Jamey Johnson, one of the most popular country singers of recent years, has just released an album titled Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran. Cochran, who died in 2010 at age 74, wrote hits for singers such as Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Ray Price and Loretta Lynn. Johnson has enlisted some of these performers, plus artists like Merle Haggard and Elvis Costello, to salute Cochran's work.
The lead-off track, "Make the World Go Away," is sung here by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss; the Cochran composition was a multimillion-selling hit for Eddy Arnold and Ray Price in the 1960s, and was recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Dean Martin. It's typical of Cochran's songwriting in a few ways. It's downbeat verging on despairing, and features a simple but striking central image — "make the world go away" is a phrase inviting intense isolation, even obliteration. Yet the song also possesses a beautiful lilt.
Jamey Johnson isn't the most likely country artist to record a Hank Cochran tribute album. Johnson's rumbling, burly vocal sound and his own songwriting tends to be more rousing and less subtle than Cochran's — to take just one example, Johnson is the co-author of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a novelty hit for Trace Adkins in 2005. Yet Johnson gives many effective performances on this album, including a duet with Ray Price, who is now in his 80s, in one of Cochran's most devastating yet beautiful songs, "You Wouldn't Know Love."
Cochran had a career that spanned the 1960s through this new century. He didn't have a hugely successful recording career himself — his voice was rather wobbly and inexpressive. But it was sufficient to give other, better singers an idea of the elegantly simple craftsmanship that went into a composition, and how it could be turned into the kind of hopelessness that begets hits. One of his latter-day songs was "He'll Be Back," recorded by Lee Ann Womack in 2002. Here, it's been re-recorded as "She'll Be Back," and sung by Johnson and Elvis Costello.
You can tell a lot about Cochran's worldview just from his song titles, which also include "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me," "Love Makes a Fool of Us All" and "Don't Touch Me." They used to call these sorts of ballads "weepers." He tended to write in strict metrical quatrains, with an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. But there was nothing limited or constrained about the emotions that were poured into Cochran's sentiments. In the throats of the right singers, such as those Jamey Johnson has assembled here, nearly all of them sound like heartbreaking classics.