Spend time with Larry Cordle, and sooner or later you’ll hear him say, “He told me that out of his own mouth.” It’s his way of adding weight to the story he’s telling, proof that it’s true. Listen to his songs, and you know just how important the truth is to this songwriter/singer/guitarist/bandleader. It’s a longstanding bluegrass tradition, from back when Bill Monroe wrote his “true songs,” biographical pieces like “On My Way Back To The Old Home.”
Cordle, a native Kentuckian, has been turning his life into songs for more than 30 years and 55 million records, ever since writing “Highway 40 Blues” driving home from a bar gig in Hazard, Ky. It would become one of Ricky Skaggs’ first hits—and one of his most enduring signature songs. Cordle (“Cord” to friends) continued his musical autobiography in “Black Diamond Strings,” the story of how he learned guitar, and dozens of hits for mainstream country artists like Garth Brooks, Kathy Mattea and, most famously, the duo of Alan Jackson and George Strait. That hit, “Murder On Music Row,” an indictment of Nashville’s pop-country movement of the late ’90s, struck a major chord with bluegrass fans, earning 2000 IBMA Song Of The Year honors.
“If I’m better at any one thing than the others, it’s things that really have me in there,” Cordle explains, sitting outside a small studio on Music Row. “I have this thing in me about wanting people to know how I was raised and how things were. Maybe I put it into a romantic place, but I wouldn’t take anything for the way I was raised and the values I was raised in, and I just want people to know that.”
He was born in eastern Kentucky, in the town of Cordell in Lawrence County, a rich musical area that also produced Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley, both a few years younger than Cordle, 63. There was always music around the Cordle house, and he’ll proudly tell you he could sing all the words to “I’ll Fly Away” by age two. “My great-grandfather was an old-time fiddle player, clawhammer banjo player, and dancer. He and his brother were really good musicians. They might have been professional musicians but you know, they had families to raise.” His father’s father taught shape-note singing in churches, but young Larry was more interested in his family’s old 78s, from his “Papaw” Harry Bryant’s beloved Arthur Smith fiddle records to Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. “I can still see those labels spinning around.”
Family gatherings usually involved music. “It seemed like everybody played a little music. I’ve seen whole yards full of people playing. Every house was full of smoke and a lot of coffee being drunk. It was a grand time, all that music. It made me want to do it.” There was more music at school. “I was going to school in a one-room schoolhouse, and the teacher, she told us at the end of the school year, I think I was in the third grade, she said, ‘Hobert (Skaggs) and Ricky are gonna come down here and play some songs for us.’ Even though I had seen Papaw and them play, I had never seen anybody else outside of the family. And they came down and he [Ricky] was about five. And I said, ‘How in the world can he do that?’ That really made a big interest in me.”
He asked for an electric guitar, but never got it. Instead, he borrowed an acoustic from a cousin. “The very first line in ‘Black Diamond Strings,’ I actually say that, ‘My first guitar was a loaner.’ And that’s the truth.” He’d broken his left hand a few years earlier and it wasn’t set right, a problem he says still hinders him. But though the nine-year-old struggled with the high action on that beat-up, green-painted Gibson, he managed to learn the basics.
Christine and Charlie Cordle took their sons Larry and Mike to see performers who came through the area, including Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and Flatt & Scruggs, who, instead of the usual schoolhouse, played the Garden Theater, Louisa’s movie palace, en route to tape those legendary Martha White TV shows in Huntington, W.Va. Young Cord’s favorite was the Stanley Brothers. He remembers his dad and Hobert taking their boys to see them at the Louisa schoolhouse. “I think it was just the three of them—Carter, Ralph, and George (Shuffler)—but it might as well have been the Beatles to us. We really loved that old mountain Stanley stuff. It really spoke to our hearts, it was so much like things we knew about.”
He remembers the best regional musicians coming by the Skaggs house to play with Ricky, people like Moon Mullins, Walter Adams, Ernie Henry. Cordle joined in. “His mom and dad were really fine people who loved my parents. They lived about two miles down the road from us,” says Ricky Skaggs. “Larry was starting to play guitar some and was real interested in music. I remember Larry grabbing a guitar and playing with me and dad.”
