As if mother universe hasn’t had a dandy old time over the last few days running all of us stuck on the mortal coil through the mother of all emotional gauntlets, now we’re being asked to field the devastating news that Canadian songwriter, performer, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away this Thursday (11-10) at the age of 82. Incredibly revered by a beloved crowd of creative types ranging all across the musical and literary world, Cohen was irreplaceably influential on so many songwriters specifically in the way he could weave verse on subjects and emotions so many of us otherwise find too esoteric to communicate.
Though Leonard Cohen is rarely identified with country (he was mostly considered a folk artist), you will be hard pressed to find a country music songwriter worth their salt who wasn’t touched by Cohen’s influence in some way, if not overtly challenged by the bar he set for all in the songwriting craft in country music and beyond. But a little known fact about Cohen is that he could have been, and maybe should have been, a country music songwriter and performer.
Cohen’s very first musical experience was in a country band called The Buckskin Boys while attending high school in Quebec. It was during this time that he switched from playing regular style acoustic guitar to a more classical, Flamenco style. In 1966 when Leonard Cohen set out to become a professional composer, his plan was to move to Nashville and become a country music songwriter. But somewhere on that path he got sidetracked, and instead fell in with the folk scene in New York. If this seemingly simple decision had gone the other way, it could have significantly changed this history of country, and folk from the incredible impact Cohen could have left on the country space.
But Cohen would make it down to Nashville eventually to record his second record, 1969’s Songs from a Room. Even though Cohen’s debut is incredibly lauded and considered by many to contain his most timeless tracks, there was also ample criticism of the record for being too produced. So Cohen’s plan was to leave New York and trust his fate to Nashville.
Initially, David Crosby was supposed to produce Songs from a Room, but when that didn’t come to fruition, Cohen decided to go with well-known Nashville producer Bob Johnston, known for working with Johnny Cash, and producing Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Well-known session guitarist Ron Cornelius worked on the record, as did Charlie Daniels playing fiddle, bass, and acoustic guitar.
Leonard Cohen also recorded his third record in Nashville, Songs of Love and Hate in Columbia Studio A, yet by this time Cohen’s sound and slot was decidedly in the folk realm. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find plenty of country and country-influenced material throughout his catalog, including covering “Tennessee Waltz” on his 2004 record Dear Heather. So many Cohen songs were simply an interpretation and steel guitar away from being country, but that hasn’t kept many informed and open-minded country fans from enjoying them.
Of all the musical legends that have passed away in 2016, there are some that are better-known throughout the culture than Leonard Cohen. But few were as influential on their peers. And if it wasn’t for a some decisions early in his career, Cohen’s path could have been a country one.
RIP Leonard Cohen.