HOT DISH: Jamey Johnson’s Tribute to Hank Cochran Is a Labor of Love

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(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at

Jamey Johnson and some of his friends have recorded a masterpiece of 16 songs penned or co-penned by the late, great Hank Cochran. Why? He wanted to honor Hank.

Jamey’s new album, Livin’ for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, was produced by two of his close friends, Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson. The track listing of the collaborations is as follows:

“Make the World Go Away” (Alison Krauss)
“I Fall to Pieces” (Merle Haggard)
“A Way to Survive” (Vince Gill and Leon Russell)
“Don’t Touch Me” (Emmylou Harris)
“You Wouldn’t Know Love” (Ray Price)
“I Don’t Do Windows” (Asleep at the Wheel)
“She’ll Be Back” (Elvis Costello)
“Would These Arms Be in Your Way” (Jamey solo)
“The Eagle” (George Strait)
“A-11” (Ronnie Dunn)
“I’d Fight the World” (Bobby Bare)
“Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (Willie Nelson)
“This Ain’t My First Rodeo” (Lee Ann Womack)
“Love Makes a Fool of Us All” (Kris Kristofferson)
“Everything but You” (Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell)
“Livin’ for a Song” (Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson)

Dodson, a record producer and songwriter, is a student of the old-school country songwriters and traditional songwriters. Personally, I’d like to see him hook up with a young singer-songwriter with a stone-country voice (like George Jones’) and a love for old-school and traditional songs.

Cannon, longtime record producer for Kenny Chesney, is also a hit songwriter. He co-wrote the CMA and ACM award-winning “Give It Away” with Johnson and Bill Anderson for George Strait. Two years later, Jamey won song of the year honors from both organizations for “In Color.” His 25-song double-album, The Guitar Song, was certified gold and received a Grammy nomination for country album of the year.

I will put this together as well as I can. It is a maze, a country music maze. Where did it start? Why were Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Billy Ray Cyrus around Hank Cochran’s deathbed — swapping stories, passing a guitar and singing Hank’s hits just hours before he died?

Buddy told me he was in the studio producing Billy Ray and mentioned that Hank was very sick. After the recording session, Buddy was planning to drive to Hank’s house, so Billy Ray asked to ride over there with him. Jamey was already there at the foot of Hank’s bed. Buddy knew Jamey had been a regular visitor at Hank’s house for two years. He’d come off the road and have his bus driven to the hospital or Hank’s house.

After an hour, Jamey, Buddy and Billy Ray tried to leave, but Hank would have no part of it. So they dug out Hank’s guitar and began passing it around and singing his hits. It went on most of the night. Jamey and Billy Ray finally left. Then Buddy went home, too.

Hank was highly medicated and gravely ill, but Buddy said Hank would smile with his hands folded on his chest while using his fingers to keep rhythm with the music. Around daybreak, Hank’s wife Suzi called Buddy and his wife Billie.

“Better get over here,” she said.

Pretty soon, it was all over. Hank died July 15, 2010, at age 74 following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Nashville wept.

It was Hank Cochran who said, “I don’t write songs. God writes ’em. I just hold the pen.”

Hank, Willie, Harlan Howard and Ray Price were writing songs for Pamper Music many years ago when they were as poor as Job’s turkey. Receiving a check from Pamper for $11,000 made Hank feel rich, he said. Harlan told me many times how he and Hank “hit the ground running.” They must have been in a constant race to get their songs to the artists and producers.

What happened to Pamper Music? Copyrights were sold to Tree Music Publishing, then to Sony. And the rest of Pamper? Until this day, it’s located in Hank’s backyard. The desk and chair where Willie wrote “Hello Walls” remain in the building, as are all the other office furnishings.

“If I had to dream up somebody like Hank to influence songwriters, I couldn’t have done a better job,” Jamey said. “That’s what he was — not just for me but for Willie and for a lot of people. Just a helpful friend. If he knew you needed help with something, he would help you. He was there. And that’s what I want to be for people in my life, same as Hank. He influenced me, not only as an artist and songwriter but also as a person.”

Hank was, without a doubt, Willie’s best friend. Willie would joke that Hank had a way of sniffing out who would be the next big act. He just knew. Regarding his friend’s knack for getting songs cut, Willie once said, “Hank’s got a buzzer at his house that goes off when someone gets ready to record.”

Buddy, who is planning to produce a new Willie album featuring female vocalists, said he learned a lot about songwriting from Hank.

“I’ve been around a lot of great songwriters, written songs with a lot of them, but until I wrote with Hank, I never experienced feeling the aura that actually surrounded Hank when he’d write,” Buddy told me. “Hank was mystical. Words would pour out of him like pouring water out of a pitcher.”

Jamey thought he’d heard all the great Cochran songs until he showed up at Hank’s house when Bobby Bare was there. When Bare began singing some of Hank’s lesser-known songs, Jamey realized he hadn’t heard anything yet.

“All the best stuff was the stuff I didn’t know about,” he said.

Livin’ for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran will first be released on vinyl on Sept. 25. The CD and digital versions will follow on Oct. 16. Listening to Hank’s songs sung by Jamey and his friends was the most enjoyable hour I’ve spent in a long, long while.

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