“I wasn’t as good as they was, but I would play some and sing some,” Cordle says. He remembers Ricky calling him one night, excited about meeting a singer his own age, Keith Whitley. They later got together at the Skaggs house. “Keith’s brother Dwight was a great banjo player. Keith was just a little slip of a guy, with these great, big, black glasses on. He takes this big ol’ Martin guitar out of the case and, man, it was big as he was. But when he opened his mouth—amazing!”
Sailor, Accountant, Songwriter
Whitley and Skaggs had bigger plans, but Cordle was just having fun. When he, like so many other eastern Kentuckians, made the move north, it wasn’t to “chase my hillbilly dreams,” as he’d write in “Black Diamond Strings,” but in search of factory work. He stayed with his grandmother in Columbus, Ohio, and was soon part of the city’s thriving bluegrass scene, a regular at the Astro Inn, where he and other displaced Kentuckians gathered to hear the house band led by Sid Campbell, the big-voiced singer/guitarist and writer of “This Morning At Nine.” At the apartment, he’d pick with his grandmother, who played guitar, banjo, harmonica and other instruments.
In 1968, during the Vietnam War, Cordle joined the Navy. He took along another borrowed Gibson, this one his brother Mike’s, and was soon playing with other sailors on a submarine chaser. “It didn’t take me very long to figure out that if I played music, I didn’t have to do some of this duty that other people had to do. These chiefs and these higher-up guys would say, ‘Hey guys, can you play for us?’ And we knew some country songs, so ‘Sure!’”
Discharged in 1972, Cordle attended eastern Kentucky’s Morehead State University on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1975 with an accounting degree and more musical experience in part-time bands, playing country and the era’s rootsy rock of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He even wrote a few songs. After graduating, Cordle figured it was time to grow up. He and his first wife Gail moved to Paintsville, Ky., for a job at an accounting firm. He sold his Les Paul and other gear, keeping only his Martin D-35. “I had everything else gone and was done with it.”
The accountant’s life was not for him. “We get through the first (income tax) filing period, and I’m realizing this is 16-17 hours a day, six months a year. You’d go home at night, change your clothes and go back to the office. You fueled the work with alcohol. We were told you had to do a hundred tax returns, that’s the benchmark—personal, corporate, partnerships. And everything by hand. I was just so miserable. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how in the world I’m gonna do this forty years.’ A lot of those guys I worked with died, 50, 55 years old. Incredible money, but incredible stress.”
He stuck it out a few years, finding solace in the occasional gig with his college buddies which eventually became a six-nights-a-week house band job, and he happily left accounting forever. “We started playing three nights a week in Hazard, Ky. Driving the backroads from Paintsville to Hazard, there’s no good way to get there. And on one of those trips I wrote ‘Highway 40 Blues.’ That was in 1976 or 7.”
His old friend Ricky Skaggs was living in Lexington, playing with J.D. Crowe’s classic New South lineup before forming Boone Creek. They rekindled their friendship. “And one weekend, I told him, ‘Ricky, I’ve got these songs.’ I’d written ten songs. And I told him, ‘I play ’em for people and everybody thinks they’re good, but I don’t know.’ And he said (Cordle slips into Skaggs’ higher voice), ‘Son, next time you’re down here, play me some.’”
“He came to Lexington one time and he had a cassette with some songs,” remembers Skaggs. “I wasn’t really listening to them for me. He wanted to record ’em and he wanted Boone Creek to be the backing band. There was ‘Highway 40 Blues,’ ‘Two Highways,’ ‘Too Bad She’s Gone,’ and a bunch of good songs I ended up recording in the country days. I realized that he was a really great songwriter.”
Skaggs soon joined Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, where he helped make her classic, bluegrass-based Roses In The Snow and Light In The Stable albums. Meanwhile, a Lexington friend of Cordle’s, Henry Baker, offered to back his solo record. Cordle asked Skaggs to produce it. He agreed and, with Baker’s $2,500 investment, they began production.
