Hank Cochran, a legendary songwriter who had hits in four decades, died Thursday after battling pancreatic cancer. A longtime member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, his words and melodies were significant in the careers of such signature artists as George Strait, Patsy Cline, Keith Whitley and Eddy Arnold.
Hank was part of the first generation of Nashville’s full-time songwriters. Born in Mississippi, he was living and performing in California when he signed his first songwriting contract in 1959 with Pamper Music, a publishing company owned in part by Ray Price. In January 1960, he moved to Music City, where he became a regular at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a legendary music-business hangout. Tootsie’s provided an informal meeting room for country’s artists and writers, including Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis, Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson, who Hank first met there. He helped Willie get signed to Pamper and even gave up a raise to make sure the company could afford Willie.
Hank’s legend was practically cemented when he and Harlan co-wrote “I Fall To Pieces,” a landmark Patsy Cline song with a nicely contoured melody and deftly direct lyrics. It was not just a great calling card. The National Endowment for the Arts named it one of 365 culturally significant recordings in a new-millennium list of the Songs of the Century.
But it was just one of many Hank Cochran successes. Eddy Arnold recorded his ballads “I Want To Go With You” and “Make The World Go Away,” which Martina McBride revived on her Timeless album. George Strait picked up two of his biggest hits with Hank songs: “Ocean Front Property” and “The Chair.” Burl Ives’ rendition of “A Little Bitty Tear” brought Hank a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year. Jeannie Seely, married to Hank for a decade, earned her biggest hit with his “Don’t Touch Me.” Mickey Gilley connected with his love song “That’s All That Matters.” Keith Whitley breathed life into “Miami, My Amy.” And Vern Gosdin turned to Hank for a half-dozen hits, including “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” “What Would Your Memories Do” and “Right In The Wrong Direction.”
Hank’s song “She’s Got You” found public success twice, first in the hands of Patsy Cline and later in a rendition by Loretta Lynn. Even more impressively, “Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me” became a hit three times over. Ray Price cut it in 1965 as the flip side to the Hank-written “A Way To Survive,” Ray had a duet version with Willie Nelson in 1980, and Ronnie Milsap revived it in 1988.
In addition to writing, Hank produced a trio of Merle Haggard singles in the 1970s, including “Ramblin’ Fever” and the poetic “I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall,” and he performed on the soundtrack of Willie’s 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose.
Known for his easy-going demeanor and frequent laughter, Hank was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1974 and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2003.
His final years were marked by numerous health battles. He had a triple bypass heart surgery in 2005 and underwent cancer treatment in 2008. In March, he had an emergency operation to repair an aortic aneurysm the size of a grapefruit.
BMI recognized his 50th anniversary as a songwriter in 2009 with a surprise party in Nashville that was attended by the likes of Elvis Costello, Merle Haggard, Gene Watson, Bobby Bare, Lee Ann Womack, ex-wife Jeannie Seely and Jamey Johnson. On Wednesday, Jamey was once again at Hank’s side, joined by Billy Ray Cyrus and songwriter-producer Buddy Cannon, who all sang songs with Hank at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. Hank died the next morning, just a few weeks short of his 75th birthday. The songs — “I Fall To Pieces,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Make The World Go Away” — they’ll all continue to live for ages.
A public memorial is expected at a future date.