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The Vernacular of Marc Cohn

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?


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