“I said to Ricky, ‘This “Highway 40 Blues” song, it’s not really a bluegrass thing.’ I had a banjo idea for it like Ray Stevens did with ‘Misty.’ We were gonna call Crowe, y’know. And Ricky calls me one evening and says, ‘I think I found somebody that would be good for that banjo part.’
Skaggs took him to see the band Spectrum. “And playing banjo is this guy Béla Fleck,” Cordle recalls. “He was just 19 years old.” Fleck recorded the song, reprising it a few years later when Skaggs covered it on his Epic Records debut, Highways And Heartaches, which launched him as Nashville’s first-call session banjo player. Cordle recalls with a laugh how he got Jerry Douglas to play on the album, driving from Nashville for $20 a side. Skaggs soon was too busy starting his solo career to continue as producer, and the album was shelved.
But it got Cordle thinking seriously about his career. “I realized I just wanted to be in the music business.”
Chasin’ Hillbilly Dreams
In 1982, Skaggs and his electric country band were playing Breeding’s, a Lexington country landmark. His star was rising quickly, but times were still lean. Instead of a bus, he and his band were driving a van and pulling a trailer, and Cordle recalls Skaggs asking to borrow $50 (Cordle could only come up with $40). “So I take Ricky the money, and he says, ‘I’ve got something for you, too.’ And he hands me a cassette tape and it’s got the roughs of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ and another song I’d written called ‘Too Bad She’s Gone.’ I said ‘What does all that mean?’ And he said, ‘“Highway 40 Blues” for sure, is gonna be on the new record.’”
It became Skaggs’ fifth number one hit and remains a concert favorite. He’s re-recorded it several times, most recently on Country Hits: Bluegrass Style. “We get requests for it everywhere we go,” says Skaggs. “And every time we play it, people start applauding, whether it’s the Opry or the Edmonton Folk Festival.”
As Skaggs’ career took off, he invited his old friend to Nashville and introduced him around, got him signed with ASCAP and helped arrange a publishing deal with Welk Music, where he was organizing a stable of writers. Cordle was still living in Lexington, but, in his thirties and with his marriage ending, he was ready for a change. He saw it coming. “I’m still working six nights a week in these joints and I know that, before long, somebody’s gonna come in and say, ‘Let’s get rid of these old guys and get some new ones in here.’”
Hesitant about leaving steady club work for the big question mark of Nashville, he began commuting the two hundred-plus miles, leaving after Sunday’s last set, working Mondays and Tuesdays in Nashville, racing back for the first set Tuesday, playing six nights, then doing it all over again. Surviving six months of that grind, he took the plunge, trading his $800 a week for Welk Publishing’s $200 weekly “draw” against future earnings.
When Cordle moved to Nashville in 1985, there was a lot going on. The Urban Cowboy pop-country craze had died and Skaggs had ushered in a traditional country insurgency, putting songs by the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs on top of the charts, leading the way for Randy Travis, Clint Black, and other “new traditionalists.” Cordle had Skaggs’ seal of approval, as well as contacts built up in six months commuting, and, most important, a number one song in his catalog.
With his eastern Kentucky roots and association with Skaggs, the mainstream country establishment put him in a bluegrass box. “I was raised in it, it’s naturally gonna be in songs of mine. But in Nashville, that’s who they thought I was. ‘Ain’t that that bluegrass guy?’ In reality that wasn’t who I was. I had never made a nickel playing bluegrass. I frankly didn’t think I was good enough. I found out later I could do it. But from where I come from, you better cut a pretty wide swath before you could call yourself a professional bluegrass musician.”
It would be a year before Cordle wrote another hit, the country-to-the-bone “Honky Tonk Crowd,” by John Anderson. But Cordle says he wasn’t chasing hits. “What was more important to me, was not the hits I had, but the records that I was on.” There were a lot of them. Real country music was enjoying a resurgence and Cordle’s ring of authenticity made him a hot commodity as a writer and backup singer. Like most things, he shrugs it off. “That’s just what comes out of me, I’m not trying to make that. I went through a period where I was the new kid, I guess. And I worked real hard.”
