Near the turn of the millennium, Larry Cordle penned perhaps his best known song, a tune called “Murder on Music Row” that decried the passing of a country music legacy to a generation of pop-savvy protégés.
Two of the industry’s most recognized traditionalists, George Strait and Alan Jackson cut the composition, winning the Country Music Association’s Vocal Event of the Year award in 2000. Cordle took CMA honors for Song of the Year in 2001. The point was made. A Kentucky native who embraced bluegrass and country tradition through his Lawrence County upbringing was waging a battle for the survival of a sound he feared was dying out.
Fast forward to today and Cordle, who will make his first appearance at the Festival of the Bluegrass in more than 15 years on Friday evening, has faced a very different and far more personal struggle for survival. In May of 2016, the singer and songwriter revealed online he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Despite subsequent chemotherapy treatments, he completed and released a gospel album titled “Give Me Jesus” that earned a Grammy nomination (he lost to Reba McEntire, but remains “amazed” by the recognition) and has another new recording due out this month inspired by his home state heritage: “Tales From East Kentucky.” With his leukemia now in remission, Cordle has also discovered a new vigor and purpose in making music.
“It makes what’s left of life really important,” Cordle said. “I have all these things I want to do. I’m probably going to die trying to do them, but I have a greater sense of urgency for life than I think I ever have. I want to make more music. I’ve made a lot of it in my life, but I want to make more than I ever have.
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“I’m very fortunate that I came along when we had all the first generation bluegrass guys. We had all the great traditional country guys. We had all that great old blues music that I love so dearly. So I have the urgency to try to write more songs and just live life, play these shows and visit with people. It’s such a joy for me. I don’t think I ever took any of this for granted, but I can assure you if I ever did, I won’t anymore.”
Though he has lived in Hendersonville, Tennessee for many years, Cordle’s ties to Eastern Kentucky remain strong. He was born in the same holler (then known as Brushy Creek) between Louisa and Paintsville as his lifelong friend Ricky Skaggs. Although Cordle’s career has taken him from a litany of original songs that have been recorded through the years by Garth Brooks, the Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn and many others to a parallel series of bluegrass projects with his band Lonesome Standard Time, he remains faithful to his Lawrence County roots.
“I lost my uncle in January,” Cordle says. “He was 96 years old and a World War II veteran. He had a brilliant mind to the end and was a true inspiration for me because he was the storyteller for my dad’s side of the family. I love talking to people older than me. I especially love talking to people from Appalachia. The hardships that they have faced in their lives and the things they have done… I mean, I’m sure other parts of the country are the same way. But I’m an Appalachian kid, you know? They were born in an area where people knew everybody’s lives depended on each other. It gave me the backbone for what I had to face in Nashville. Another Appalachian kid came before me, though. Ricky Skaggs was the one who kicked the door down for me. All I had to do was work hard enough to stay good.
“I’ll write songs about every little thing, but there’s this thread that still runs through my songs. I still come home a lot. I go to church there. I draw a lot of inspiration from there. I always have.”
With his leukemia now at bay and a long awaited return to the Festival of the Bluegrass at hand, Cordle is simply thankful for life. He readily admits many others have faced health issues far worse than his. In fact, it was the courage he saw in patients facing more advanced cancer conditions that gave him the strength to face his own fight.
“When you have any kind of cancer, it may not be the end of your life, but you realize there’s a line out there,” he said. “We always know our mortality is in question. It is. It is every single day of our lives, no matter who you are. As a cancer patient, you keep hearing, ‘Take it a day at a time.’ And that’s really what you have to do. Between doctor visits, you don’t know how the numbers affect what you will have to do. Let me tell you something else. When I was going through chemo, I saw people ... I mean, if you want to talk about heroes, these were people barely able to get in there for treatments but were still holding on to life. I drew tremendous strength from that.
“I was, really, in pretty good shape. I didn’t lose my hair. I didn’t lose 40 pounds. None of that stuff happened to me. My chemo just made my leukemia go into remission. Some of these people were doing this stuff three or four times a week. Horrible stuff. It made them sicker than the disease. You get a strength from watching that you don’t know you had. It’s really a slap to the face.
“I survived it, I’m still here and I’m going to make music for as long as I possibly can.”
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
What: Four-day bluegrass festival
Thurs.: 6:30 p.m. Kids Camp, 7:15 p.m. Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, 9 p.m. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, 10:45 p.m. Flatt Lonesome
Fri.: 2 p.m. True Life Travelers, 3:45 p.m. Hammertowne, 5:30 p.m. Darin and Brooke Aldridge, 7:15 p.m. Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, 9 p.m. The Cleverlys, 10:45 p.m. The Wooks
Sat.: 2 p.m. Moron Brothers, 3:45 p.m. Sideline, 5:30 p.m. Larry Sparks, 7:15 p.m. Seldom Scene, 9 p.m. Hogslop String Band, 10:45 p.m. Town Mountain
Sun.: 9 a.m. True Life Travelers, 10 a.m Sideline, 11 a.m. Dry Branch Fire Squad
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pike
Tickets: $100 four days ($120 at the gate), $20 Thurs. only, $50 Fri. only, $55 Sat. only, $10 Sun. only.Primative camping $115 ($135 at the gate).