Marc Cohn's association with The Blind Boys of Alabama goes back a few years, as he previously penned songs for the group's 2017 album Almost Home. The upcoming Work to Do, whose title track is premiering exclusively below, marks their first full-fledged, and in Cohn's estimation, inevitable collaboration.
"Working on [Almost Home] really brought me closer to them as people," Cohn tells Billboard of the five-time Grammy Award-winning gospel group. "I think we had already done some shows together, but since that came out, we've done more, and it's been great."
Among those performances was a 2018 appearance together on the PBS concert series The Kate from the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Connecticut, which changed the nature of Work to Do entirely.
"We had intended this to just be an EP at first, of three studio tracks," Cohn says. "It wasn't intended to be that big of a deal, just a transitional idea till I made another record. But we had these live tracks, and we said, 'Maybe this could be something' and added those to the mix and wound up with a full album."
Due Aug. 9 on BMG, Work to Do features seven performances from The Kate, including standards such as "Amazing Grace" (set to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun") and Cohn favorites including "Walking in Memphis," "Silver Thunderbird" and "Ghost Train." The arrangements, Cohn says, evolved over time.
“They're such great musicians and great singers, so much personality and soul,” he says. “The more we play, the easier it gets, and the arrangements just fall into place."
The Blind Boys' Jimmy Carter adds, "It has been wonderful to get to know and work with Marc Cohn. Marc's a great person and a great singer. We have had a ball touring with him."
The "Work to Do" track, according to Cohn, is intended to be "just gospel" but was tailor-made for the Blind Boys. "It's really meant to be an older man's song, more along the lines of Jimmy Carter," he explains. "It's a song about feeling like you’re at the end of your road, but not at the end of your work. I really heard his voice and him singing it. To me, it's really Jimmy’s song, and I'm just singing the lead."
After touring together in June, Cohn and The Blind Boys — along with Taj Mahal — have six shows set for August, following Work to Do's release, and both hope more will follow in 2020. Cohn, meanwhile, will be touring on his own this fall, and he's working on his next album, his first of all-original material since 2007's Join the Parade.
"Ever so slowly — as has always been the case. I have three or four songs that might be the beginning of the record,” he adds. “I've been so focused on Blind Boys stuff I haven't really paid the attention I need to. I'm going to take all of September off to be with my kids as they start the school year and try to write and get something together."