Great songwriters overflow the borders of Nashville, said Music Row producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon, addressing a sold-out crowd at a tribute to the songwriter Hank Cochran at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “They’re everywhere here,” Cannon continued. “But there’s only one best songwriter, and that was Hank Cochran.”
Cannon joined country singer Jamey Johnson, Cochran’s widow Suzi Cochran, and songwriter and record producer Dale Dodson for the museum program Living for a Song: Jamey Johnson Salutes Hank Cochran, hosted by staffer Michael Gray. The panel members, who all spoke about Cochran’s talent and personality, were the principal architects of Johnson’s 2012 tribute album, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Cannon and Dodson were co-producers, and Suzi Cochran lent the project her endorsement and provided an original master of the title song, so that her late husband could join in a recorded version that also featured Johnson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson.
Describing what made Cochran’s work special, Johnson said, “When you put on one of his songs, you understand every single word. He kept them easy to listen to and easy to learn. But there’s something about how complex the topics are but how simple the language is. It’s not just a craft, it’s not just a song, it’s someone’s life you’re listening to. And it’s beautiful music, beautiful melodies.”
Dodson concurred. “Hank was about short lyrics,” he said. Putting his thumb and index finger close together, he added, “He wanted it to look about that big on the page. That’s when you knew you had something. He was about melody and lyric, and it said so much.”
Singer Alison Krauss, who attended the program, accepted an invitation from Johnson to join him for a duet of Cochran’s classic “Make the World Go Away,” which Krauss had recorded for the Living for a Song album. Johnson, Cannon, and Dodson performed several other Cochran songs during the program, often deciding on the spot what to sing.
Born in poverty in rural Mississippi and having spent time in a Memphis orphanage, Cochran started his career in Southern California. There, he formed a duo with the late Eddie Cochran, as the Cochran Brothers (although the two weren’t related), before the latter became a rockabilly star. Hank moved to Nashville after signing a songwriting contract with publishing company Pamper Music, co-owned by singer Ray Price. Cochran started getting cuts and quickly accumulated a catalog of country standards, including Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and “She’s Got You,” Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away,” Ray Price’s (and Ronnie Milsap’s) “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” Jeannie Seely’s “Don’t Touch Me,” and George Strait’s “The Chair” and “Ocean Front Property,” among many others. Cochran also had his own recording career, including the 1962 hit “Sally Was a Good Old Girl.”
Cochran also helped Country Music Hall of Fame members Harlan Howard and Willie Nelson in coming to Nashville and assisting the start of their legendary careers, and he co-wrote songs with both. Cochran entered the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1974, and in 2007 he was the first honoree in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Poets and Prophets series, which salutes legendary country songwriters. Cochran died in 2010 at age seventy-four.
Each of the panelists had a close relationship with Cochran. Cannon often went on songwriting retreats and fishing trips with Cochran, and he co-wrote several songs with him, including the 1988 Vern Gosdin hit “Set ’em Up, Joe” (which Johnson recorded on his 2010 album The Guitar Song). Dodson had Cochran as the best man at his wedding and, as Suzi Cochran said, “Dale had become like a son to Hank.” Johnson came to know Cochran late in his life and made a point of visiting with him regularly as his health was failing. “Jamey was a constant in our life,” Suzi said. “Hank loved Jamey. Jamey gave Hank hope that his music would carry on.”
Johnson was on Cochran’s back porch after the songwriter’s memorial service, trading songs with Cannon, Dodson and others, when the idea for Living with a Song was hatched. “These three people were so close to Hank,” Suzi said. “He would have just loved that they made this record.”