Livin’ for a Song (Gifted Few Records)
Who’ll be the next to pick up the pen
That holds the ink the words flow with
And be brave enough to bare the depths of their soul?
Who is able to live with their heart full of holes?
Hank Cochran, the man who wrote those lines, is nothing if not a survivor. Not the kind we see on TV, roasting rodent kabobs on exotic beaches and battling trumped-up hardships, but the real hardscrabble deal. Barely educated, a castoff who grew up in foster homes and orphanages, Cochran represents a breed of songwriter that’s almost unrecognizable to us nowa species in rapid decline like some rare jungle tribe whose habitat has been eroded by civilization.
Today, Music Row is populated by singers and songwriters with MBAs and sweatless Stetsons who learned their licks not in the honky-tonks but from their mom and dad’s Merle Haggard LPs. Country’s pioneersHarlan Howard, Waylon Jennings and Chet Atkinsare vanishing at an alarming rate. Faithful to his lifelong belief in God and the pen, Cochrannow 67, married five times and fighting diabetesmourns his fallen peers and keeps on going.
“The Pen,” a song from Cochran’s latest album, Livin’ for a Song, testifies to his unwavering commitment to the songwriter’s life, as well as to the ties that bind those who embrace it.
That pen you’re holding, son, is mightier than the sword
And it flows with the blood of the lamb and the power of the Lord
The pen brought me fortune and I pray for you it does the same
And when they open that Big Book let us stand together
When they call our names.
Cochran, who has heard everyone from Patsy Cline to Elvis Costello cut his songs, has good reason to respect, and even worship, the power of the pen. Born Garland Perry Cochran in Isola, Miss., in 1935, he was a child not only of the Depression but also of divorce, neglect and various other Dickensian clouts of ill fortune. As a young boy, he spent time in St. Peter’s Orphan’s Home in Memphis before moving back to Mississippi to live with his preacher grandfather and his wife. Confused and rootless, he ran away a lot, but somewhere along the way discovered music, learning a few chords on the guitar and singing in church. Like many before and since, he also sat glued to the weekly broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry as if salvation itself might emanate from the radio speaker. In Cochran’s case, it probably did.
At age 12, Cochran and a guitar-playing uncle hitchhiked to New Mexico, where the two found jobs as roustabouts in the oil fields in and around Hobbs. Drained by the dangerous work, Cochran eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he worked at Sears, Roebuck and Co. and, not yet 16, was forced to return to school. To his humiliation, the burly ex-roughneck found himself sitting in a class of fourth graders.
Enjoying some success in local talent contests, Cochran continued to heed the call of music. He advertised for a guitar player to form a group and met future rock ’n’ roll icon Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”). Though unrelated, the two formed a duo called The Cochran Brothers that hovered somewhere between country and rock ’n’ roll, releasing a few records to no great acclaim. Eddie then followed Elvis into the wild lands of rock ’n’ roll, while Hank cast his vote for country. The two parted amiably, Eddie becoming a short-lived rock star before dying in a car accident in 1960. Hank moved to Nashville to begin one of the longest-running and most illustrious careers in the annals of country music.
By that point (1960) a husband and father, Cochran began writing for Pamper Music, barely scraping by on his songwriter’s draw of $50 a week. Then, in 1961, Patsy Cline cut a song he wrote with Harlan Howard called “I Fall to Pieces.” The record became a smash on both the country and pop charts, and suddenly, Cochran found himself in demand as a writer, guitarist (backing up Justin Tubb on the Opry)even a recording artist, scoring a Top 20 hit with “Sally Was a Good Old Girl.”
Inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association International’s Hall of Fame in 1974, the man that some call “The Legend” has had his songs sung by such luminaries as Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Loretta Lynn. Cochran’s “Make The World Go Away” was a 1965 hit for Eddy Arnold, and it’s been covered by numerous others since. Actor-folksinger Burl Ives had a pop hit with “Funny Way of Laughin’ ” in 1962, a song Cochran swears he wrote in his sleep, waking only long enough to mumble it into a bedside tape recorder. (He claims to have “dream-written” many songs.) Two decades later, George Strait took a pair of Cochran co-writes, “Ocean Front Property” and “The Chair,” to the top of the country charts.
Cochran’s success continues to this day. An upcoming Patsy Cline tribute CD will see classic Cochran material rendered by Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Lee Ann Womack and neo-jazz star Norah Jones. A new Cochran song, “She’ll Be Back,” is also included on Womack’s latest CD. At an age when many would be happy to rest on their laurels and enjoy retirement, Hank Cochran clings stubbornly to the present, reading Billboard and writing daily, cultivating relationships with new artists while remembering his favorites from the past. (He still communicates with Eddy Arnold.) Cochran’s momento-strewn Hendersonville home teems with activity; cronies of all ages come and gosongwriters, pickers, performers. It’s not unusual for newcomers to be asked to sign a guest book and have their picture taken by Cochran’s photographer wife, Suzi.
With all that’s going on in his life, Cochran remains most excited by the projects that are most immediate to hand. Especially intriguing is the recently completed Livin’ for a Song, an album that’s aptly subtitled A Songwriter’s Autobiography. Released on Cochran’s own Gifted Few Records label, and co-produced with Jim Vest, the CD is a 14-song testament to Cochran’s legacypart mission statement, part chronicle, part celebration, part living will. On “The Pen,” a track that’s primarily a recitation and perhaps the most revealing number on the album, Cochran ponders passing the torch, as well as what it means to “live for a song.”
Well, I might as well give you this old guitar
It’s been a helluva ride for me out of Hell so far
Can you write it with your heart in Heaven and your feet in sin?
No, you can’t
Find somebody else to pick up the pen.
Where is the Love?
10 people who should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame but aren’t
1. The A-Team More than anyone, this studio rhythm sectionguitarists Grady Martin, Harold Bradley and Hank Garland, bassist Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Harman and pianist Floyd Cramercreated modern country music.
2. The Stanley Brothers Bluegrass may never again be this soulful.
3. Ernest V. Stoneman The Father of Country Music?
4. Jimmy Martin Co-inventor, with Bill Monroe, of the “high-lonesome sound.”
5. Billy Sherrill The producer behind George and Tammy’s best.
6. Connie Smith How great she art.
7. DeFord Bailey Is this one 40 years overdue now, or just 30?
8. Jerry Lee Lewis A monster of rockabillyand a killer honky-tonker, to boot.
9. Jean Shepard Hey, you tell her she has to play second fiddle again.
10. Mel Tillis The best songwriter not already inducted? The best singer-songwriter?
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