Leave it to Jamey Johnson, one of traditional country music’s leading torchbearers, to assemble one of the most impressive call sheets in recent memory to honor his friend; the late, great songwriter, Hank Cochran. On Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, available October 16, Jamey pulls together a guest list made up of seven Country Music Hall of Famers and several more of the genre’s finest voices, to shine a bright light on Hank’s iconic life work.
With a longstanding and deep appreciation for Hank’s music, Jamey has looked to the songwriter’s catalog in the past. For his 2010 Grammy-nominated double-album, The Guitar Song, Jamey included Hank’s barroom sketch “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” Now, with a set that features 16 of Hank’s songs, Jamey takes the opportunity to push much deeper to present an intimate look at the skill and delicate craft Hank mastered over half a century. Songs like the Patsy Cline classic “I Fall To Pieces” (sung here with Merle Haggard), Jim Reeves’ “I’d Fight the World” (with Bobby Bare) and the plodding, helpless “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (with Willie Nelson) remind listeners of Hank’s brilliance for pairing the right words with a poignant and expressive melody. And when Willie and Jamey sing together on the latter, You must think that I look bad with a smile, it cuts straight to the emotional undercurrent of the work.
Jamey himself displays an old soul with an exquisite touch for delivering a song’s true feeling. On a duet with Lee Ann Womack, “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” a song about seeing through the lies, the two capture the dynamic chemistry of classic pairings like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Lately your head hurts every night, he sings before adding with a simultaneously easy confidence and pointed judgment, Or could it be you wear your clothes too tight? On “Don’t Touch Me,” sung with Emmylou Harris, he sings, Each time you touch me, the look in your eye pulls me apart, allowing the words to trickle out, building the potent anticipation and tension. Jamey chooses only one song on the project to perform solo, the slow, acoustic “Would These Arms Be In Your Way.” Packing his voice with sadness and soul-bearing vulnerability, Jamey shows an undeniably close relationship to the subject.
The fact that so many of country music’s most respected voices join Jamey on the project can’t be overlooked. And what might be a more subtle accomplishment is that these artists come from varying corners of the genre. The classic voice of Ray Price (“You Wouldn’t Know Love”), the modern honky tonk of Ronnie Dunn (“A-11”) and the stirring Appalachian-tinged beauty of Alison Krauss (“Make The World Go Away”) all make powerful contributions with heartfelt tributes. Even Elvis Costello makes an appearance. Though obviously not part of the mainstream country format, Elvis included Hank’s “He’s Got You” on his own 1981 release, Almost Blue. Here he joins Jamey in denial on “She’ll Be Back.”
Differing styles and a mix of tempos round out a well-chosen collection. “I Don’t Do Windows,” recorded live with Western Swing stalwarts Asleep at the Wheel, features a band deep in the pocket while flying fiddles bring the song to a close. George Strait trades off lines with Jamey on the thumping Patriotic, “The Eagle,” one of the collection’s highlights that keeps pace with a steady outlaw beat. On “Love Makes A Fool Of Us All,” Kris Kristofferson joins Jamey in ¾-time to rich piano and slowly weeping pedal steel.
Produced by Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson, Living for a Song is a masterful accomplishment. The basic, sometimes stark, instrumentation and soul-stirring renditions showcase Hank’s words and music in a wonderful tribute. On “Everything But You,” a country blues number pairing Jamey with Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and Vince Gill, genuine warmth, admiration and love is felt in the performance. On the project’s exceptional closing track, the title cut “Living For A Song,” Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Jamey Johnson assume a backup role as the voice of Hank is heard in the mix. Life’s so full of melodies, with words that rhyme and harmonies, the chorus goes, bringing a fitting close to the collection with a beautiful representation of the impact Hank had on the artists involved and American music itself.
Key Tracks – “Living For A Song,” “The Eagle,” “I Don’t Do Windows,” “This Ain’t My First Rodeo”