Jamey Johnson fetes country legend on new tribute album.
At the very end of the spare, evocative "That's Why I Write Songs," the last track on Jamey Johnson's 2010 double-album "The Guitar Song", Johnson offers, barely above a whisper, "Don't forget Hank Cochran."
It's one of the most memorable moments from a memorable album, and the plea is something that Johnson himself has put into practice with his follow-up record, "Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran". When the link between the two records is noted, Johnson replies, "I didn't think about it that way, but I guess you're right."
Johnson admittedly hates doing interviews, and he doesn't like talking about himself or his own songs much more, but he's quick to praise Cochran, as well as his collaborators on the new project. The album, due Oct. 16 on Universal imprint Mercury Nashville, does indeed pay proper tribute to the legendary songwriter, whose songs -- including "I Fall to Pieces" for Patsy Cline and "Make the World Go Away" for Eddy Arnold -- populated the Billboard country charts across some 50 years. Cochran died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 74, and Johnson's love and respect for the master songwriter is obvious, both on this record and in this interview.
"Hank Cochran's songs should be a must-listen for anybody that attempts to have a career in country music," Johnson says. "Hank Cochran was the definitive writer of country music. He's just as important as [late country songwriting great] Harlan Howard or Hank Williams or anybody else you could name."
Johnson's not alone in this regard. Joining him on "Living for a Song" are Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Ray Price, Ronnie Dunn, Vince Gill, Bobby Bare, Asleep at the Wheel and Lee Ann Womack.
Despite the all-star cast of collaborators, "Living For a Song" marks another left turn for Johnson, from whom both fans and the industry have come to expect the unexpected. After finding success in Nashville as a songwriter, Johnson broke through in a big way with 2007 Academy of Country Music and Country Music Assn. song of the year "In Color" (which he co-wrote), from his highly regarded album "That Lonesome Song". Johnson followed that with "The Guitar Song", a risky double-album that gave the artist ample room to stretch out both thematically and musically with his road band, the Kent Hardly Playboys.
To follow a hard-won mainstream breakthrough with a highly conceptual double-album, and then what amounts to -- despite its ambition, quality and intentions -- an album of covers, might not exactly be a career move recommended by Music Row business advisers. Johnson's answer to that?
"Well, I don't know any business advisers," he states flatly. "The goal here is simply to keep Hank Cochran music alive."
Johnson is a hard man to argue with, and not just because he looks capable of delivering an Alabama ass whoopin', to steal the title of the breakthrough Drive-By Truckers album. For him, the tribute is an act of love. "From my perspective, there's obvious respect," he says. "But after you get to know Hank, you had no choice but to love him. You don't leave Hank going, 'That was a nice guy.' You leave Hank going, 'Man, I love that guy.' He was a one of a kind."
Many others feel the same way. "We didn't have to make too many phone calls -- they pretty much came in on their own," Johnson says of his collaborators on the album. "Hank's passing impacted musicians, artists, singers and songwriters alike, and everybody in Nashville wanted to do something special to keep his memory alive and to keep these songs alive."
While Johnson may look like a biker with his shaggy mane and long beard, this album is crew-cut country, and impeccable in its choices. "Living for a Song" was produced by Cochran authorities Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson. "Both of them recorded with Hank," Johnson says. "So they knew what Hank would want the record to sound like. The best thing I can do at that point is back up and let them take it, and become a pupil myself."
Though Cochran penned some of the most familiar songs in the country canon, "Living for a Song" often goes for lesser-known chestnuts, like the waltzing "A Way to Survive" with Russell and Gill; a smoldering "Don't Touch Me" with Harris; the Texas boogie exercise "I Don't Do Windows" with Asleep at the Wheel; and a slow, bluesy "She'll Be Back" with Costello.
"At first, the natural tendency is to cut all of the most popular songs that Hank wrote. But we decided instead of making a list, let's just leave it up to my duet partners. Let them pick which one they wanted to do," Johnson says. "Some of them I'd never even heard of before we cut them. Even Willie thought he knew every Hank Cochran song there was, and there was one or two that Willie had not heard. I was kind of surprised at that."