By then, he was in a part-time bluegrass band in Hendersonville, north of Nashville, (where he still lives with his wife Wanda and their daughter Kelvey Christine). He was thriving in his newfound songwriter community at Welk, where he met such greats as Bob McDill and the man he calls his “mentor,” Jim Rushing. “You couldn’t be interested in the music business and not know that each of them had had mega hits,” says Cordle, still sounding a bit star-struck. “And they’re sitting around there with guitars, trying to write songs.”
He’d found a home and, in Larry Shell, also signed to Welk, he found a regular co-writer. It was a successful partnership from the start. Their first collaboration, “You Can’t Straddle The Fence Anymore,” was recorded by Moe Bandy. “That really confirmed for Larry and I that we did have chemistry together—major artist, major label, on an album,” says Shell.
Cordle was getting used to the discipline of writing songs for a living, which meant writing on demand and by appointment. “All the songs I wrote when I moved here were inspired in some way,” he explains. “And one of the guys told me, ‘If you wait for inspiration, you’ll starve to death.’”
He learned the art of co-writing. “There is a good thing about that, the focus it makes you have. If I have your time tied up, I’ll probably make the effort. The songs aren’t all gonna be great, but there’s gonna be some in there that stick their head above the rest of them.” And you always hope for a little magic in the writing room. “It may not be in there for you that day. But if you make the effort. there’ll be a day that it will be. Somebody once said, ‘I’d hate to not show up and then find out later that it was in the room and I wasn’t there.’”
Cordle and the magic met up often enough to produce such enduring songs as “Two Highways” (Alison Krauss & Union Station), “The Bigger The Fool (The Harder The Fall)” (Kenny Chesney), “Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me” (Diamond Rio), “Against The Grain” (Garth Brooks), “Lower On The Hog” (John Anderson, Mel McDaniel), and dozens more.
At the same time, Cordle was building a performing bluegrass career. By the late 1980s, he had a weekly gig at Hendersonville’s Bell Cove, where guests included Bill Monroe, who’d come in after Wednesday night church. That band, co-led with Glen Duncan, played bluegrass classics, and was Cordle’s way of getting away from his day job on Music Row. Monroe convinced Cordle to bring those worlds together. “He told me one night,” Cordle says, slipping into a Monroe voice, “You really should do your own music. Your own music is your own. It’s got your own sound, not mine or anybody else’s.”
The band started working up Cordle originals, often the same day he wrote them. “I just had a lot of nerve,” Cordle says with a chuckle. “We’d make things up at the side of the stage and see if we could play them.”
Sugar Hill’s Barry Poss signed the band, which had plenty of material but no name. Duncan and Cordle got together with manager Lance LeRoy. “They came over to my house and we sat there three or four hours writing things down. Well, the meeting breaks up and we ain’t got it. They’re gone, I’m sitting there with a yellow pad and somehow or other, I’d written that combination of those words. I picked up the phone and I said, ‘Glen, I don’t know if you’ll like this or not, but this really suits me: Lonesome Standard Time.’ And he said, ‘Oh man, that’s it! That’s what we want this to say.’ And a few days go by and I’m in town. I told Jim Rushing, ‘We’re gonna call this band Lonesome Standard Time, and I need this song.’ And he said, ‘Let’s sit down and just do it.’ It was an amazing thing. We wrote it and we played it a few hours later.” Kathy Mattea made it the title cut of her 1992 album, her single reaching number 11.
He was making the lion’s share of his income as one of country’s top songwriters. In 1991, his “Against The Grain” was on Garth Brooks’ 14-million-selling Ropin’ The Wind, the third biggest-selling country album of all time. But Cordle applied the same uncompromising standards to his bluegrass band. Nashville’s hottest pickers passed through LST, including Duncan, Butch Baldassari, Mike Bub, Larry Perkins, Dave Talbot, David Harvey, Terry Eldredge, and Kristin Scott Benson.
