After ‘Walking in Memphis,’ Marc Cohn sings his life story at The Birchmere

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Marc Cohn at The Birchmere (Part 1)

The Birchmere is about to levitate “ten feet off of Beale.” Or is it Mount Vernon Avenue?

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Marc Cohn comes to Alexandria, Virginia on Feb. 2.

“I must have played there 20 times,” Cohn told WTOP. “I love that place, one of my favorite places to play. Now you’ve got me curious, I wonder how many times I’ve played there. … It’s a room filled with music lovers. People are there to hear the music and that always makes a difference. … People really come in there to see you. it sounds great in there.”

He’ll take the stage with percussionist Joe Bonadio and keyboardist Randall Bramblett.

“I haven’t played with this trio for several years before COVID,” Cohn said. “We have one [new] song in particular that I really like … I’ll probably do that song at The Birch. I lean heavily on the first couple records, maybe a cover song or two from a record I did called ‘Listening Booth.’ … I often just throw it to the audience: ‘What do you want to hear?'”

Born in Cleveland in 1959, Cohn grew up listening to all types of music.

“There were several great radio stations and they were totally inspirational for me,” Cohn said. “There’s a station that’s still-famous called WMMS where I first heard artists like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, The Band, all the great artists of the ’70s.”

He was also inspired by the sounds coming from his neighbor’s house.

“My next-door neighbor was a legend named George Szell, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra,” Cohn said. “We were able to go in his box seats at Severance Hall any time we wanted to hear what he was performing. I could actually hear him playing piano, working out certain arrangement ideas. … I actually wrote a song about him called ‘Maestro.'”

He transferred from Oberlin College to UCLA and performed in coffee shops in Los Angeles, but his big music breakthrough didn’t happen until he moved to New York City.

“I had no luck finding any connections to the record business in L.A., but in New York I was lucky enough to meet a man who was a jingle writer,” Cohn said. “He got my demo to Phil Ramone. … I sang for Leiber & Stoller, Jimmy Webb … people I admired and loved. After years of sessions for other people, I eventually got offered a deal at Atlantic Records.”

In 1991, he released his self-titled debut album “Marc Cohn,” featuring the smash hit “Walking in Memphis,” which was borne out of a serious bout of writer’s block.

“I went to Memphis looking for inspiration,” Cohn said. “I was struggling with songwriting at the time. … I read this interview with James Taylor where he said, ‘If you’re struggling with ideas, go someplace you’ve never been. It might awaken your sensibilities.'”

The song puts listeners in his blue-suede shoes as he boards the plane and touches down in the land of the Delta Blues in the middle of the pouring rain. He fittingly sees the ghost of Elvis, follows him up to the gates of Graceland and watches him walk right through.

“That song is not a verbatim encapsulation of my trip there, but I did go to Al Green’s church,” Cohn said. “When I talk about Rev. Green, that was for real, an amazingly moving experience seeing one of the great singers of all time in the context of his own church.”

He also met Muriel, a 75-year-old schoolteacher singing at the Hollywood Cafe outside of Memphis. It inspired the line: “Muriel plays the piano, every Friday at the Hollywood. … She said, ‘Tell me are you a Christian, child?’ And I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight!'”

“I told her about my life,” Cohn said. “She invited me up to sing … gospel songs I didn’t even know. … We did ‘Amazing Grace’ together and she whispered in my ear as people were applauding, ‘It’s OK, child, go home now and write the songs you were meant to write now. It’s time to move on.’ I went back and wrote the songs that became my first record.”

It won him the Grammy for Best New Artist, but he insists there’s more to his catalog.

“That one really seemed to resonate and I’m eternally grateful,” Cohn said. “I would love if people started listening to my other songs because I’m actually telling a much bigger story. That’s the beginning of a story for me in my life. A lot of other songs I’ve written about my mother, father, childhood, friends, lovers … that bigger story I wish more people knew.”

That story unfolds across the other tracks on that self-titled first album.

“When ‘Walking in Memphis’ ends … it purposely goes right into a song called ‘Ghost Train,'” Cohn said. “It’s about the day my mother died. I was a baby and it’s sung from the viewpoint of a child. … The third song is ‘Silver Thunderbird’ about my dad, who died when I was 12. … The end is ‘True Companion,’ dreaming of becoming somebody’s husband.”

His life story continues to unfold in his second album “The Rainy Season” (1993), which includes the song “The Things We’ve Handed Down” about the experience of fatherhood.

“I think that’s actually my best song,” Cohn said. “It’s not a popular song, but people have used it in weddings and bat mitzvahs. … Jimmy [Webb] wrote an article for some UK paper where they asked him, ‘Write a couple of columns about your favorite song these days,’ and he chose ‘The Things We’ve Handed Down.’ If Jimmy Webb liked it, I’m done.”

His third album “Burning the Daze” (1998) features the song “Saints Preserve Us.”

“The song is again about the day my mother died, but this time from my older brother’s perspective; the only one in the room when she passed,” Cohn said. “We write over and over about the same things but from newer, different perspectives. … You’re really coming around all the time to the same thing, only … you’re a little higher on the spiral staircase.”

His fourth album “Join the Parade” (2007) largely grappled with surviving being shot in the head during a 2005 carjacking incident in Denver, Colorado. Thus, the album features songs like “Dance Back From The Grave,” “If I Were an Angel” and “Life Goes On.”

“I wrote a whole album about mortality,” Cohn said. “That bullet went through the windshield, grazed my tour manager’s chin, it slowed down the .22-caliber enough that it landed in my left temple … sitting in some cartilage. I recovered almost immediately when they took it out. … It was miraculous that I had a bullet in my head and I wasn’t dead.”

His fifth album “Listening Booth: 1970” (2010) was a collection of cover songs of his favorite artists, including Cat Stevens, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

“[John Leventhal] had just done a record with his wife, Roseanne Cash, called ‘The List,’ which was all songs that Johnny Cash, Roseanne’s father, told her she had to listen to as the great folk/country songs ever written,” Cohn said. “Not everybody has Johnny Cash as their dad … but what we did was focus on songs we loved from one particular year.”

When his complete life story is someday written, how does he want to be remembered?

“I have the most pride and joy in knowing that when I’m gone, I’m going to leave behind my family’s story,” Cohn said. “It isn’t in book form — maybe one day I’ll do that — but there’s a lot of clues of what growing up was like for me and other people in that music.”

Hopefully a very small piece of that story is gratitude for calling into WTOP.

“You want to be able to talk about stuff that isn’t what everybody asks, so thank you for that,” Cohn said. “You’ve covered more than the last 50 interviews I’ve done in my life.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Marc Cohn at The Birchmere (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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