Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Marc Cohn is best known for his gospel-influenced mega-hit “Walking In Memphis." The successful tunesmith is now touring with the five-time Grammy-winning gospel group and Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Blind Boys of Alabama, who have been performing together since the 1940s. Cohn and the Boys have been collaborating for more than a year now, and they'll release a new full-length album, Work to Do, on August 9.
The record was produced by John Leventhal — another multiple Grammy winner — and includes a mix of studio cuts and live recordings. The Blind Boys’ gospel harmonies lift Cohn’s vocals throughout, especially on his two new originals, “Talk Back Mic” and “Work to Do." The album revisits a few of Cohn's hits ("Walking in Memphis," "Silver Thunderbird"). The Blind Boys offer up their own songs, including a moving rearrangement of “Amazing Grace," which is set to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Cohn began working with the Blind Boys when he was commissioned to pen several songs on their 2017 album Almost Home, which included the Grammy-nominated “Let My Mother Live.” He took a journalistic approach to writing for the group, drawing inspiration from a series of interviews with founding member Clarence Fountain and current bandleader Jimmy Carter, who told stories about growing up in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years. Their studio collaboration sparked a series of live performances together last year, when Cohn was made an honorary member of the group.
Cohn and the Blind Boys will be joined by legendary blues musician and singer-songwriter Taj Mahal when they perform at Chautauqua in Boulder. Westword spoke with Cohn to get the inside scoop on the tour.
Westword: So where are you living these days?
Marc Cohn: I live in New York City. I'm here for another ten days before I hit the road.
And you're heading out with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
That's right. The Blind Boys and myself do a set, and then Taj Mahal. Taj is co-billing with us for several shows. We're on first most nights. I can't wait.
How did you hook up with the Blind Boys?
Their manager called me about three years ago. I had just co-written a bunch of songs with William Bell, who's a great old soul singer from Stax Records; that record ended up winning a Grammy. The manager who managed William also managed the Blind Boys and asked me and my songwriting partner, John Leventhal, to try to write some songs for the Blind Boys, which we did. One of those songs got nominated for a Grammy, so it was a successful run with this manager's roster, and the songs organically moved into their live act, and now we've done a record with them. It's been fantastic.
Were you living down south at all?
People get confused. So do I. I have spent time down south, but I'm not from there, and I've never lived there. But, yeah, the song "Walking in Memphis" was inspired by a trip down there. Most people assume I'm a Southerner, but I'm not, though the South has created a lot of the music I love.
Were you doing something with the music of Van Morrison recently?
Yeah — it was a show at Carnegie Hall that was a charity event. The proceeds went to music education in and around New York City. There's a promoter who I know well that does these shows to raise money every year, and they're always at Carnegie Hall. He chooses different artists to cover, and this year it was Van Morrison, and I was on the bill along with a lot of great people.
And you've worked some with David Crosby?
Yeah, David has been a great supporter of mine. He's recorded two of my songs over the years with Graham [Nash]. And more recently we wrote a song together. He did the music and I did the lyrics. It's on his album Lighthouse. Being able to collaborate for or with all these artists kind of covers the whole spectrum of music that I've loved ever since I was a kid. Singer-songwriter, R&B, soul and gospel — that pretty much covers it. I heard almost everything I loved on the radio when I was growing up in Cleveland because the stations were so incredible. You could hear everything and anything back to back. Radio wasn't programmed the same way it is now. It was just good music as opposed to splitting up the genres on different stations. Sometimes you just heard an incredible combination of styles, because it all worked, and it was all good. So I heard a lot music that way, plus I had an older brother who played piano and had a band, and they used to practice in our basement, so that's the first time I heard what a Ray Charles lick sounded like live. In terms of gospel music, there were lots of churches in Cleveland, and I just heard all this different music either on the radio or in my own home. My dad is also a singer, so I heard the music he loved. So there was music everywhere.
What are some good albums of yours to check out for people who aren't that familiar with your work?
I have a best-of collection that gives a pretty good example of my work. I really like my second record, The Rainy Season, and they might enjoy Join the Parade. I haven't put out that many records. They have to pass my own seal of approval, which is pretty difficult to pass, so I only have about six studio records in thirty years.
What's the format with you and the Blind Boys?
We set up together on stage, and I do a couple songs alone and they do a couple songs alone, and then we do about six songs together. We have a record now with three new studio tracks and six live tracks, and so we're out supporting that. It's been a wonderful collaboration for me. It's brought my love of gospel full circle. If you listen to my first couple of records, the background vocalists are arranged kind of like a gospel quartet. They were wonderful session singers, but what I was looking for was a gospel sound, and now I have that.
Are you primarily a keyboardist?
I play some guitar; that was my first instrument. But I play piano and guitar while on stage, and I use both instruments to write.
Will you mix it up with Taj Mahal a little?
I hope so, man. I've only met him briefly, but the Blind Boys did a Christmas album with Taj, so they know him better than I do. But I would love to collaborate with him.
Are you familiar with the Chautauqua venue?
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Yes, I've been there several times. I love it.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the new record?
We recorded a live concert for PBS about a year and a half ago, and it was a really spirited performance. It sounded great. So we decided to do a full-length album. We started the record thinking it was going to be an EP with just three new tracks, but we decided to add some of our live material. The Blind Boys do an amazing version of "Amazing Grace" on the record. I'm proud of the album; it's called Work to Do. The Blind Boys are astonishing, especially live. The best part of this collaboration is that the Blind Boys and I get to play for each other's audiences. There isn't a lot of overlap in our respective fan bases, but now, after all the shows we've done, the two are starting to merge, and it's great to see.
Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama and the Taj Mahal Quartet play at 6 p.m. Monday, August 12, at Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $53 to $68 and are available at chautauqua.com.