“I wouldn’t take anything for the time that I spent in his band,” says Benson, who played banjo with LST from 2003-2006. She only left because she wanted a band that worked all the time, and Cordle’s day job sometimes got in the way. “I would have stuck with Cord forever because I loved his music. I loved his writing. and I loved him. It was sooo much fun traveling with him. He’s hilarious. Cord has kind of a rock’n’roll attitude towards playing. ‘Let’s just get up there and have fun.’ The best part, she adds, “You get to play two sets worth of Larry Cordle songs every time you play.”
Mandolinist David Harvey played with Cordle a few years later in what’s affectionately known as “The Murder Band,” when Cordle was riding high on what was as much a movement as a song, “Murder On Music Row.” A reaction to the watering-down of country music, it was a huge hit for the duo of Alan Jackson and George Strait. Cordle recorded it first, earning Song Of The Year honors at the 2000 IBMA Awards.
The title came first, says co-writer Shell, who had an office on Music Row and rented a room to Cordle. “It was about ’98 or ‘99,” Shell recalls. “And Larry stuck his head in the door. I said, ‘By the way, when we have time, I have a title for us to write. It’s called ‘Murder On Music Row.’ And he said ‘Oh my god, it’s about killing country music, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly where I’m heading with it.’ It might have been a week or so later and we sat down and wrote it. We’d had a week to think about the idea and when we got together, that song wrote itself. He’d spout out a line and I’d spout the next one. The universe just handed us that lyric, and within two hours it was done.”
For Shell, acceptance by the bluegrass community meant a lot. “The bluegrass people were so great to us, to allow us to enter their realm, nominating ‘Murder On Music Row.’ I was never so proud of an award as I was at IBMA. We went on to win Song Of The Year at CMA (2001). But that bluegrass award meant so much to me, personally.”
It meant a lot to Cordle’s bluegrass band, Harvey remembers. He’d joined before the song’s release. By then, LST had taken over the Sidemen’s weekly Tuesday night Station Inn gig. Regular playing tightened the group (Cordle, Harvey, bassist Terry Eldredge, banjo player Dave Talbot and lead guitarist “Booie” Beach). When they went in the studio to record a project for Shell’s Shellpoint Records, they were ready.
“It was just a magic combination,” says Harvey. “They were really smooth sessions. After the album was done, Cord says, ‘Well boys, I got this little demo I want to do. It ain’t no big deal. Just do a little thing on it. I might pitch it around a little bit.’ And it was ‘Murder On Music Row,’ and it wasn’t even supposed to be part of the album.”
It became the title track, and Harvey remembers the song’s immediate impact. “We showcased at IBMA and it was absolutely packed. And I look down and sitting on the floor in front of me is Bobby Hicks. I thought, ‘This is gonna be a special deal.’” He was right. “We played all the major festivals, went from riding around in Cordle’s old van to a newer van to a 45-foot Prevost within a very short amount of time, and making huge money, for a bluegrass band. It really touched a nerve.”
Harvey, who runs Gibson’s mandolin division, left the group shortly after 9/11, but fills in when he gets the call. Cordle has returned the favor, singing on the two Moody Bluegrass albums Harvey produced, featuring all-star singers and pickers doing artful bluegrass re-imaginings of Moody Blues songs. Predictably, Cordle, who’d recorded a bluegrass tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lonesome Skynyrd Time, made it his own.
“Both those songs (‘The Other Side Of Life’ on the first, ‘Have You Heard’ on the second), he personalized them so much,” says Harvey. “In true Cordle fashion, he goes in there and just kills it. And then he comes out and listens to it and says, ‘Oh boys, I don’t know. Maybe there’s something in there that you can use.’ He’s a perfectionist in so many realms, but he always realizes that, when there’s a really good performance there, not to over-produce it, not to suck all the beautiful energy out of it. He’s always about that soul thing.”
A decade after “Murder,” Cordle is no happier with the state of country music. “It seems to me like every other song I hear here has something to do with somebody’s truck, with having a big chew, what kind of beer they got, and whatever degree of country-ness that they want to portray themselves in. That don’t do a thing for me, it really doesn’t.”
