Larry Cordle-American Songwriter
Sometimes what I do here is simply conveying information. I may talk with someone about a new CD they have, when it releases, who wrote the songs, etc. Other times, the ideas take precedence- how were the songs created? What were the stories behind the songs? What is the larger thing the artist trying to say, etc. Most interviews are some amalgamation of those two things. Lately though, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to present an interview I’ve had on hold for a few months.
When artists are much more interesting than their work, the genre suffers with inferior material. When the work is of higher quality than the person, the genre suffers from their deficiencies, though the music may be excellent. Fortunately for Bluegrass/acoustic/Americana music, there is a large group of involved artists who are both devoid of pretense and gifted beyond measure. One of these people is singer/songwriter/guitarist Larry Cordle.
While his rough hewn features and direct demeanor might make you think otherwise, there are few men that I have met that are as genuinely kind and thoughtful as he. I spent about an hour on the phone with Larry Cordle a while back. I thought about giving you an extended biographical piece and talk about some of his more notable works. While some of that information may appear here, my friend Ted Lehmann did such a good job in his column at No Depression recently, anything I could say along those lines would appear as a poor attempt using cut and paste methods. I encourage you to read his article and digest it thoroughly- it is worthy of your time.
So, while I may appear flat-footed, I still have some things to say concerning ‘The Mighty Cord’.
Having a conversation with Larry Cordle is such a wonderful thing. You’re guaranteed twists and bends along the way and it is all delightful. Part of the reason it is such a delight is not because he’s Pollyanna, but because he is realistic. Always direct, but never approaching ‘dogmatic’ or ‘bully’ status, Larry writes songs in the same way he speaks. The point is direct and clear, but the lyrical and musical twists are joyful.
Few writers have approached Cordle’s reputation for musical storytelling in a way that is so vivid and honest. Some of that is due to his growing up in such a harsh environment. Music was, in large part, an escape for those in that time and place. Once Cordle got to Nashville, he was able to work with some of the best writers in the history of the genre such as Dickey Lee, Jim Rushing & Bob McDill. By working with this caliber of writer, Cordle said it forced him to up his game and he picked up habits of those more seasoned writers, though he didn’t really realize it as it was happening. He learned how to work to find the right lyric or phrase to best tell the story in his way. This is one reason he tires of hearing the same rehash of songs and themes as has been recent fare. He holds to the tenet that a great song has a great melody and a great lyric. The lyric is important and works like a prose story, with an arc. This was the goal for him and those who taught him in every song, regardless of tempo, subject, etc. this puts him at odds with modern writing/production in the industry of late. “I just don’t believe the lyric is important to music (industry) right now. If it was, you couldn’t write that same song over and over again,” he said. he was quick to point out that he, of all people, understood how hard it is to make a living as a writer and that he doesn’t begrudge anyone making a living at writing. He would, however, strongly encourage those songwriters that remain to write what they can with depth and conviction and not settle for redressing the same material in different clothes as has often been the case in recent years.
Despite some of those trends, he is encouraged by much that he sees going on in Nashville. As someone who has worked with Chris Stapleton, Cordle is very pleased with his recent success- particularly because Chris’ success has been largely done his own way and not by industrial methodology. He is hopeful that this will motivate industry and the public to seek out a better grade of song. Ronnie Bowman, Bradley Walker and Jerry Salley were also mentioned as people who deserved to be heard more widely. He then mentioned Ashley Monroe as distinctively real and genuine on her recent project (The Blade). He was, however, particularly effusive about the group Flatt Lonesome’s potential, talent and relationship with the crowd, whether performing Bluegrass or traditional country music. Having worked some dates with them, he stated that he can’t wait to see how far they go in whatever direction they choose.
After talking about the kinship of traditional country music (and artists) and Bluegrass, I asked if he thought that the loss of agrarian/rural America was responsible for this union. “A large part of me does. These kids that are listening to this stuff now are listening to their parents or grandparents heard. They have to have had some connection back to the rural side of things & the Earth, even if they were raised in the city. It definitely has something to do with it.”
Things have obviously changed a lot since Cordle came to Nashville. Many of those changes involve time management since the music has been devalued to the point that the artist has to be involved in all parts of the process. “I just wanted to write songs and sing. I’m a songwriter first. but, I’ve had to figure out a lot of things about the music business and the publishing business and now technology and all these things that I didn’t really want to learn in order to make that happen. Every other thing I’ve had to learned to do takes a little bit away from the creative time that I would like to be having, but it’s necessary in order to make everything work,” Cordle said.
One other caveat from our conversation: don’t mistake Cordle’s critique of modern writing and business for a disdain of everything other than traditional country music. “I’m really fortunate, in that I like most everything, really. If it’s got some sort of a value as a song, some depth or idea, regardless of style, I like it. I’m not nearly as one way as you might think I am. I just love good songs. So much of everything I like has a connection to the blues, so if there’s some of that in there, chances are I’m gonna like it. If not, I likely won’t”, he explained.
If you’re unfamiliar with Cordle, investigate his last two projects (All Star Duets and Pud Marcum’s Hangin’) and I think you’ll agree that his songwriting is rather astounding.
I alluded at the beginning that this was not an easy piece to write. Perhaps the reason for that is simply this: I find it impossible to remain objective with Cordle. He is a hero of mine. His songwriting is among the best in the last 30 years and perhaps in all of American music history, yet is it Larry himself that makes his music more than merely special. He is known by many as the “Mighty Cord”. The source of his might is easily found, however: his humility.
Postscript: Larry has been battling with chronic lymphatic leukemia for about a year. Chemo was finished earlier this month and there are some further things to do but Larry has maintained both his stamina and his schedule through the festival season and the Fall. All the current public information is very positive. You can read all the details on Larry’s Facebook page.