When word got out that acclaimed Nashville artist Jamey Johnson was recording a tribute album to beloved songwriter Hank Cochran, musical superstars clamored to participate.
“When we were talking about who to call, people just kind of presented themselves,” Johnson says. “I think the word got out after awhile, and we were getting phone calls from people wanting to do it. There weren’t a whole lot of arms that needed twisting.”
The resulting cast, plus the brilliant and timeless Cochran songs, make this recording one of the musical events of the year. From the ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame came George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Vince Gill, not to mention Cochran’s oldest and truest friend, Willie Nelson. Veteran stars Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, Bobby Bare and Asleep at the Wheel perform on the album alongside contemporary artists such as Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack and Ronnie Dunn.
“Everybody got to pick their own songs, so for me, it was just as much a journey as it was for anybody else involved,” Johnson reports. “I thought I’d heard all of Hank’s songs, and I hadn’t heard anything.”
Johnson is quick to praise the efforts of co-producer Buddy Cannon, who worked with co-producer Dale Dodson to recruit artists and explore Cochran’s vast catalog. “By the time Buddy was done with it, it was the easiest thing in the world. I can’t give him enough credit.”
Johnson grew up singing gospel harmonies in church and believes this is why he was able to sing so capably with so many different stylists on the album, as well as in Cannon’s various musical settings. Johnson performs Cochran’s Keith Whitley hit “Would These Arms Be in Your Way” as his only solo on the tribute album.
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Hank Cochran died in 2010, but he left behind a song catalog that the world reveres. Masterpieces such as “Make the World Go Away,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” merely scratch the surface of his genius that produced hits on the country charts for more than four decades.
Cochran was also widely loved for his generosity of spirit, charming personality, easy-going humor and boundless kindness. During the final years of his life, he became a mentor to Johnson.
The two met when Johnson was celebrating the Gold Record success of his 2008 CD That Lonesome Song (which eventually achieved Platinum certification) as well as the Song of the Year trophies he collected for “Give it Away” and “In Color” from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Johnson’s renown continued with the 2010 release of his ambitious double album The Guitar Song, which also became a Gold Record winner. In addition, he picked up five Grammy Award nominations along the way. But throughout his rise, he remained close to Hank Cochran, who was slowly dying of cancer.
“Hank loved Jamey’s music, and Jamey just latched onto him,” says the songwriter’s widow, Suzi Cochran. “Jamey always wanted to hear Hank’s stories. Shortly after they met, Hank was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So for the two years he lived after that, Jamey would get off the road, pull his bus right up to the hospital, run up and see Hank and raise his spirits.
“Hank adored Jamey. Jamey was there when a lot of people weren’t coming around. A lot of people are afraid to be around sick people. They don’t know what to say, or they don’t need you anymore. But Jamey was a constant in the last chapter of Hank’s life.”
“Hank influenced me, not only as an artist and a songwriter, but also just as a person,” says Johnson. “If I had to dream up someone to influence songwriters, I couldn’t do better than Hank. For Willie and for a lot of people, he was such a helpful friend. If he knew you needed help with something, he was there. And that’s what I want to be for the people in my life, the same kind of friend that Hank was.
“Buddy Cannon was the one who told me that it was getting to be about time, that if I wanted to say goodbye, now was my chance. So I met him at Hank’s house. Billy Ray Cyrus was there. Merle Haggard called. We did what we knew we could do. We just sang Hank songs and hung around with our friend.”
Recalling the night before Cochran died, Suzi Cochran says, “They all sat and sang Hank’s songs to him. Hank was very weak by this time. He couldn’t talk, but he’d kind of hum along. I think they left about 11 o’clock that night, and it was about five o’clock the next morning when Hank passed away.”
Johnson says it was Cochran’s passing that kicked off the idea for this project. “Willie Nelson was the first person I knew I wanted to include. Bobby Bare introduced me to a bunch of Hank’s songs that I didn’t know. Having Merle on it meant a lot to me, too. Bobby introduced me to him. Elvis Costello flew to Nashville [in 2009] when they had an event to honor Hank, so I knew he would want to be a part of this.”
On Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, Johnson and Nelson sing “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” and the duo is joined by Leon Russell and Vince Gill on “Everything But You.” “When you start talking about songwriters, you’ve got to say his name first – then you start talking about everybody else,” says Nelson of his departed friend. “Hank had a lot to do with me getting started. He was responsible, really, for me going to Nashville.
“I thought this [tribute record] was a great idea, that if it had never been done before, it was about time, “Nelson says. “I think also that he should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. That’s my nomination for the next guy they put in there.”
Bobby Bare, who joins Johnson on “I’d Fight the World,” is delighted that his dear friend (and best man in Bare’s wedding) is being honored in this manner. “It just makes my heart warm to see all the great names who are on this album for no other reason than they respected and loved Hank’s songs. I still think about Hank. I hear Hank throughout all his songs. Hank was his songs, and the songs were Hank.”
Johnson teams with Haggard on the Patsy Cline 1961 hit “I Fall to Pieces.” “It’s important, historically, for people to know who Hank Cochran was and what he did,” Haggard believes. “He always wanted to be the Hemingway of country music, and I think he did it.”
Johnson, Nelson, Haggard and Kris Kristofferson sing “Living for a Song,” a poignant recording that includes Cochran’s voice. “Hank’s ability to perform comes across right there,” Haggard says of the song he describes as “our life on paper, music.” He says, “I mean, he’s in there with some of the best singers in the world and he gets it across better.”
“He wrote a kagillion classic songs,” adds Ronnie Dunn, who duets with Johnson on “A-11.” “It’s stunning when you look at the body of work that he was able to accomplish. He stayed relevant for so long.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?” says Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, who joins Johnson on “I Don’t Do Windows.” “Hank Cochran is, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters ever on earth. His songs transcend time because they’re based on emotion. I think the collection of artists on this album shows the respect that we all have for Hank’s artistry.”
“Hank’s songs bring out the best in anybody,” Johnson observes. “You don’t go on auto pilot and skip over the words. He’s going to make you focus in on a song. That’s the beauty of a skilled songwriter. A good song just inspires you. It makes you want to do better. The songwriter puts the spirit in it. That’s why everybody had the desire to make something great.
“It doesn’t make the Hall of Fame worthless that Hank Cochran is not in there, but it certainly makes it worth less that he’s not in there. It’s a matter of just recognizing good country music.”
Suzi Cochran pays perhaps the highest compliment this album could receive. “I wish Hank had been here to see it. He wouldn’t believe it. He would have cried. He’d be happy. It’s exactly like Hank would have done it.”