After a deluge of frothy teen acts and countryfied pop, the arrival of singer-songwriter Tammy Cochran on the Nashville music scene is something of a newsworthy event. With little more to her credit than good buzz, she scored her first major award nomination this year, the Academy of Country Music’s new female vocalist of the year.
Despite two earlier faltered radio singles, fans caught on to her. The teary-eyed ballad “If You Can” rose to No. 12 on Billboard’s Country Singles Sales chart, quite a feat considering the song peaked only at 41 on the trade’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart, which tracks radio airplay.
“To me that says the public is hearing it,” Cochran says. “And even though it wasn’t a radio success, [the public] found it a success. To me, that’s good.” Now, her musical tribute to her dead brothers, “Angels in Waiting,” has climbed to No. 39 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Songs like that and “If You Can” and “What I Learned From Loving You” from her self-titled debut album, released Tuesday (May 1), make it clear that Cochran is a throwback to the heartfelt country of legends such as Tammy Wynette . “If You Can,” in particular, is classic country, a cheating song told from the wronged woman’s point of view. It’s music for grown-ups and stands in stark contrast to the glossier country so prevalent today.
“To me, ’If You Can’ is kind of one of those timeless songs,” says Cochran of the Joy Swinea-penned tune. “I think the song is 18 years old, too. It’s incredible how great songs just stay great, they don’t change with the times.”
Cochran herself is something of an anomaly. At age 30, hers is a voice infused with the emotion of experience. Born and raised in small-town Ohio, Cochran moved to Nashville in 1991 and spent the next seven years knocking on doors, flipping hamburgers and doing what she could to get Music Row’s attention. One of Nashville’s perennial bridesmaids, Cochran gave a 1995 showcase that failed to yield any proposals from record labels (though she found the stellar “If You Can” when looking for showcase material and wisely held onto it).
Cochran married in 1996 and divorced two years later. When she finally did land a record deal, her debut’s release was pushed back no less than four times (indeed, Tammy Cochran was recorded a year and a half ago). If anyone had reason to pack it in and catch the next bus home, it was Cochran.
“You know, what really kept me going — because it’s so easy to get discouraged — is my parents,” Cochran notes. “They were so supportive. When I decided to come to Nashville, they sold everything they had and they came as well. There were times where I was like, Oh man! I should have just gone to college! But it was my parents being that stable force there, constantly encouraging me, that kept me going.”
That Cochran is close to her family is no surprise to anyone who knows their story. Cochran is the youngest child in a family of three siblings. Both of her brothers, Alan and Shawn, were born with cystic fibrosis, a terminal lung disease which claimed both of their lives.
Cochran paid tribute to her brothers in the soaring ballad, “Angels in Waiting,” a song she co-wrote with Jim McBride and Stewart Harris. “When I got my record deal in ’98, I knew that I wanted to write a song for my brothers who passed away with cystic fibrosis,” she says. “It seemed like every time I tried to write it, I would get to a certain point and all these emotions would rush in, all these memories wash back, and I would just get so choked up I couldn’t do it, literally.
“When I met Jim McBride and Stewart Harris, it was one of those things where you walk in a room and you immediately know you’re going to like someone. They just fell in love with the song idea, and we wrote ’Angels in Waiting’ in one day. We didn’t just write — we talked about our lives, who we’d lost that affected us, and we just wrote what we felt. And I think it turned out really good.”
Much to Cochran’s surprise, Epic asked to release it as a single, based on the strong reaction the song received at her live shows. After a good bit of soul searching — and receiving her parents’ blessing — she assented. “One of my fears was that I didn’t want people to think I was taking my personal loss to gain from it,” she explains. “I wrote the song for my own personal healing, and then when I realized how many other people it helped, I thought, well you know what? It’s kind of selfish of me not to share it! I’m pretty active in the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation — my family always has been. So to me it’s like spreading awareness, too.”
In fact, Cochran will perform at this year’s Sizzlin’ Country concert, a star-studded benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation held each year in conjunction with the ACM Awards in Los Angeles.
With Cochran’s debut finally slated for release just days before she vies for the ACM award, it seems her patience and persistence have paid off. Having slugged away so long chasing her dream, and with two “angels in waiting” watching over her shoulder, Cochran has gained a unique perspective on her life.
“My brother told me when he was really, really sick that he was not going to be here very long,” she said. “So, you know, he said, ’You just live enough for both of us and we’ll be fine.’ Which is what I’m trying to do.”