It has come to my attention that most of you were NOT paying close attention to mainstream country music in the early 2000s (imagine that!). But I was, because it was part of my beat as a reporter at The Tennessean. And lots of strange and crazy things happened, like the surprise triumph of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the excommunication of the Dixie Chicks for political reasons. But nothing was quite as nuts as the parable of “Murder On Music Row.” If you don’t know the story, you should. If you already know it, it’s still pretty delicious to revisit it.
Larry Cordle, who will be among our distinguished guest artists this week, was and is one of the premiere songwriters in bluegrass and classic country music in Nashville. He’d hit the big time in the early 80s when Ricky Skaggs had a No 1 hit with his song “Highway 40 Blues,” and ever since, Cord was one of the go-to guys for timeless, bluesy, angsty material that could be sung high, lonesome and right. He was and remains also a superb band leader, as anyone who’s seen Lonesome Standard Time at the Station Inn or elsewhere over the years can attest.
So in 1999 Cordle and his songwriting buddy Larry Shell were venting about the namby pamby state of country music (not an uncommon topic of conversation for those guys I suspect), and somehow it turned into a song. “Murder On Music Row” became a sweet and savage indictment of a system that had grown indifferent to the traditions of country music but cat-nip crazy for sexy looks and electric guitars. “Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio/ Since they committed murder down on Music Row,” they wrote. And Cordle recorded the song and made it the title track of a wonderful album.
That might well have been it, but next thing you know, Alan Jackson, quiet rebel that he is, invited fellow mega-star George Strait to sing “Murder On Music Row” as a duet on the CMA Awards. Nervous, self-aware applause ensued. Then Jackson put the duet on an album and though it was never released as a single, some radio stations started playing it enough that it reached the #30s on the country chart. Then it went on to win CMA Awards for Vocal Event and Song of the Year. Which goes to show you that the CMA membership might have been looking for a way to send a signal to the relative minority who actually had influence over the records made and records spun on the air. A quiet coup it was, and it was rather fun to watch.
So that’s my long way of introducing you to Cordle, a folk hero if you ask me, besides being a spectacular singer and artist. I’m extremely excited that he’ll be holding down tradition on an exciting, eclectic night. Larry will be joined by our pal Randy Kohrs, dobro master and killer artist/producer. Then we’ll hear from emerging artist Idoine, a gal whose music is knocking out Nashville music writers. The Farewell Drifters are a young progressive bluegrass/acoustic band with a striking vision and a brand new album of material. We’ll get a dance-friendly set from Cajun legend Jo-El Sonnier, the master of accordion and that funky Louisiana sound. Then a different kind of reed instrument with the harmonica mastery of Buddy Greene and friends. This really will be a special lineup. We’ll show Music Row a thing or two.