclaimed singer/songwriter, winner of the 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Artist, has continued to perform live and his audiences have remained steadfast. He en-dured the pain of divorce, but in 2002 he married news anchor Elizabeth Vargas. He struggled with writer’s block and sought to break through it with a month-long tour in the summer of 2005. The gigs went great until the night of August 7, 2005. That’s when Marc Cohn was shot in the head during a random attempted carjacking after a concert in Denver.
Even though the bullet was lodged near his left temple, Marc never lost consciousness and walked out of the hospital the next day. Three weeks later, while recovering at home in New York from post-traumatic stress disorder, Cohn watched the city of New Orleans destroyed by flooding in the aftermath of Hurri-cane Katrina.
“I got home a couple of days after being shot,” said Cohn. “And then Hurricane Katrina hit a few weeks later. I’m in the middle of my own crisis, and now I’m watching all these haunting images on television of thousands of people suffering through a far more horrific event. And then something I never could have predicted happened. It was like my song writing receiver got flipped into the on position. Everywhere I turned, in conversations I overheard, even in get well emails I was receiving, song ideas started coming. For several weeks, I’d be working on 2-3 songs simultaneously. And these songs weren’t polite about their sudden presence either; they insisted on being written.”
Out of all this, and all that came before, comes Join the Parade , a recording that is being called Marc’s most accomplished and compelling album to date. Cohn has translated some of his most complex and private emotions into lyrical song-poetry and then set those words to music of remarkable depth, toughness, and complexity. In doing so, Marc has created a work that is certain to touch a universal chord of memory and feeling.
The music leads us on: Indeed, its deep grooves, layered textures, and soulful singing make this journey a sensual pleasure. Marc and album co-producer Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams) have enlisted an exceptional supporting cast that includes members of Cohn’s road band (guitarist Shane Fontayne, drummer Jay Bellerose), top session players (drummers Jim Keltner and Charley Drayton, guitarist Danny Kortchmar), and such bold-face “name” guests as Tom Petty keyboard ace Benmont Tench and vocalists Shelby Lynne, N’Dea Davenport, and the Holmes
Brothers. Join the Parade was recorded at studios in Los Angeles, Austin, and New York with chief engineer Jim Scott, and was mixed by Joe Blaney in New York.
“Before heading into the studio, Charlie Sexton and I spent time discussing two things,” Cohn recalls. “The first was making a wish list of the players we thought were best suited for each song. The second was my desire not to make a traditional singer/songwriter album in the sense that I didn’t need whatever I was playing or singing to be at the center of every track all the time.”
“Dance Back From the Grave,” a song whose lyric was inspired by Pulitzer-prize winning author Rick Bragg’s article on post-Katrina New Orleans, features Cohn’s spoken narrative over a track that evokes not only the Crescent City, but John Lee Hooker as well. “Listening to Levon,” the albums opener, with its thumping drums, plangent mandolin and haunting melody is not only strongly reminiscent of the music of The Band, but is in part, an homage to one of that groups great singers, Levon Helm. “If I Were an Angel,” is a divorce song set to a Hi Records groove. “Let Me Be your Witness,” is a beautiful gospel ballad and a song that Cohn describes as “the centerpiece of the record.”
As a whole, Join the Parade is a poignant, spiritual and moving piece of work. While the songs themselves seem to somehow connect the dots back to Cohn’s best work, the tracks, earthy and raw, are a noticeable departure from the sound of Cohn’s previous records.
In the song “Live out the String,” Cohn not only writes openly about his own brush with death, but seems to be setting a new agenda for himself artistically:
“Fate is kind,
Fate is cruel,
Fate is terminally cool
It’s a random interruption
In the middle of your groove.
But sometimes you gotta
Get down on your knees
Sometimes you better
Get down on your knees
And find yourself a deeper groove.”
With Join the Parade, Cohn finds that deeper groove.
Marc Cohn was born July 5, 1959, the youngest of four boys. He grew up in Cleveland, where he began playing guitar in grade school. Through the local rock radio stations, Marc was in¬troduced to the music of Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, all of whom remain among his most enduring influences.
“I remember buying Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush in 1970,” said Cohn. “It had a lyric sheet that you could fold out in Neil’s own writing, with stuff crossed out or words put back in. It was at that moment that I first realized: This is his living. Somebody works at this.
“Right then, the idea of being a songwriter became appealing, even obsessive, I loved those Neil Young songs so much that I counted the number of words in ‘Tell Me Why.’ I’d write that number on the top of the page, by the title, and then try to write a song with that many words, thinking that this was some kind of portal into brilliance.”
Cohn attended Oberlin College, where he taught himself piano and later worked straight jobs, played clubs and coffee houses, wrote songs and sang demos for songwriting legends like Leiber and Stoller and Jimmy Webb. After moving to New York, he led a successful 14-piece R&B band called The Supreme Court. “Almost everything I did from the time I was sixteen, was geared towards getting a record deal.”
A chance encounter in an Arkansas honky tonk with a 70-year-old black pianist and singer named Muriel Davis Wilkins inspired the song that launched Marc Cohn’s career. “Walk¬ing in Memphis” became the breakout hit from Marc’s self-titled Atlantic debut album, released February 1991.
Author and critic Dave Marsh wrote of the song: “Its perfectly written narrative takes into account the whole history of American music, from where it begins in storefront church gospel and W.C. Handy’s blues to where it shoots out into Elvis and Al Green and, at the climactic moment, Marc Cohn himself.”
“That night, at The Grammy Awards, when my name was called, was an out-of-body experience. It took me months to be able to realize how huge it was, a culmi-nation of everything I’d worked towards for so long.”
In May 1993, Marc released The Rainy Season, which included notable guest appearances by David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt. It would be five years before a new album, 1998’s Burning the Daze, but Cohn continued to tour and write.
In 2005, Cohn compiled and self-released a solid live album, Live 04-05. But the decade that elapsed between Burning the Daze and Join the Parade was “not only longer than most people’s music business careers,” Marc notes with laughter, “it was long enough to have the record business disappear.”
Mainly, Cohn is just excited to have an album out. He hopes that Join the Parade is a set of songs that people might want to hear, but it is in truth, a set of songs that people need to hear.