When musician and poet Leonard Cohen died last year, there was little mention made of the time he spent in Tennessee. But the songwriter lived for nearly two years in a remote cabin outside of Nashville in the late '60s and early '70s, where he worked on songs like "Bird on the Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat."
Those who did mention of Cohen’s Tennessee period always brought up the cabin, which was located near Leiper's Fork.
At the address listed in Leonard Cohen’s biography, I’m Your Man, there’s just an empty field now across the street from a creek. Even today, the spot is remote.
That was the point, says Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons. She refers to it as one of his “monk cells.” The singer even laid out his preference for sparseness and solitude in a song recorded in Nashville for his 1969 album Songs From A Room. In “Tonight Will Be Fine,” Cohen sings: “I choose the rooms that I live in with care/ The windows are small, and the walls almost bare.”
A Moonshiner And A Rodeo Star For Company
Nashville guitarist Ron Cornelius, author of The Guitar Behind Dylan & Cohen, says the first time he ever met Cohen was at the cabin. The artist greeted him at the door "buck naked." Cornelius recalls drinking on the front porch with Cohen and his neighbors, an old moonshiner named Willie York and a rodeo star named Kid Marley.
“Unless drunk Willie came rolling in or Kid Marley rode up on that horse of his, you wouldn’t see anybody,” Cornelius remembers. “You’d go out there and stay a week, 10 days, and you may never see anybody.”
It was isolated enough that Cornelius tried to "grow some weed" along the creek bed when he was housesitting for the singer, he says. He notes that not many people saw Cohen in Nashville at the time, because the songwriter was usually holed up in the cabin working on his music.
"Being out in the woods like that," Cornelius says, "you could tell that Leonard was completely out of sorts — but loving every minute of it.”
Before the Canadian born-Cohen moved down to the backwoods of Tennessee, he was struggling with whether to continue his career as a songwriter. In 1969, the artist was disillusioned after a painful process making his first album.
But Bob Johnston, one of the most important producers of the time, convinced him to keep making music.
Sylvie Simmons says Johnston cornered Cohen at a party in Los Angeles. Cohen claimed he didn’t want to do a second album, she says, but Johnston urged the artist to persevere.
"He said, 'Come out to Nashville,' and that was the magic word, because that's where Leonard really wanted to go," Simmons says. "When he came to the U.S. in the first place thinking about getting into a music career, it wasn't about being a singer-songwriter. It was to be a songwriter, and specifically a country songwriter.”
While the two records he made in Music City aren’t really considered “country,” his band certainly was. Johnston had gathered a group of session players led by Cornelius and including a then unknown Charlie Daniels. You can hear their influence show up on songs like the live version of “Tonight Will Be Fine” found on the Isle of Wight album from 1970.
That band, which Cohen called "the Army," would back him on the Nashville studio albums and his first-ever world tour. He even gives them a shout-out in the lyrics to the song “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes.”
Beyond that, his songs have very few references to Tennessee, and he rarely mentioned the place in interviews.
But there was one lyric with direct reference to the cabin, the creek and even Willie York that never made it onto an album: It’s "Chelsea Hotel," in its original form. The most widely available version was captured live in Tel Aviv during a tour in 1972.
Those lyrics, including the line “Willie York from the Big East Fork/ He came there to talk with me,” were scrubbed from what would become "Chelsea Hotel No. 2." Cornelius claims that was because he co-wrote the song with Cohen and the artist’s manager didn’t want to share royalties.
Cornelius tells the story of the pair working on the song sitting in the back of a plane on a flight from Nashville to Shannon, Ireland. "We were back where the stewardesses all are, and I had a guitar, and me and Leonard sat back there and worked on that song for eight hours straight."
Cornelius says he doesn’t blame Cohen for the omission, and later in life, the singer eventually gave him official credit for the song.
'Turn The Page'
In 1973, Cohen left Tennessee for the last time, handing the keys to the cabin back to producer Bob Johnston. Looking back, Simmons says Cohen’s time in the state was crucial in his development as an artist.
"I don't know if it was necessarily a time in which Leonard found himself," she says. "It was more like where he got lost, which sometimes is a good enough place to be in the music business.”
Simmons and Cornelius agree that the main reason Nashville, or Leiper's Fork, or anything about Tennessee was rarely ever mentioned by Cohen, is that he didn’t like looking back.
“I never felt like he had any regrets or bad feelings about anything to do with Nashville, Tennessee,” Cornelius says. “I think it was more just, ‘Turn the page.’ ”
Songs used in the story in order of appearance:
- “Bird On The Wire” (this song has been covered by others who re-titled it “Bird on A Wire”), from the album Songs From A Room, recorded in Nashville, 1969
- “Famous Blue Raincoat” from the album Songs Of Love And Hate, recorded in Nashville, New York and London, 1970
- “You Know Who I Am (Live)” from the album Live Songs, issued in 1973. Original version appeared on Songs From A Room
- “Tonight Will Be Fine (Live)” from the album Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight, 1970
- “Chelsea Hotel No. 1” from a live video recorded in Tel Aviv in 1972
- “A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes” from the album Songs From A Room
Thanks to the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum, especially Michael Gray, for providing source material.