In music, timing is everything, and Cordle managed to be at the flashpoint where Nashville’s new-traditionalist movement collided with country’s all-time best-selling decade. Real country music was actually making big money in Nashville. With top albums selling in multiple millions, album cuts were major paydays for songwriters. Today, all but the most loyal fans download only the hits. So Cordle is taking things into his own hands, starting his own label for his most recent project Pud Marcum’s Hangin’, distributing his CDs to truckstops and whatever other bricks-and-mortar stores will sell them.
“I’ve learned some things that I wish I would have known with the Murder On Music Row album. If I had known then what I know now, I would have sold 50,000 of those records. I sold 20,000 and I didn’t know what I was doing.” It’s hard work (and that accounting degree comes in handy), but it’s all his, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Whatever money there is, I want it to stop at my mailbox.”
If he’s lost faith in the music business, his passion for music never flagged. “Music is a powerful thing,” he says solemnly. “It has a way of reaching people that nothing else will. And for that reason, I’ve always wanted to be serious about it.”
Like other songwriters caught in the industry downturn, Cordle has been performing more. Along with his bluegrass band, he works in a trio with Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley. The three were part of the Grammy-winning Louvin Brothers tribute, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’, which won the 2004 IBMA Recorded Event Of The Year. They’re currently playing Monday nights at the Station Inn and will take part in a 2012 IBMA panel on Cordle’s songwriting.
Cordle is also finishing his long-awaited all-star duet project. “I’ve been working on it for eight years, on and off. Working is a very loose term,” he adds with a chuckle. “We were on the road and I had this idea about making this record: ‘As many of these records as I was on, I wonder if I could make a bluegrass record and get some of these guys to come and sing on it?’”
He enlisted Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Kenny Chesney, Kathy Mattea, Dierks Bentley, Terri Clark, Travis Tritt, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Diamond Rio and others. “I figure I’ll be getting a call,” Skaggs told me with a laugh. Cordle is hoping for a 16-song collection. But instead of a staff of lawyers and managers getting contracts signed, he and his right-hand-woman Ashley Kohrs do it all themselves.
The album was delayed by a bout of prostate cancer in 2006, but a successful operation left him cancer-free, thankful and very aware that time is passing. “I’m trying to finish it by the end of the year,” he says.
His friends and fans look forward to the project finally giving Larry Cordle the attention he deserves. Carl Jackson’s known him for 25 years, since they were staff writers for Skaggs’ Amanda-Lin Music. “Larry lived it,” says Jackson. “We all draw from our own life experiences and Larry’s a master at that. He never settles. It’s not finished until it’s finished.” Shell agrees. “He takes his time, he’s into detail. You try to throw an average line in there, he won’t settle. He wants us to dig a little deeper and really come up with something. I like that about him. He makes you do your best work.”
The man who first brought Cordle to Nashville couldn’t be prouder. “He’s been a very successful songwriter in this town and everybody who knows Cord, loves Cord,” says Skaggs. “Everybody’s got a Cord story or a Cord expression, or a Cord voice. He’s kind of like Bill Monroe that way.”
Yet as special a singer, picker, and personality as Cordle is, it’s his songwriting that stands out. He’s a master storyteller in the tradition of fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall. “He’s one of the great character writers,” Skaggs says. “He just has a way of looking at life, the way a lot of people look at it, but a lot of people can’t write it down or put it to music. Larry has the ability to look at life with a pure heart and put it to music.”
“There’s no greater feeling, I don’t think, than walking away from a song and realizing you got everything in there you wanted to get in there,” Cordle says. “That’s one kind of high, and another one is when you’re playing these shows and you realize about half the people are singing the words. The performing part’s not hard for me. It didn’t take me long to figure out what I was, and I think some people will like it and some people won’t. I’m perfectly O.K. with that. I can’t do any more than I can, and I always try to do the very best I can. That’s a hundred percent to me.” And that’s Larry Cordle, out of his own mouth.