- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. The first time George Strait heard the song "Murder on Music Row," he wasn't supposed to take it seriously. MCA Records head Tony Brown played it for the star as an amusing curiosity.

Mr. Strait took it seriously. He recorded the song, which is about Nashville losing touch with its musical roots, as a duet with Alan Jackson and put it on a hits album. It climbed the country charts to No. 37 with no promotion or even an official release as a single.

Now the country music industry the very industry the song criticizes has given "Murder on Music Row" two nominations for its prestigious Country Music Association Awards.

"It's the kind of tune that makes an impact," Mr. Brown says. "It was a cool event, and we had no idea that people would think it was industry-bashing."

But songwriters Larry Cordle and Larry Shell say their message was clear. Sitting in Mr. Shell's office a block from Music Row, the duo shout with evangelical fever.

"We want our country music back, man," Mr. Shell says. "There always comes a time in your life when you have to stand up for something or not be counted. We want to be counted that we are trying to stand up for country music with this song."

The pair believe such artists as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Lonestar have threatened traditional country music with crossover hits that are pulling Nashville away from some of its musical and lyrical traditions.

Instead of recording divorce and drinking songs with steel guitars and fiddles, many Nashville artists are striving to reach younger listeners with pop songs about first love.

From "Murder on Music Row": The almighty dollar, and the lust for worldwide fame

Slowly killed tradition and for that someone should hang

Oh they all say not guilty but the evidence will show

That murder's been committed down on Music Row.

The version by Mr. Strait and Mr. Jackson is nominated by the CMA for best vocal collaboration, and Mr. Cordle and Mr. Shell are nominated for best song. The winners will be announced Oct. 4 at the Grand Ole Opry House. CBS will broadcast the show live.

"It should be song of the year; there's no doubt about that," says Ricky Skaggs, a traditional artist who has abandoned mainstream country and gone back to bluegrass. "I just think it's almost like a mirror that Nashville ought to hold up and look at itself. That is exactly what's happened."

Mr. Shell and Mr. Cordle credit the nominations to CMA's secret balloting process.

"No one knows you're voting for the song," Mr. Shell says. "So consequently, you can't be chastised for your vote."

The songwriters acknowledge that the situation isn't quite as dire as the song indicates.

Traditional artists Brad Paisley and Lee Ann Womack are having success, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Strait soldier on, and the Dixie Chicks have brought banjo back to mainstream country.

Mr. Shell came up with the title "Murder on Music Row" and took the idea to Mr. Cordle. They finished the song together.

"I thought it'd make a great album title," Mr. Cordle says.

It became the title track of the latest bluegrass album by Mr. Cordle and Lonesome Standard, complete with album-cover art showing a steel guitar being loaded into a hearse.

"The main thing [Nashville producers] want from songs today is 'I love you and you love me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and everything's wonderful all the time,' " Mr. Cordle says. "That just ain't life."

Mr. Shell says good country music digs much deeper.

"No matter how high-tech we get, people still are getting divorced somewhere today. Somebody just lost a loved one that they're grieving over. Somebody just lost his job down at the factory.

"Some ol' boys laid out drunk all night, and some ol' boy went out last night with another woman, not his wife.

"So the thing is, that hasn't changed, and it's not going to. It hasn't changed since the beginning of time. I can still write about it, and guess what? There's a guy or woman out there that can relate to it, if I write it."

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