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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."

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," 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."

All of which doesn't bode well for "Murder" to win come October 4. "I can't imagine it winning," Cordle says, "but there again, I couldn't imagine it being nominated. Larry and I are both a little shocked. But whether it wins or not, we feel like we've won a victory of some sorts.

"I've been told," Corlde adds conspiratorially, "that MCA had a guy actively calling radio stations and asking them not to play the song."

Of course, the bigger victory Cordle's tune could achieve is to actually spark a change in the practices of Nashville's record execs. Cordle's not expecting that to happen, since it would require "admitting they're wrong. And this town is all about power. It's not about anything else, my friend."

Which means the joy of penning a tune that attempted to shift that power will be tempered by a dose of reality. "I talked to one of my old partners last week -- he's a session player in town," Cordle says. "I asked was he playing on some country records. He said, 'Cord, I'd like to tell you that I am. But the fact is, it's the same tune all day long -- it's just in a different key with a different singer.'

"My daughter is nine years old," he continues, "and she's been around all of this stuff. She sees these guys and girls on CMT and she says, 'Daddy, they're not country, are they?' And I tell her, 'No, not really.' And then she asks, 'Well why is it on CMT?' And all I can says is, 'That's a question I can't answer for you. You'll figure it out as you get older.'"

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