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Gretchen Peters Remembers Leonard Cohen

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Craig Havighurst)  --  The death of Leonard Cohen last week affected fans all over the world, but it has special resonance in Nashville, a city shaped by its songs and songwriters. Gretchen Peters has held Cohen up as her chief influence her entire life.

“There are so many reasons why he’s the most important songwriter in the world to me. He gave me reach and vision and the idea that I could write about anything and that I should work very hard to make every word cut,” Peters said.

Peters is a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame who’s been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Etta James and dozens of others. Martina McBride elevated her song “Independence Day” into a CMA Song of the year in 1995. And that distinguished career began with Leonard Cohen.

“His songs have been with me and he’s been with me his presence has been with me almost my whole life. From the time I was probably seven years old and picked up acoustic guitar and ‘Suzanne’ was one of the first songs I learned how to play,” Peters recalls.

“Popular songs were really about girls and cars and love and heartbreak. And Leonard just dove right into the big mystery.”

Death, sex, isolation, faith and lack thereof. These themes are too vast for many songwriters, but not for Cohen, who trained for a career in literature. He was published before he graduated from college and authorities were calling him the best young poet in his native Canada. Then in the mid 1960s, he was lured ambivalently to music. Gretchen Peters says artists such as Judy Collins coaxed him into the spotlight.

“There was just something about being swept along by that movement of folk music. It seemed to be the most important cultural thing that was going on at the time. So it makes sense that he would have ended up in music - and he has a musical soul,” Peters said.

Cohen’s literary skills made him a song craftsman of the rarest sort, a writer whose words fit together like intricate jewelry, she says. Peters got a glimpse of his obsessive process when she got a private tour of his archives at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“And they pulled out these notebooks and he had written an entire notebook of verses for one song. That’s how he worked. The amount of work that went into one song and the hundreds of verses in some cases that went into choosing those five or six verses for one song was mind blowing. It made me realize how hard this thing is, this writing thing. And if you’re doing it right it should be hard,” she said.

Cohen was active right until the end, releasing the album You Want It Darker just days before his death. It’s part of a legacy that some contemporary songwriters will be studying like scripture for years to come.