Nashville Remembers Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

Legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has been the subject of many eulogies since his passing last week, but few of them have focused on his ties to Nashville.

Cohen was a definitive Americana artist, even before that Nashville-headquartered genre had a name. In addition, he was a former Nashville resident, recorded three of his most influential albums for Music Row and had many of his songs recorded by country and Americana artists.

Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Daniels both recorded and toured with Leonard Cohen. During his days as a session musician, Daniels appeared on Cohen’s Songs From a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and Live Songs (1973) LPs. These records contain the first versions of such Cohen classics as “Bird on a Wire,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.”

Leonard Cohen, “spoke in poetic ways and was able to communicate with people who had never lived in that world, like myself,” Daniels told The London Free Press.

“When I think of Leonard’s music, I think of it as very, very fragile. I’d never been around that kind of music before….

Everything that you did had to be something that was unique and complemented this very unique, fragile music that Leonard was doing.”

Charlie Daniels was an unsophisticated fellow from North Carolina whose instrumental skills led producer Bob Johnston to hire him in Nashville. As a result, Daniels played on sessions by Marty Robbins, Bob Dylan, Flatt & Scruggs, Al Kooper and Cohen, among others.

Daniels also toured with the acclaimed song poet, playing fiddle on Cohen’s live shows in 1970-72. When he went on the road with the iconic artist, Daniels was shocked to find audiences who didn’t behave the same way as those in the South’s honky-tonks.

“I’d never been around playing concerts for crowds that were that quiet. You could hear, maybe not a pin [drop], but a 10-penny nail roll across the balcony….I saw another whole side of music that I had never seen.”

Daniels has also said he believed it was a natural thing that Leonard Cohen turned up in Music City: “It is no surprise that Cohen found his way to Nashville to record some of his early, groundbreaking music.”

That might be because of Leonard Cohen’s background. He was a native of Montreal who began writing poetry and playing folk guitar at an early age. In 1954, he was a member of the Canadian amateur country group The Buckskin Boys.

Cohen published poetry collections and novels prior to his music career. He gave poetry readings in the U.S. while living in Greece during the early 1960s. He then moved to Nashville.

By 1966, he was writing songs. Judy Collins recorded “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” which led to Cohen being signed as an artist by Columbia Records. His second, third and fourth albums were the ones produced by Johnston in Music City.

Nashville’s country artists picked up on his songs almost at once. They continued to record his works for decades to come.

Among those who have recorded Leonard Cohen’s works are Johnny Cash (“Bird on a Wire”), George Hamilton IV (“Sisters of Mercy”), Emmylou Harris (“Ballad of a Runaway Horse”), Flatt & Scruggs (“Tonight Will Be Fine”), Willie Nelson (“Bird on a Wire”), Trisha Yearwood (“Coming Back to You”), Anne Murray (“Song of Bernadette”) and Skip Ewing (“I’m Your Man”).

Singer Jennifer Warnes was a longtime collaborator with Leonard Cohen. She recorded an entire album of his songs and made the country charts with her version of his “Ain’t No Cure for Love” in 1987.

Perhaps the songwriter’s best-known composition is “Hallelujah.” After the late Jeff Buckley popularized it in 1995, it was recorded by more than 300 artists, including k.d. lang. In 2010, it became a major hit for Tennesseans Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris.

Cohen made inroads into the Americana community as soon as it began to coalesce in the 1990s. Such cornerstone artists of the genre as Lucinda Williams (“Famous Blue Raincoat”), The Civil Wars (“Dance Me to the End of Love”) and Darrell Scott (“Joan of Arc”) recorded his songs.

Other Americana and folk stars who popularized Leonard Cohen songs include Dave Van Ronk (“Bird on a Wire”), Rufus Wainwright (“Hallelujah”), The Brothers Four (“Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”), Don Henley (“Everybody Knows”), Noel Harrison (“So Long Marianne”), Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Bird on a Wire”), Joan Baez (“Suzanne”), Harpeth Rising (“Dance Me to the End of Love”), Jennifer Warnes (“First We Take Manhattan”), Tim Hardin (“Bird on a Wire”) and James Taylor (“Suzanne”).

In 1999, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris recorded Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” on their duo CD Western Wall: The Tuscon Sessions.

Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

He issued You Want It Darker as his latest CD in October. Leonard Cohen passed away in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, but his death was not announced until last Thursday night. He was 82 years old.


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About the Author

Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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