Jamey Johnson honored the late songwriting hero Hank Cochran at a short-but-sweet set at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Tuesday night (Oct. 16). Although he was onstage barely for an hour, Johnson was able to deliver an all-star show featuring Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Dunn and Alison Krauss for a sold-out crowd.
With that classic country sound ringing in the Ryman rafters, it was almost like a very special segment at the Grand Ole Opry. It helped that the knowledgeable emcee Eddie Stubbs offered insight into Cochran’s career throughout the night.
Johnson released a new tribute album to Cochran, Livin’ for a Song, on Tuesday, with numerous singing partners joining Johnson on the album. Not all of them could make it that night, which might be why the show was only an hour long, yet it’s hard to argue with the guest list.
When a concert opens with Krauss lending harmony, the bar is set high right off the bat. The sterling “Make the World Go Away” is well-suited to her melancholy soprano, and you can imagine how beautiful her version of “I Fall to Pieces” is.
After that, Dunn cranked up the honky-tonk factor with “A-11,” Johnny Paycheck’s first charting single from 1965. And it was over in about three minutes, which was par for the course when it comes to country songwriting from that era.
Harris, a perennial Ryman favorite, graced the stage with “Don’t Touch Me,” a Grammy-winning single from 1966. The song was originally recorded by Jeannie Seely, the Opry star who went on to marry and divorce Cochran.
Johnson didn’t load up Livin’ for a Song with a bunch of well-worn songs, so hearing him sing lesser-known Cochran compositions like “You Wouldn’t Know Love” and “Love Makes a Fool of Us All” provided the audience a sense of discovery. Of course, it helps when you can follow that up with “Would These Arms Be in Your Way” and “She’ll Be Back,” recorded by Keith Whitley and Lee Ann Womack (as “He’ll Be Back”), respectively.
Because you get almost no banter from Johnson, the Ryman echoed with fans hollering and screaming between songs. Stubbs attempted to talk a little bit more about Cochran until he realized why the volume suddenly escalated — Nelson had sauntered onstage. The crowd leapt to their feet as he grabbed his trusty guitar Trigger and started to play.
Together, Nelson and Johnson strummed their way through “A Way to Survive,” “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” (made famous by Ronnie Milsap and recorded by Nelson and Johnson for the new album), “Everything but You” (also recorded by Nelson and Johnson, with Vince Gill and Leon Russell sitting in on the album track) and the exquisite “Livin’ for a Song.”
Even from the balcony, you could tell Johnson and Nelson were happy to be there but missing their dear friend. On the last verse of “Livin’ for a Song,” they paused long enough for Cochran’s own voice to come in. It was a poignant moment in an incredible evening of music.
Maybe just to lift the mood and tempo, Nelson burst into playing “On the Road Again.” Cochran didn’t write that song, yet it didn’t feel unwelcome to hear another country classic.
With the final song being “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” Johnson acknowledged the crowd and walked offstage. The audience stayed put. Then the curtain came down. Still, we sat there. The house lights came up and a recording of Nelson’s “The Party’s Over” came on. Didn’t budge.
Finally, even brighter house lights came on and the music stopped. It’s not like you can check Jamey Johnson’s Twitter account for a “Thanx 4 comin!” message, so we filed out of the historic Ryman somewhat confused but ultimately satisfied that Cochran, Johnson and all of their friends lived for a song. Country music history is richer because of it.