Gary Cornelius was born September 2, 1949, in Covington, KY, into a musical family where his father played trumpet and his grandmother was a talented multi-instrumentalist. He self-released his first disc, Mending Fences, in 1995 at the tender age of 47. The success of this well-produced set of country-rock ballads and folk-tinged tunes led to another release relatively shortly thereafter, with the 1997 disc Feather, which repeated the successful formula. A modest amount of critical success brought comparisons to the country side of Neil Young and the best of the Texas school of songwriters. Indeed, Cornelius had booked Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt whilst running the Catacombs folk club in Bowling Green, KY. Not a little of their melodic and literate style rubbed off on his songwriting. Becoming head of his own record company, One Man Clapping Records of Chicago, he continued to spread his enthusiasm for this kind of music by encouraging other singer/songwriters to release their own debut discs. Indeed, such was his success that by the end of the '90s his label could boast one of the strongest rosters of new folk talent in the U.S. At times, his voice recalls the timbre of a less jazz-inflected Charlie Rich or a folkier Randy Travis take on Lefty Frizzell's kind of balladry. His use of acoustic bass, harmonica, fiddle, and accordion backing from some of Chicago's best acoustic musicians reveals a deep knowledge of the American folk and country genres. Originally an English graduate, his lyrics reflect a poetic sensibility and will stand the test of time. Sometimes, though, the deep and heartfelt spirituality that informs his work can lead to a rather cozy romanticism. But most of the time, as on a track like "In the Flood Land," he really bears comparison with the best of other folk poets like Bill Staines, John Prine, or Peter Rowan. "Hickory Green," from Mending Fences, would make a wonderful addition to a Nanci Griffith or Emmylou Harris record, such is its perfect evocation of old-time music-making. A modest and unassuming gem from the pen of one of the folk scene's real enthusiasts.
Share this page