Album Review: Jamey Johnson — Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Combining 16 stellar songs from one of music’s all-time best songwriters, adding on supremely talented artists such as Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and George Strait, and putting traditional country torch-bearer Jamey Johnson at the helm leaves little room in an album review for anything outside of effusive praise and nostalgia.
Equal parts history lesson, songwriting how-to and all-star collaboration, the idea for Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran began when Johnson’s close friendship with the legendary songwriter came to an end in 2010 when Cochran died of cancer. Together with co-producers Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson, Johnson stays true to Cochran’s straightforward style by staying out of the lyrics’ way, digging deep into his catalog and gathering a cast of country music’s finest.
For those unfamiliar with some of these songs, there’s no shame – even Johnson, who slides in and out of classic covers on his solo albums, admits to his limited knowledge of Cochran’s extensive collection, deeming the hidden gems as some of the songwriter’s best. Alongside those quieter tracks, however, the tried-and-true hits remain: Alison Krauss, one of Cochran’s favorite singers, adds sweet sadness to “Make the World Go Away,” Merle Haggard spits out a defeated laugh on “I Fall To Pieces” and Willie Nelson wistfully maneuvers through “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.”
While those songs do little to refute country music’s heartbreaking image, the spunkier, attitude-filled songs really shine here. Johnson’s “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” duet with the impeccable Lee Ann Womack begs for an extended duet album between the two, Ronnie Dunn dances around compact honky-tonk standard “A-11” and Strait – Johnson’s very own career savior – forgoes the obvious choice of “The Chair” for “The Eagle.” It doesn’t get sassier, however, than Asleep at the Wheel’s “I Don’t Do Windows,” where Johnson and Ray Benson trade matter-of-fact lyrics like “I don’t do windows and I won’t go to hell for you/Although, honey, hell is what you put me through.”
It’s the contrast between these songs and the album’s heavier tracks like “Don’t Touch Me” with Emmylou Harris, “A Way to Survive” with Vince Gill and Leon Russell, and “You Wouldn’t Know Love” with Ray Price that really shows the breadth of Cochran’s pen, which earned the writer a hit song in every decade since the 1960s. Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran slips only when things become a little too easy, and its interpreters coast on their material. When presented as a whole, these standout songs can easily muddle together in tempo, theme and style, even as the variety and caliber of artists here put their own spin on things.
Those moments can’t hurt the final product, tied up perfectly on the album-ending “Living for a Song.” Cochran joins Johnson and contemporaries Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Nelson in spoken verse, thoughtfully relaying that “all of us rhyme runners and word hunters have some things that we’ve been through/So I wrote this song hoping I could tell some of them to you.” It’s one of those country music moments where the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and makes you glad for folks like Jamey Johnson and Hank Cochran and the art they have produced both past and present.
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