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He Done It

His song dares to challenge the Nashville money machine. Somehow, though, songwriter Larry Cordle has gotten away with Murder.

Each year, the annual Country Music Association awards broadcast holds a few surprises, little drama and zero controversy. Unlike the Grammys or the Academy Awards, where viewers can expect at least a little bit of from-the-podium pontificating on current events or artistic issues, the CMA's are typically safe, self-congratulatory shmoozefests for the Wal-Mart crowd. This year, however, the marathon just might be worth tuning in to. Thanks to Larry Cordle's song, "Murder on Music Row," the 2000 CMA show (set to air Wednesday, October 4) will buzz with a tension that's rare in the land of shlock and faux graciousness. Because Cordle's tune -- a scathing swing at all that's wrong with mainstream country -- has been nominated for CMA Song of the Year. A cover of the song by George Strait and Alan Jackson has also been nominated for Vocal Event of the Year. Considering the song's message, this acclaim is about as unlikely as Ken Starr being invited to Hillary Clinton's Senate victory party.

The tune's elevation to CMA-nominee status -- a development fueled by Strait and Jackson's cover, a few gutsy DJs and countless listener requests -- has hammered a wedge between Music City's major labels and a portion of its audience. The song continues to gain ground months after its release, too. Cordle's full-length CD, Murder on Music Row, has been the top-selling bluegrass record in the country for months. Strait and Jackson's cover of "Murder" recently peaked at number 38 on the Billboard singles charts, making it the highest-charting country album cut in years -- despite MCA's (Strait's label) refusal to promote the song. According to Lon Helton, the country-music editor of trade magazine Radio & Record, the fact that two of country music's heavies are playing Cordle's number has stunned many. "Why would you go on TV," he says they've wondered, "and say, 'Hey, everybody, our product sucks'? There's a wide range of feelings around town about the song itself."

"This song has really created a stir," says Eddie Stubbs, one of the first Nashville DJs to play the song on his shows for WSM/650 AM, the host station for the Grand Ole Opry. "It puts into words what a lot of people around here have felt for a long time." One year since its release, Stubbs says the song remains his most requested tune of his evening show, one he plays every night. "It was an honor to play it when if first came out," says Stubbs, whose playing of "Murder" violated a station-issued mandate that he play no new music on his program, "and it's still an honor to play it. Because it makes a statement."

"Murder" does so in eloquent fashion. Over a stately, old-fashioned country tune highlighted by fiddle, dobro and his own honeyed drawl, Cordle expresses the ache of every fan who yearns for the emotion and reality of yesterday's country music. "Someone killed country music," he sings patiently, "cut out its heart and soul/They got away with murder down on music row." Unlike many of the songs that fit the Nash-bashing genre (see sidebar), Cordle's tune -- which he co-wrote with partner Larry Shell -- makes the point with care and concern instead of pissed-off venom. Not that he pulls any punches, however. "The almighty dollar and the lust for worldwide fame/Slowly killed tradition/And for that someone should hang," Cordle sings before pointing out that "the steel guitar no longer cries/And fiddles barely play/But drums and rock-and-roll guitars/Are mixed up in your face." Before the tune ends, Cordle delivers his ironic point: "Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance on today's radio/Since they committed murder down on music row." The song is an astounding piece of succinct, heartfelt protest that connects on every level. If Song of the Year awards are doled out for genuine emotion, songsmithing craft and accurate reporting, "Murder" deserves the trophy.

According to Cordle, the tune almost didn't happen. Last summer Shell came up with the title, and the two men fleshed out the song in a few days. At the time, Cordle was in the last stages of recording his current platter (on Shellpoint Records) and decided to record the track after it received huge responses during a couple of his solo performances. When he debuted the song at Nashville's famed Bluebird Cafe, he recalls, "it was like a bomb went off in the place by the time I reached the hook. And those folks don't get excited about much there, because they've heard the best." When mixing his CD, Cordle still wasn't sure about placing the country tune on his bluegrass-flavored record. He eventually did. "I guessed that bluegrass fans would be traditional country fans," he says, "and I guessed correctly. But I had no idea it would strike such a big chord with so many people."

Why has it hit home for many country fans?

"People feel like Nashville has let them down and they have no voice," Cordle says. "Now they feel like we gave them a voice. And if I gotta speak for somebody, that's the folks I'd want to speak for, because I feel the same way. You know, selling a whole bunch of units is great. But I don't feel like you should try and totally wipe out a genre of music simply for bucks."

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