One of today’s greatest singer-songwriters salutes one of the great country songwriters of all time by recruiting an all-star cast to revive some of Cochran’s greatest songs. Every song here is a timeless classic, and Johnson and his friends do them justice in what is for me unquestionably the album of the year so far. Fellow songwriters Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson produce with taste. Jamey was close to Hank in his later years, and was one of those who visited the hitmaker the night before he died to sing with him. Furthermore, while his reputation is based on his writing, he is also a fine singer, who shows his interpretative skills throughout this album. It came out on vinyl for collectors on September 25, and gets its mass market release digitally and on CD this week.
Alison Krauss’s angelic tones contrast exquisitely with Jamey’s gruffer but intensely emotional vocal on a beautiful version of the Cochran-penned standard ‘Make The World Go Away’, where they seek comfort from their troubles by reviving the love in a longstanding relationship. Tasteful steel is prominent in the sympathetic arrangement, while Krauss’s soothing voice provides the sweetness given by string arrangements in the hit versions, which epitomized the Nashville Sound. First recorded by Ray Price in 1963, it was the era’s superstar Eddy Arnold who had the biggest hit with the ballad, but many others have covered the song, both within and beyond country music – even Elvis Presley. The lovely Johnson/Krauss version stands up well against previous takes, and is one of the finest tracks on this album.
‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Cochran wrote with the equally great Harlan Howard, is one of the finest country songs of all time. Jamey sings this with Merle Haggard, and this is another superlative recording with the emotion and pain of lost love stripped down to its core, and completely believable performances from both men.
The excellent ‘A Way To Survive’ (about coping with the end of love rather unhealthily by obsessively re-reading her love letters and staring at her photograph) is one of the less well-known songs, a top 10 hit for Ray Price in 1966. Rock/blues/occasionally country singer-songwriter Leon Russell and Vince Gill help Jamey out here’; it is a great song and gets a fine arrangement faithful to the original, but while Jamey’s vocal is excellent, Leon Russell is not much of a singer. Vince Gill is also credited on harmony but not audible.
Russell and Gill are joined by Willie Nelson on ‘Everything But You’. This time Gill gets his share of vocals as the foursome split the lines between them. Unfortunately, while a pleasant buddyish mood is created, the song is one of the few that doesn’t stand out.
Willie Nelson also duets on the exquisitely pained ‘Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)?’, which is beautifully interpreted by both Willie and Jamey. Consummate harmony vocalist Emmylou Harris helps out on the intense ‘Don’t Touch Me’, originally a hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, a plea for true love when only sex seems to be on offer. Emmylou is rather breathy here, perhaps to convey the passion the character feels but is suppressing.
Now an octogenarian, Ray Price has recorded many Hank Cochran songs in his time. Jamey got him to duet on a reworking of his top 10 hit from 1970, ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love (If It Looked You In the Eye)’. This insightful but rather bleak portrayal of a marriage with no future is another outstanding song.
Honky tonk piano leads into the funky ‘I Don’t Do Windows’, a lesser-known song which is a rebellious husband’s complaint to his slave-driving wife. Cochran recorded it himself, and seems to have written it for the 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose, a Willie Nelson vehicle. I rather enjoyed this song, and it definitely lightens the mood in the company of so many sad songs, with a playful treatment featuring Ray Benson and Asleep At the Wheel.
Elvis Costello, a rock musician with a longstanding love of country music, is the duet partner on the languidly mournful ballad ‘She’ll Be Back’ (which the co-producer Dale Dodson contributed to writing). It is a fine song but one of the few less successful tracks, largely due to Costello’s limited vocals.
The songs were selected by the guest stars, so Jamey’s only personal choice was the Keith Whitley hit, ‘the tender love song ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’, which he performs solo. His understated performance is intimate and feels just right.
George Strait rarely seems to take part in tributes, so his appearance here was something of a surprise. His choice of the patriotic ‘The Eagle’, a minor hit for Waylon Jennings in 1991, was also unexpected. The cover is very similar to the original, and because Waylon was such a distinctive stylist, this ends up sounding like a mere copycat effort. While the vocals are committed, I would have liked something more distinctively “George Strait” about his contribution.
Ronnie Dunn duets on the honky-tonk plea not to play ‘A-11’ on the jukebox, an excellent song which is something of a standard despite never being a really big hit. Johnny Paycheck had a modest hit with this in 1965, and it was also recorded by Buck Owens. I really enjoyed this version, and would like to hear Dunn record more of this type of material.
Bobby Bare chose to revive the romantic ‘I’d Fight The World’, a rare top 30 hit for Cochran himself (in 1962), and which Bare covered the same year as an album track. The sardonic Vern Gosdin hit ‘This Ain’t My First Rodeo’ features Lee Ann Womack, and is highly enjoyable, with the song working pretty well reinterpreted as a male/female duet.
Kris Kristofferson is more on key than usual on the philosophical ‘Love Makes A Fool Of Us All’, which works as well for this pairing as it did for Haggard and Willie Nelson on their Seashores Of Old Mexico duet album in 1987. Finally, Haggard, Kristofferson and Nelson all join Jamey on the title track. It features a short recording of Hank Cochran himself, talking about his arrival in Nashville as a young man, and singing part of the autobiographical song about life as a singer-songwriter. It makes an entirely satisfactory culmination of all that has gone before.
This is an absolutely superb album which epitomizes country music as it showcases the work of one of the genre’s greatest writers. Not only is it a worthy tribute to Hank Cochran, but one of the best records released this decade, if not of the new millennium.