The Vernacular of Marc Cohn

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In August of 2005, going from a Denver concert venue to their hotel, Marc Cohn was shot in the head in an attempted car-jacking. The bullet was slowed by the van’s windshield and the driver’s chin, and somehow Marc was able to remain alert as he was taken to the hospital where the slug was removed. He was awake, alert and expecting that he’d die soon.

Just like that, his life changed. Fans who were ready for his fourth studio record understood this meant they’d probably have to wait. The wait is now over.

His road to recovery was long (and no doubt still underway), but something happened that dropped a certain gear into place which seemed not only to propel the new record forward– it also drove him to write and write and write.

Hurrican Katrina hit the gulf coast.

He told USA Today, “What happened to me was a very small, personal thing. But watching this devastating national calamity from my personal space was extremely emotional.”

Following the coverage of Katrina, he came across an essay by Rick Bragg in the Washington Post in which the author wrote of the people of New Orleans; “I have seen these people dance, laughing, to the edge of a grave. I believe that now they will dance back from it.” This comment became the inspiration for “Dance Back from the Grave” from that much anticipated new record, “Join the Parade.”

“Join the Parade” has done for me what each of the other Marc Cohn records have done– grown on me to the point that for weeks on end when I open iTunes, Marc Cohn it is.

Marc Cohn is a songwriter’s songwriter. He is a musician’s musicians. When you land James Taylor to sing background vocals on your first record you must have something going for you. (He jokes that his self-titled first record, with “Walking in Memphis” and “True Companion,” also happens to be his “Greatest Hits.”)

I know there are lots of Marc Cohn fans here in the Rabbit Room and among the Square Pegs. When I try to articulate what it is about him that gathers such a loyal fanbase, what I keep coming back to is that Marc Cohn uses a vernacular all his own. No one sounds like Marc Cohn without sounding like they are ripping him off.

Musically, the man knows how to build a song. He knows when to be hauntingly sparse, and he knows when to layer the sonic landscape to the point that in the hands of a less skilled composer, it would just be noise.

And his lyrical style is so distinct. He gets away with using words or phrases that are so uncommon that you feel like you’re listening to an old soul who isn’t from around here, no matter where you’re from. For lyric lovers, he uses words and expressions that seem unique to him– like “the voice from the public address” or “I told the ambulance man,” or “It seems like inside every woman I know, there’s a girl of mysterious sorrow.” Lyricists hear some of his expressions and have to wonder where in the world he dug them up.

I look back on this last paragraph and think to myself, “Dang it, Marc Cohn! I’m struggling here to find the words to explain your use of them.”

So let me open a little discussion for any Marc Cohn fans out there. What is it that makes him so unique? If you are a fan, why? How would you introduce someone else to his music?

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


11 Comments

  1. Jesse Gray

    Amen, Russ!

    Marc Cohn was that guy for me in high school whose tape was always in my car. I’m not sure if anyone else had this experience (maybe it was the company I kept), but my friends were constantly making fun of me for listening to him. They called it “old man music”. I remember feeling so vindicated a few years ago when I saw on AP’s list of musical influences that Marc was listed. I KNEW that was good music!

    You’ve inspired me to Dig Down Deep 😉 and get back into Join the Parade. I loved his first two releases so much, but the last two just haven’t been as meaningful. I think maybe since my life is so much busier now, I haven’t given them enough time to sink in. I’ll go back and give JTP another listen or two.

    Thanks, Russ!

  2. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Jason,

    iTunes has a live record from Cohn that is excellent. It opens with a version of “Lost You in the Canyon” that will make you want to dig out “Burning the Daze” (record #3). I just got hold of it recently, and it makes me want to go see him live. Real bad.

    It isn’t old man music. It’s “Old Soul” music. And I remember having a similar tape in my car throughout college. It just never seemed like it was time to move on to something else.

    By the way, if you’re looking for Join the Parade to stick, give that title track more time. Nice.

  3. John

    Ah, Marc Cohn… I was the only person in high school who was happy he won the Grammy for best new artist, instead of Color Me Bad (c’mon everybody: I Wanna Sex You Up). You know you remember it.

    Anyway, I wore the first two tapes out and am now wearing out the CDs. Burning the Daze didn’t grab me as much, although I admit I didn’t give it much of a chance. I bought Join The Parade about a month ago and it is growing on me. His music is so vivid, so alive. There is something about it that connects with me and I am present in the song. I sang with Muriel at the Hollywood, tried to remember the things we’ve handed down, been to the ’64 World’s Fair, burnt the blanket, shot the light, heard every bang every boom just like it was happening in my own room, and now I am listenting to Levon.

    Russ, thanks for opening up this discussion.
    Marc, thanks for being there and taking me with you.

  4. becky

    “you feel like you’re listening to an old soul who isn’t from around here”

    That’s exactly it, Russ. I have the first CD, but no others yet. I need to fix that. I love his voice and sound.

  5. becky

    Now I’ve got “Walking in Memphis” running through my head. I guess it could be a lot worse. 🙂

  6. jeremy byrd

    russ, my wife and i shared one of our first dances to “true companion” and she subsequently (2 years later) inscribed “my true companion” on my wedding ring. we haven’t really gotten any of the other cds, but his music certainly holds special meaning for the two of us…as we just celebrated 10 years (and just happened to listen to that song the other day). peace.
    jb

  7. Christopher Dean

    I’ve been addicted to Marc Cohn for a long time- he has become my #1 influence in my own songwriting. I moved to Denver just after he was shot, and have seen every concert he’s played in Denver ever since (third one coming up in a couple weeks). Every time he’s played here since the shooting, you can tell it’s a different kind of show that what he usually plays. The guy is amazing. Each show he never ceases to amaze, and pulls out some surprises. I’m excited to see him again on July 11. IT’ll be the third MC concert I’ve been to in 18 months.

    Unlike other fans, Burning the Daze was actually the easiest album for me to get used to. All the others have had to grow on me a bit, but, like most, album #1 is still #1.

  8. Andrew Peterson Fan

    Being a woman, I’ve never been “into” cars, but back when I was in college I heard Marc Cohn’s “Silver Thunderbird” and the way he put it was so convincing that I had this “dream of one” in my mind… not that I’d ever go out and buy one (a Honda Civic is plenty) but if anyone ever gave me one I was sure I wouldn’t turn it down.

    About two years ago, I saw one. It was in the parking lot at the Nashville airport parked sideways, with the top down and white leather seats. It was the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. Marc was right. 🙂

  9. Does AP stand for 'Anticipating Patiently'???

    With due respect to AP – hurry up with Resurrection Letters already hmmm? – Cohn’s “Live Out The String” is one of the finest tunes I recall ever hearing; that alone would make the purchase of Join The Parade a sage choice. There’s nothing quite like hearing your seven year old son singing ‘make a joyful noise’ from the backseat on a long trip.

  10. DrewSmusic

    I’ve loved his songwriting. His was one of the first “upgrades” I made when switching from tapes to CDs in ’92, but I still have the old cassette in my dashboard. You mentioned “Silver Thunderbird” – it’s one of my favorites because it makes me think about my dad, “the man with the plan and the pocket comb.” I love that it’s not really about the car, just like Goodgame’s “Susan Coats’ Pants” or AO’s “High School Band.”

    Thanks for the heads up on “Parade” and the live tracks. I need to find my copy of “The Rainy Season”…

  11. Beth

    Russ,

    I really appreciate this post! Tom introduced the song, “True Companion,” to me when he asked me to marry him. Marc Cohn’s music will always hold a special place in our hearts. I plan to be playing his CD on our 10th wedding anniversary that’s coming up soon!

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