Nelson, who, with Cochran, was a staff writer at Price's Pamper Music decades ago, is a strong presence on the record, even beyond the three songs featuring him. "Hank was a great help to me when I first hit Nashville," Nelson recalls. "He heard me sing a few songs one night at Tootsie's with Buddy Emmons and Faron Young and got me signed to Pamper Music for $50 a week."
Cochran's songs, many here some 50 years old, hold up remarkably well. "He had a specail knack for taking a complex emotion and describing it in the simplest of terms," Johnson says. "Bobby Bare said it was because he didn't know a whole lot of big words. That may be true, but I think it was just Hank's natural ability to communicate. He had the power to cut through the five-dollar words and get right down to the heart of the message, and that makes for the best songs every time."
Johnson may not know any business advisers, but this is still the country music business, and Universal is taking an aggressive and creative approach to marketing the album. Universal Music Group Nashville VP of marketing Tom Lord says the label will follow a three-pronged strategy: selling a Jamey Johnson record, selling a tribute album and selling a collaboration that includes an impressive -- and unlikely -- list of artists. "We've got George Strait and Elvis Costello on the same record," Johnson says.
"I wouldn't say that there are three different marketing plans, because it has to be cohesive in its approach and messaging, but that's what we have to keep in mind," Lord says. "Jamey's fans are passionate, and the first thing we want to do is communicate to those fans that Jamey Johnson has a new record, because at the end of the day, that's what this is. I know from [Johnson's] perspective, he feels like it's a Hank Cochran record, but he put these collaborations together, and this is all about him paying tribute to the legendary songwriter."
Another approach is targeting specific audiences using the appeal of specific guests artists. "In People Country magazine, we've got a half-page ad, and the artists are a little more mainstream and current, because that seems to be the editorial direction there," Lord says. "We also have Jamey featured on the back cover of Texas Music magazine, so we're featuring Asleep at the Wheel, Willie Nelson, George Strait and Lee Ann Womack because that speaks more to that Texas audience."
A third angle is to use social pages and search-engine marketing to tap into the appeal of Johnson's collaborators. "When someone's searching for Elvis Costello, they'll be served an ad that says, 'Elvis Costello is featured on the new Jamey Johnson album,'" Lord says.
Bottom line, Lord admits that "Living for a Song" isn't the easiest project to market. "It is a challenge to get the messaging right," he says. "One thing we were fearful of was, 'Is Hank Cochran too insider? Would people know the songs and not Hank Cochran?' There are those core country fans and traditionalists and the community here [in Nashville] that understand the value Hank Cochran has had, and other artists that do, too, so we're trying to say, 'Look who Hank Cochran brought together.' That props Hank up to all the fans that know Jamey but may not be aware of Hank Cochran."
Though Cochran's songs once were staples of country radio, in these versions of the originals, they sound little like what dominates the country airwaves today. For songs on this tribute to find their way to the airwaves would be nice, but that's not any kind of driving factor for Johnson. He will, however, be playing songs from this record at his shows.
"Radio's got their own thing going on, and I'm glad they're having success, but I've never altered my music in an effort to have that success alongside with them," he says. "I've always stayed right where I needed to be, and that's making the kind of music that I like, and that's what my listeners came in for. And if they can hear it on the radio, it'd be great, and if they can't, they're still going to find it-and we see them every night. So when they come to see me play live, we're going to be playing this music for them. Hopefully, they'll leave there and maybe request it. And if they do, hopefully, our friends at country radio will regard it enough to play it on their stations."
Meanwhile, Johnson's own career lives on, too, and touring is going great, he says. "Every time we play, they show up, and every time they show up, we play. We've got a good deal going there."
Johnson, booked by William Morris Endeavor and managed by Ken Levitan at Vector Management, will be on the Railroad Revival tour this fall with Nelson, Band of Horses and John Reilly & Friends. He says of the tour, "This is hopefully going to be a lot of fun for all of us, and be something we can all look back on and either regret together or remember fondly together."
As for commercial success and industry awards, Johnson says, "It doesn't matter how this record sells or whether it's nominated or receives any awards. Those things take care of themselves in the long run. The No. 1 goal here is to make sure Hank Cochran's music lives on."