Larry Cordle is a slight man with an often serious look on his face that easily breaks into a wily grin. He wears a trim mustache and a small goatee in a time when many men across the nation are affecting full-face mountain-man beards. If you saw Cordle walking down the street, you probably wouldn't notice him, but he is known throughout the country and bluegrass music world as “the Mighty Cord” for the power and evocative quality of his songwriting. In song after song, over a period of over 40 years, he's written and sung about the lives and efforts of the working poor – coal miners, shade-tree mechanics, and others.
Born in 1949 in the Eastern Kentucky town of Cordell, also the home town of Ricky Skaggs, Cordle grew up in a close-knit family that was steeped in music. He learned to play the guitar and sing early in life. After graduating from high school, he joined the US Navy for a stint before majoring in accounting at Morehead State University.
While he's always been drawn to performing and songwriting, Cordle is a prudent man who realized that a steady income was important. He kept his job in accounting until his name as a songwriter and performer was well-enough established to enable a move to Nashville and full-time work in music. Nevertheless, Cord, as he is known to friends and fans, remains a product of Kentucky, where the deep well of tradition, country, coal, and musical heritage all continue to inform his thinking and writing.
His first major hit, written for Ricky Skaggs, was "Highway 40 Blues," which became Skaggs' fifth consecutive number-one hit. Released in 1983, the song stayed on the charts for 12 weeks. It's become a standard “road song” for many country and bluegrass bands, as it celebrates the rigors of life on the road.
"Murder on Music Row" may be one of Cord's most popular and most controversial songs. It caused a stir in the music industry, because it decried many of the changes taking place in country music in an accusatory fashion, by mourning the loss of the country in country music.
First recorded by Cordle with his band Lonesome Standard Time in 1989, the song was named Song of the Year by IBMA in 2000. It is the longest running #1 hit on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts ever, spending eight months at the top. That same year, the song was covered by Alan Jackson and George Strait, who made a hit of it without strong support from radio or the industry. It's held up well as country music moved more into the realm of generic pop/rock, and has become a standard for neo-traditional bluegrass and country bands -- a protest song for returning to the heart of the music. "Murder on Music Row" was, ironically, recognized as the Country Music Association Song of the Year.
Cordle continues to speak out on social issues, often taking conservative political positions in his singing. His courage in doing so has made his music beloved to many who share his opinions. I've found that, while I often disagree with some -- or even much -- of what he has to say, Cordle's power as a lyricist and tunesmith is undeniable. Perhaps my objection to some of his work lies as much in my admiration for its power as in my disagreement with its content. He surely knows how to pull heartstrings while stimulating thought in his listeners, though -- a rare quality in any music writer. In live performance with the support of band members, many of whom have remained with him for years, he's particularly effective.
In "Hello, My Name is Coal," originally recorded by Kathy Mattea, Cordle and co-writer Janee Fleenor captured the dilemma that coal miners are caught by in coal states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Mine operators exploit workers who have lived for generations in coal country. Their only way of earning a living is to work in the coal mines, though the risk of black lung and accidents in the mines is ever-present. Here Fleenor, 2016 Country Music Road Musician of the Year, plays and sings this plaintive song along with Cord:
The rise of the singer-songwriter has given Cordle, along with two of his writing and singing buddies, a way to tour and sing together. Carl Jackson, a Grammy winning banjoist who was formerly a sideman for Glen Campbell, and Dove Award-winning gospel and country songwriter Jerry Salley tour with Cordle around the bluegrass festival circuit, playing also in small venues and arts centers. The trio present each others' songs and share reminiscences about their long careers.
Here they are singing one of Cord's best-known songs, "Black Diamond Strings," the inexpensive strings many young guitarists start with.
The range of Cordle's songwriting content, the depth of emotion he can evoke, and the thoughtfulness of his well-crafted lyrics combine to make his work desirable for recording and performance. Cordle's voice and presentation contain the soul he claims has been washed out of contemporary country and bluegrass music, while his writing presents the challenges and whimsicality of life. In story-songs, he captures everyday people and dangerous killers alike, giving all a real, human voice.
Changes in the recording industry, including a precipitous decline in the population of Nashville-based professional songwriters, will continue to make this trade a continual challenge. Fortunately, Larry Cordle is a gifted performer as well as a fine songwriter, the best interpreter of his own work. Try to see him as a venue near you.