For decades, singer-songwriter Greg Cornell’s soul has been something of an antenna receiving transmissions from America’s beloved heritage of roots music and storing them deep in his being. Before he could add to the canon, however, he had to live his own stories. It took decades of heartbreak, loss, and finding the kind of hopeful disposition that only comes through searching. Today, he’s a critically acclaimed roots musician with a redemptive message.
“I had to live a lot of life before I could turn my experiences into songs,” admits Cornell. “One thing that had a profound effect on me was the death of my father. It made me think about my life, it made me want to pursue things I loved, like music.”
Cornell’s music courses through that muddy river of bluegrass, country, old-time music, and blues. His work conjures the plaintive and unvarnished beauty of contemporary and classic roots artists such as Ralph Stanley, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Prine, Gram Parsons, Levon Helm, Garcia and Grisman, and Neil Young. Currently, Cornell has a two-album body of work, Deep Ocean Blues and Come On Home. His sincerity, uplifting introspection, and singular approach to making emotionally resonant music from timeless art forms has earned him praise from Americana fans and critics. The popular music discovery and critical outlet Mind Equals Blown says: "Cornell visits the deep, looming sense of longing that's often tied to bluegrass or folksy tracks...and steers clear of any clichés.”
“I love music that has an emotional rawness where you can still smell the soil. A lot of those early roots artists, they had this sound that’s eerie and raises the hair on the back of your neck,” Cornell says.
Cornell has built a robust profile through a diverse calendar of shows. Over the past few years his band, The Cornell Brothers, has appeared at folk conferences and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City UT, toured New England and upstate NY, played festivals throughout the Tristate area, and gigged at the finest listening rooms in NYC.
Cornell is the sole songwriter in the fluid collective of musicians that make up the Cornell Brothers. Though these artistic allies aren’t bonded by blood, they are bonded by making authentic and boldly vulnerable roots music. These musicians are some of the finest Americana players in the Tristate area.
Cornell’s story dates back to the late 1960s when he soaked up the fiery folk movement while in Paris with his family. Country music came into his life with trips to the family farm in upstate New York. There he had a buddy whose family spun trad country endlessly. These were the seeds, but it would be a series of events that led him to actually play this music. Some were the trials and tribulations of life, his father’s passing, divorce, and the joy of getting a second chance on a first love.
One other formative event was the simple gesture of taking fiddle classes late in life. Through studying the instrument formally, accompanying other musicians, and taking an epiphanic songwriting retreat, Cornell began to acknowledge his own talents.
“Rise Up” on Cornell’s debut, Deep Ocean Blues, would be the litmus test proving to Cornell that he had the stuff. The song is a stirring Celtic bluegrass fusion with confessional lyrics and an urgent minor tonality. “I wrote that song ten years after my father died. His ashes were scattered on our family farm. That song is me having a conversation with him there, trying to heal our relationship. It came from a struggle to forgive,” Cornell reveals.
This track became a cornerstone of Deep Ocean Blues. The album is a spiritual journey of making that brave trek into an emotional and introspective abyss. “A lot of those songs look for hope when things seem really bad,” Cornell says. “I’m not in favor of dark songs without a glimmer of hope, it gets me too depressed.” Other album highlights include “Heavenly Rain” and “O Captain! My Captain!” The track “Heavenly Rain” sounds like it was plucked straight from the Delta. An eerie feeling of gospel salvation runs through the harmony soaked tune. The song is deceptively spare with subtle surprises like a majestic cello lead in the tune’s bridge. The brisk old-timey “O Captain! My Captain!” puts virtuosic fiddle and mandolin at the forefront for a rendering of Walt Whitman’s poem (a metaphor for the death of Abraham Lincoln) set to music.
In August 2016, Cornell released Come On Home, produced by fiddler Adam Moss (The Defibulators, Anna Egge, and the Brother Brothers), and engineered by Justin Guip who won three Grammys recording Levon Helms' final albums. The album’s title thematically weaves through the album’s tracks. The hauntingly beautiful folk track “Broken Wings” recounts a treacherous journey as a metaphor for Cornell reuniting with a lost teenage love after 30 years. The snappy old-timey number “I Had A Pony” whisks the listener back to 1847 for a fishtailing story of an arranged marriage and the couple’s life together.
Cornell breaks out burly Neil Young electric guitars for the rousing protest song “Song For Nick.” Nick Hillary, a friend of Cornell’s, is a man of color falsely accused of murdering a 12-year-old boy in Potsdam, NY in a case steeped in racism and faulty evidence. The songs was part of Cornell’s effort to raise support and awareness for the case (he also raised money for Hillary’s legal team). “It was my duty to shed light on this injustice,” says Cornell. “Nick didn’t know I had written the song. When he came down to the studio with his sons, I asked his permission to record it. When I showed him the lyrics there were tears in his eyes.” Hillary has since been acquitted.
Up next, Cornell has many other stories he’s ready to share. He’s currently writing his third record, and he plans to share all his musical tales live with performances across the Tristate area, upstate New York and New England. Reflecting on reclaiming his life on his own terms he says: “It’s amazing to realize there was in something in me I didn’t know was there. More than anything I’ve ever done, playing music feels like being true to myself. I was meant to do this.”