(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
He was an humble, modest man who once turned down a pay raise for himself at a song publishing company so the money could go to signing a fledgling young barroom songwriter that Cochran believed in. That songwriter? Willie Nelson.
Cochran died July 15 at his home outside Nashville of pancreatic cancer at age 74. The night before he died, Johnson, Billy Ray Cyrus and producer-songwriter Buddy Cannon dropped by to sing songs at his bedside just after Merle Haggard had telephoned to talk to his old friend.
Beginning with his childhood in the South, Garland Perry Cochran endured more tragedies and hardships than any two country songwriters could or should write about in a lifetime. He was born in rural Mississippi in the depths of the Great Depression in 1935. During his first two years of life, he developed mumps, measles, pneumonia and whooping cough and almost died. When he was 9 years old, his parents divorced, and he wound up in an orphans’ home, ran away twice and was eventually taken in by his grandparents. He began hitchhiking at age 12 and ran off to work in the oil fields in New Mexico. He picked crops in California. And then formed a duet with rock ’n’ roll pioneer Eddie Cochran (no relation) as the Cochran Brothers.
His Uncle Otis taught him guitar while the two were hitchhiking, and he finally decided to head for Nashville in 1960 at age 24. That same year, he teamed up with songwriter Harlan Howard to write “I Fall to Pieces,” which Patsy Cline elevated into a major hit.
Very few country songwriters have ever had the kind of worn, lived-in and cosmic overview that writers such as Cochran and Howard and Nelson and Haggard and Hank Williams and Cindy Walker and Kris Kristofferson and Paul Craft and some of their comrades have so effectively used over the years to portray the country experience.
They have been able to capture the human condition in just a few words and vividly depict a life experience, instead of writing about being really, rabidly country. Or really, really raising hell. Hell, I’m not even sure if any of the writers I just named ever even used the word “country” in a song. Maybe so, but they were writing about being human, not about being “country.”
Cochran made it seem effortless. Just listen to “Make the World Go Away,” which defined Eddy Arnold’s career in the ’60s. George Strait was served well by two Cochran compositions. Both “The Chair” (written with Dean Dillon) and “Ocean Front Property” (written with Dillon and Royce Porter) seem deceptively simple on the surface, but there’s a lot going on in those songs. Cochran’s songs tended to be evocative, rather than merely descriptive. They evoke images in your mind. With just a casual read of the lyrics of “The Chair,” it seems to be just a cursory narrative of a brief encounter. But then you absorb the song and all of a sudden, wow, there’s a hell of a story there, and it’s unspooling in your mind and in your imagination.
Vern Gosdin’s version of Cochran’s “Set ’Em Up Joe” (written with Dillon, Gosdin and Cannon) is one of the most exquisite country songs ever. Listen to the tortured Gosdin sing. “Ever’ night I run the needle through ’Walkin’ the Floor’/Ever’ night I run the needle through ’Walkin’ the Floor.'” You know, if you don’t know what that alludes to, then I pity you because you’re missing a great musical experience. But it’s coming around again in a new interpretation on Johnson’s upcoming album. And it still stuns at 10 paces.
Cochran defined heartache songs. Songs such as “Funny Way of Laughing” (recorded by Burl Ives) and “He’s Got You” (Cline and Loretta Lynn) and “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (written with Glenn Martin and recorded by Merle Haggard) and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (Ray Price, Ronnie Milsap) encapsulate the pain and sad beauty of heartache: “You don’t love me, but you won’t let me be/Don’t you ever get tired of hurting me?”