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Leonard Cohen's country connections

Cathy Irving

Without doubt, Leonard Cohen is one of Canada’s greatest singer-songwriters. He has a natural understanding of rhythm, an appreciation for the sly innuendo of cabaret, a love of the harmonization of female R&B backing vocals and a fondness for the simplicity of country.

Yes, country.

While it may be a genre few associate with the Montreal crooner, there are more than a few connections between Cohen and country music.

And while growing up in the Montreal enclave of Westmount, Cohen would spend late nights in his room, listening to WWVA, a country radio station from Wheeling, West Virginia. Through his radio, he absorbed his early musical influences: Merle HaggardHank Snow,Roy AcuffRay Charles and Hank Williams Sr. Listen closely, and you can hear elements of Williams’ style in Cohen’s songs. The two shared the ability to write ballads of profound heartbreak. Using a catch in the throat to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of the song’s character, they both conveyed emotion. In Tower of Song, Leonard Cohen ranks Hank Williams Sr. “a hundred floors above me.” Such is the respect that Cohen has for Williams’ work.

Ray Charles was another artist that Cohen listened to over and over. His influence can be heard in Leonard Cohen’s recording of “So Long, Marianne,” particularly with its use in the chorus, of a girl group-style backing vocal, not unlike Charles’ own backing singers — the Raelets.

Leonard Cohen learned to play guitar as a teenager. It was at McGill University that he formed his first band, The Buckskin Boys, which featured Cohen on guitar, Mike Doddman on harmonica and Terry Davis playing bucket bass. The group took their name from the fact that they all owned buckskin jackets — Leonard having inherited his from his father (who passed away when Leonard was 9 years old). The Buckskin Boys played in church basements and high school auditoriums, performing songs like “Turkey In the Straw” for square dancers.

It was country’s simplicity, and sincerity of thought, that attracted Leonard Cohen to the genre.

At the end of the 60s, Cohen took up residence in the Nashville area, on a 1,500-acre farm he rented from Country Music Hall of Famer,Boudleaux Bryant, for $75 a month. While in Nashville, Cohen metCharlie Daniels, who was doing session work at the time. The meeting would eventually lead to collaboration, as Daniels played bass on Cohen’s Songs From A Room (1969) and Songs Of Love And Hate (1970) discs.

“He spoke in poetic ways and was able to communicate with people who had never lived in that world, like myself, and had never been exposed to that side of things,” Daniels told The London Free Pressin 2010. “It was a very pleasant experience for me.”

In a 1988 interview for CBC Radio, Cohen discussed how, in country music, there was a tradition of self-revelation and that deeper and more complex subjects were explored. He said in country music “often the singers are older, they stay around a longer time and you know they can treat in a kind of serious way — their lives, their marriages, their work”. It is this sense of experience with life that attracts many of Cohen’s own listeners to his work.

And as much as Cohen gained from country music, he’s given back, lending his songs to be covered by many of country’s top vocalists.

Here are a few of our favourites: 

“Bird On a Wire” by Johnny Cash

“Ballad of a Runaway Horse” by Emmylou Harris

“Sisters Of Mercy” by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

It’s clear that Cohen’s love of country runs deep, so much so that when asked by Q magazine (in September 1994) what music he wanted played at his funeral, the baritone replied that he would choose “The Grand Tour” by George Jones. Considering the lyrics include the phrase “I have nothing here to sell you, just some things that I will tell you” — it’s no wonder that the song has an attraction to Cohen. That phrase is a fitting epitaph for the man.