He Done It

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

Cordle has made his share of bucks as a Nashville songwriter. Since arriving in Nashville about eight years ago, he's placed tunes with Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn and Mr. Nashville himself, Garth Brooks, to name a few. He's also released his own recordings and, all told, estimates he's been on about 45 million pressed records. In his early-'90s Garth days, he says, he made "obscene" amounts of money and has been living off those royalties since then.

Along the way, he's come to face-to face with country's various killers. Cordle's list of Nash-villains includes Music City's money-minded corporate culture, full of business types with no appreciation for country music who defer to buck-passing when it comes to decisions on songs and style. Skyrocketing production costs are another enemy, he says, that amp up the need for hits and mean less risk-taking. Some artists are also at fault, in that they are too willing to dilute their craft and credibility (often under great pressure from labels) in pursuit of the million-selling home run. And for the songwriter looking to pitch songs these days, getting them before an artist is virtually impossible.

"Now," Cordle says, "you've got to play it for the A&R person, they gotta like it, they gotta play it for the label head, he's got to play it for the promotion department and the rest of the staff. Then they get the artist in to see if they like it." His own experiences with A&R men have been disturbing. "They're listening to my song reading a magazine," he says, his soft-spoken voice rising with disgust. "And then they fast-forward it before it gets to the end of the first chorus. At the end of that they tell you, 'Yeah, it's a great song. But it's too country.'"

Murder, he wrote: Larry Cordle has given new life -- and hope -- to the idea that Nashville should return to its roots.
Murder, he wrote: Larry Cordle has given new life -- and hope -- to the idea that Nashville should return to its roots.

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Read about some other anti-Nashville songs.
 

"Murder," however, did reach Strait, through a manager who heard Cordle's version on the radio. According to Cordle and those familiar with the song's history, the executive allegedly played the song for Strait as a joke. The singer didn't find it funny and decided to record and add it to his Latest Greatest Straitest Hits collection at the last minute; Jackson soon signed on to join him on the cut.

Granted, for some country purists and alt-country fans, the "Crazy 'bout a Ford Truck" Jackson and the occasionally sappy Strait are not the proper team for prosecuting country's assassins. "It's insulting that these two men covered this song," says Mike Wall, whose Country Classics show airs on WFOS/FM 88.7 in Chesapeake, Virginia. "These men are the perpetrators of the very crime they're singing about. In espionage circles, they call this a double-cross." But Randy Harrell, president of Shellpoint Records (which released Cordle's CD) thinks the two were the very men for the job. "They're all we've got right now for mainstream country," he says. Cordle agrees. "It was stunning that they recorded it," he says. (Jackson does deserve points for his defiant, if abbreviated, rendering of George Jones's "Choices" at last year's CMA ceremony; the performance was a protest of the show's refusal to let Jones play the song himself in its entirety.)

The song's nomination to this year's CMA awards has once again put the debate over country music's content in the faces of Nashville's players and its audience. As usual, there are dissenting views. Some, like Lon Helton, feel the sentiments of "Murder" aren't shared by many in the country audience. He considers the song a "novelty" that doesn't reflect the majority of country listeners. "I see a lot of research," he says, "and the listeners are not clamoring for those old artists or that old sound. It all goes back to the question of 'What is country music?' And it's whatever country fans think it is. It grows and changes." Others, like Stubbs, see the song's popularity as an indication of fans' desire for change. When Strait came to Nashville recently, he saw ample proof of that argument.

"Alan Jackson walked out on stage and sang ['Murder on Music Row'] with [Strait], and 54,000 people gave them a standing ovation. In Nashville. What does this tell you?"

Stubbs says the real beef for him and his peers is not whether pop country should exist, but why it does so to the exclusion of country's authentic forms. "This is not just about old music," he notes. "It's about substance, whether it's old or new. This song is about substance and the need for more of it. There should be room for it all -- that's what it's about." (Stubbs's revered roots-country show on WSM can be heard each weeknight at wsmonline.com. He also hosts a classic-country show each Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern time, at wamu.org.)

"It ain't Mutt Lang's fault," Cordle says, referring to Shania Twain's producer and husband, "that the format decided to play all these records that sound like Def Leppard. He could've competed in another arena; he just took the one open to him. Hey, man, he's smart to me. The problem I have with all those kinds of records is, why ain't they competing with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion? Because these are pop records, not country records. This town acts like they're embarrassed by what brought them to the dance. They respect their elders here by mouth, but they don't mean it. Hell, we got guys over here that can still tote the mail, that sold a lot of records, that still ain't in the Hall of Fame."

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