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Gospel According To Marc
Marc Cohn Continues Heavenly Collaboration with The Blind Boys Of Alabama

By Lee Valentine Smith

For the past few years, prolific singer-songwriter Marc Cohn ("Walking In Memphis") has collaborated with the Georgia-based Blind Boys Of Alabama. They join him on tour and he contributed to their 2017 album Almost Home. Now the two acts share double-billing on Work to Do, a stellar new album of songs that blend the vocal and songwriting talents of Cohn with the heavenly gospel-soul of the Blind Boys.

Released this month by BMG and produced by Cohn's longtime friend John Leventhal, the collection includes three new studio tracks by Cohn and the Blind Boys (two new songs and a fresh take of the standard "Walk In Jerusalem") along with seven live performances.

The Blind Boys - including founding member Jimmy Carter, Eric "Ricky" McKinnie, Joey Williams, Ben Moore and Paul Beasley infuse Cohn's sensitive compositions with an aura of authentic gospel soul.

Before his show earlier this summer at The Fred, INsite spoke with Cohn about his work with the Blind Boys and his enduring love of soulful gospel music.

Your collaborations with the Blind Boys are indeed a joyful noise.

We've done well over two dozen shows now over the last couple of years and it's just thrilling for me. What they bring to my music is a dream come true. I've always had an affinity for gospel music. It's been part of my vocabulary for a long time. It's the beginning of rock and soul and it brings all of my earliest influences full circle.

Did [Atlanta-based manager-attorney] Charles Driebe bring you guys together?

He did. My first connection with Charles was co-writing about half of Atlantan William Bell's last record, which ended up winning a Grammy for Americana Record of the Year. That was wonderful and just well-deserved. I'm proud I was associated with it. Charles had asked my friend John Leventhal to produce it. Then John asked me to come in and help write. Pretty soon I also started writing tunes for the Blind Boys for their record Almost Home [released in 2017]. Actually, the man who wrote the title track to that album, [legendary Athens instrumentalist] Randall Bramblett, is in our band sometimes. That's been a wonderful collaboration too because I've been a fan of his for years.

Sounds like it's a real family affair.

Oh, it is for sure. John Leventhal is my best friend and he's also Rosanne Cash's husband and Roseanne contributed to that album too, so it really was a family affair. That whole family vibe continues on Work To Do.

Let's talk about the track "Let My Mother Live" from Almost Home. It's a Grammy-nominated song, with a very powerful message.

It is. I'm proud of writing that one. I wrote that one with John for Jimmy. That's really Jimmy Carter's story.

There's a real back-story behind that one?

Oh yes. A smart move on Charles' part was, when they were looking for songs, he sent all the writers they were considering videos he'd done with both Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain. Clarence has sense passed away but those two interviews were the basis for all three of the songs that I wrote with John for the Blind Boys. They were telling their own stories.

So they became true collaborators.

Absolutely. Whatever I culled from what they said in those interviews, they became co-writers. That story was in the interview. After his father died when he was 13 and living in Alabama, he was praying every night that he wouldn't lose his mother and be left completely alone. So every night he would pray, 'Let my mother live.' To me, that was the beginning of the song. It resonates from me because one thing Jimmy and I have in common is we both lost parents at a very young age. I lost my dad just like he did when I was about 12. So I can sing the song and relate to it as well but it's certainly written for and about Jimmy.

That's what makes a good song is the fact that that you can deliver it with authenticity.

Well that's everything. As a singer, if I'm singing my own song or a song that's not necessarily about me or my life, it has to resonate on a deeper level for me. That's what I'm looking for because I'm looking for something very special.

Music with a definite message is in the DNA of anyone who became aware of it in the '60s and '70s.

I grew up with it. James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon. And that music was remarkably commercial at the time but it was also incredibly deep and poetic.

At this point a lot of those songs have become standards and sometimes people can just blow through them without really thinking about the emotional connection that comes along with the message. They're not quite Mustang Sally, but oftentimes it's not like it's an artistic expression anymore.

It definitely changes but look at a guy like James Taylor. He's singing "Carolina In My Mind" and "Sweet Baby James" night after night for maybe 45 years now. But he still seems to find his way into some connection with the song. Else he wouldn't be able to still move you with it. It still moves me when I hear him sing those songs. I think artists can still find a way to play those songs. Maybe it's through the audience [reaction] and that's certainly true for me, too. There's very few nights where "Walking In Memphis" is a burden. It's easy for me to find a connection to it because it's a song about my love for music. It will always feel true to me.

That's the basis of gospel, folk and soul - or any music that's truly authentic.

Exactly. To me, music is just one genre. Either you're in it or you're not.

But I know soul music was also a big influence on you. Many singer-songwriters cite can James Taylor or Joni Mitchell as big influences and rightfully so - but in your case, your folk influences mix equally with gospel, soul and the whole Stax/Volt Memphis thing.

Well I'm glad to hear that. I can't quite be that objective with it, but I do know that one of my first influences was definitely gospel and soul. My brother had a band and they used to rehearse in our family basement. In my house, he was the one who taught me how to play Ray Charles and Jimmy Smith music on the organ. That was the first kind of music I heard live. It wasn't by the originals - but he was pretty good! Sam Cooke and Aretha, all the Stax/Volt stuff. Some of it I didn't even know who I was listening to at the time. When I'd hear it on the radio, I'd call the DJ's and go, 'Who was that? Who are you playing?' So was immediately drawn to a wide range of stuff. The soul stuff but also the singer-songwriter stuff. And of course the Beatles and then The Stones and all sorts of everything in between. But I think it all came from gospel music.

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