The name Larry Cordle is synonymous with great songwriting. He’s had numerous popular cuts in both bluegrass and country music, and is perhaps best known for the country hits he’s penned, like Highway 40 Blues and Murder on Music Row. Like many in the bluegrass world, however, Cordle’s talent stretches far beyond just songwriting. He’s long been one of my favorite singers, with a soulful, yet plainspoken, mountain voice and a knack for telling a fine story in a song. He’s recently released his latest solo project, Where the Trees Know My Name, on his own Mighty Cord Records. It’s a strong mixture of originals and covers that has already scored several hits on the Bluegrass Today charts.
One of the album’s highlights is a cover of Cherokee Fiddle, written by Michael Martin Murphey, most popularly recorded by country artist Johnny Lee, and included in the 1980s film Urban Cowboy. As is to be expected, the fiddling is top-notch, and Cordle’s vocals capture the melancholy hints in the lyrics. I’ll probably have this one on repeat for quite a while. Another country cover is Harlan Howard’s Pick Me Up on Your Way Down, given a fine grassy treatment with a bit of bounce. Cordle’s arrangement retains some of the original’s 1950’s honky-tonk sound, but it’s definitely bluegrass – one of those nice bouncy, upbeat, sad songs that we love so much in country and bluegrass music.
Some of Cordle’s best songs are slice-of-life pieces set in his native eastern Kentucky that perfectly capture small-town life in the mountains. Breakin’ on the Jimmy Ridge is no different. Penned by Cordle and Larry Shell, it’s the tale of a country “weatherman” who could predict the weather much better than all the educated TV folks: “He knew it meant wet weather when he heard the tree frogs sing, and what it meant when the southern moon had a golden ring.” It’s cleverly written and just fun to listen to. Both it and Sailor’s Regret hit #1 on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart last year. The latter song, written by Johnny Williams, is a little darker, with a good driving rhythm. It shares the story of a country boy who has set off to sea, and is now afraid of dying before he’s able to make it home.
Another excellent track is The Devil and Shade Wallen, which is also a Cordle/Shell co-write. Line by line, it describes a haunting deathbed scene – a young boy and his mother called to sit with the dying man’s wife, a midnight confrontation with hell, and vivid images that bring to life the eerie winter night. Cordle is a master of setting scenes and spinning tales, and this is among his best work. The Cowboy and the Last Red Man, from Jim Rushing and Leslie Satcher, is also packed with the kind of specific details that bring the song to life in the listener’s mind, though its setting is not the hollers of Kentucky, but a fading vision of the West where an old cowboy and an aged Native American reminisce about the old days at the town diner.
Weariness infuses the lyrics and melody of The Farmer, but there’s a glimpse of hope, as well. “A never-ending old routine, watch the sky and pray for rain,” Cordle sings, “but he has faith and don’t complain.” Where the Trees Know My Name also speaks of a special connection to the land, with Cordle thinking back to his childhood, when life was lived outdoors from dawn til dusk. It’s a lonesome number, with evocative dobro and fiddle as Cordle pleads, “don’t make me wait until I die, carry me back… to a place where the trees know my name.”
If you’ve enjoyed Cordle’s previous recordings, especially some of his more recent efforts like Tales from East Kentucky and Pud Marcum’s Hangin’, you should quickly add this album to your to-buy list. Though the music is top-shelf, with names like Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Scott Vestal, and Cody Kilby dotting the track list, the star here is Cordle’s ability to tell a story – both through his voice and the lyrics he writes and selects. Maybe we’ll get to hear these new tracks at some live shows this summer?
For more information on Cordle, visit his website. His new album is available from several online music retailers.