"This was the first time I did an entire record unsigned," says singer, songwriter, pianist, and Grammy Award-winner Marc Cohn, speaking of his new collection, Join the Parade (Decca). The album might surprise those who remember Cohn as a one-hit wonder, rather than as a serious American songsmith. The tuneful and melancholic "Walking in Memphis" became a breakout hit from his self-titled Atlantic debut album, released in 1991. Sixteen years later, he's completely undistracted by charts, figures, and industry riff-raff.
"I made it completely on my own, with no A&R person to answer to, no label expected anything," he says enthusiastically. "It's the best possible way. Being on my own, creatively, was the important part — getting to choose the songs, players, producers, and make it on my own time."
In November, Cohn embarked on his first national full-band tour in years. The line-up includes guitarist Shane Fontayne, singer/guitarist Amy Correia (who's also playing an opening solo set), upright bassist Jon Ossman, and keyboardist Josh Dodes.
With the assistance of co-producer and expert sideman/guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams), Cohn enlisted a terrific team of musicians for the Join the Parade sessions, including members of his touring band, top session drummers Jim Keltner and Charley Drayton, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, organist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), and vocalist Shelby Lynne.
"Before heading into the studio, Charlie Sexton and I spent time discussing two things," Cohn says. "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."
Join the Parade is a dense, atmospheric collection with subtle embellishments and plenty of guts and grit. Lead-off track "Listening to Levon" has a similar melody and groove to Van Morrison's "It Stoned Me." "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 — is a smoky, Tom Waits-esque effort with a lurching rhythm.
"I really wanted to make a raw-sounding record, vocally and instrumentally," Cohn says. "My touchstones for that sound were definitely Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, circa Black & Blue and Emotional Rescue. I was just looking for very specific things I loved — the sounds and textures and feel, like the way Charlie Watts plays drums on the Stones records, for example. The more of that we could get, the better."
A bit of Al Green falsetto makes its way into the break-up/gospel song "If I Were an Angel." The piano-driven gospel ballad "Let Me Be Your Witness" is moving. "Live Out the String," in which Cohn writes about his own brush with death and despair, rocks with the pep and pop energy of the finest Elvis Costello and Bruce Hornsby hits.
"It's a nice little gumbo," Cohn says of the sessions. "I'm always critical when I listen back to what I do. That's why I've only put out four albums in all this time; I'm just ridiculously critical. But I think this record is the closest to the sound I was hearing in my head. I listen back to my records and feel that I got close, but didn't quite get there ... but that's a good thing. I wanted something a little rootsier and more organic, and a little bit more raw. I think Charlie helped me get to that place where there was a little less shine on everything. I'm really pleased about that."