Hank Cochran: A Songwriter's Way of Life

First published in Country Music People, December 1981

Make The World Go Away, I Fall To Pieces, A Little Bitty Tear and She's Got You are just four of the songs that have made HANK COCHRAN one of country music's all-time great songwriters. ALAN CACKETT gives the details of the man behind the songs. 

Hank Cochran is in every sense the songwriter’s songwriter. He is one of the legendary Nashville songwriters. To his credit are such songs as I Fall To Pieces, Don’t Touch Me, A Little Bitty Tear, Make To World Go Away and She’s Got You. Though in songwriting terms he has been an unqualified success during the past 20 years, Cochran could not be described as a happy man. His personal life has been a struggle; a man who has lost out in love, turned to the bottle and never found the kind of real happiness everyone searches for.

His way of life is very much reflected in the lyrics of his songs, because he is one of the rare breed of songwriters who writes from personal experiences—either his own or those of friends he has encountered along life’s stormy road. Cochran’s elusive search for happiness can be traced back to his childhood. His youth was spent growing up in Isola, Mississippi, until the age of ten, when his parents divorced, after which he ended up in St. Peter’s Orphan Home in Memphis.

He didn’t stay at the orphan home for too long. He struck out on his own, has been doing it his own way ever since. He headed for New Mexico where he worked in the oilfields. A few years later he moved to California, and that was where he first became involved in music. He became friendly with budding rock’n’roll star Eddie Cochran (no relation, incidentally) and together they wrote songs and made several recordings.

It was 1954 and they recorded some country-influenced songs like Mr. Fiddle, Your Tomorrows Never Come, Tired And Sleepy and Two Blue Singing Stars. Three singles were released by Ekko Records out of Los Angeles by the Cochran Brothers, with Harold Hensley on violin and Eddie and Hank sharing the vocal honours. There were also a few records released by Jerry Capehart, including Rollin’ and Walkin’ Stick Boogie, for the Cash label which also featured the pair on guitars. At the same period, Hank had a song, Heart Of A Fool, which he had co-written with Eddie and Jerry, recorded by Lee Duncan on the VIK label.

Eddie Cochran went on to success as a rock’n’roll star of the 1950s with big hits like Summertime Blues, Twenty Flight Rock and Sitting In The Balcony (the latter a John D. Loudermilk song). Meanwhile, Hank remained in obscurity, but fired by Eddie’s success, turned his hand to songwriting. The songs he was writing were not what the West Coast music scene wanted. Being a country boy, Hank was naturally writing country songs, and so with a friend he travelled to Nashville for the 1959 Country Music Disc Jockey Convention, on the vague promise of a job playing bass for Ray Price.

He had already sent his songs off to Nashville and gained a response from Pamper Music, owned jointly by Price and Hal Smith. He didn’t get the job as bass player, but was offered the position of song-plugger for Pamper Music. Hank jumped at the opportunity, and in January 1960 he moved to Nashville. Working with his own songs and those by other budding songwriters, Hank soon fitted into his new environment and began getting his own songs recorded. He also came into contact with another promising West Coast-based songwriter Harlan Howard, who had also signed with Pamper Music.

Harlan was sending his songs to Nashville and Hank was getting them recorded by several of the major artists, and when they finally met up they became the best of friends, and over the years have collaborated on such songs as I Fall To Pieces and You Comb Her Hair. It would be true to say that I Fall To Pieces was the song that changed Hank Cochran from a struggling songwriter and plugger to a successful one. He had shown the song to almost every producer and artist in Nashville, but the response had always been the same—the song was not a strong one. Finally, Owen Bradley at Decca Records said he would get Patsy Cline to record the song (at the time Patsy was virtually an unknown, waiting for a big record to come along). Patsy was not over enthusiastic about the song, but finally she got round to recording it, and during 1961 it became the biggest pop and country smash, establishing Patsy Cline as a major star and being one of the most influential records in getting me hooked on country music. Plugging songs for Hank Cochran was now a much easier process. Artists were actually phoning him and enquiring as to what he had available, and the early 1960s certainly were Cochran's most successful years, in commercial terms, if not artistically.

He wrote such songs as A Little Bitty Tear and Funny Way Of Laughing, two big pop/country hits for Burl Ives in 1962 (the latter won a Grammy as Best Country Recording that same year), She’s Got You, recorded by Patsy Cline and covered in Britain by Alma Cogan, Make The World Go Away, originally recorded by Ray Price in 1963, and a big world-wide smash two years later for Eddy Arnold. Willingly, a minor country hit for Willie Nelson and Shirlie Collie in 1962, and Tears Broke Out On Me, another hit for Eddy Arnold. 

This kind of success gave Cochran the kind of financial stability that all songwriters strive for, and he began to invest his money wisely, becoming a part owner of Pamper Music. Joining forces with Willie Nelson, Cochran bought Ray Price’s shares in the publishing company, making it a three-way organisation with Hal Smith. A little later on Willie Nelson decided he didn’t want to be a publisher, so he sold his to Hank.

As events turned out, Pamper was purchased by Buddy Killen and Tree International in one of the biggest publishing company purchase deals in Nashville's history. Songs written by Cochran, Harlan Howard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Dave Kirby, Glenn Martin and many other writers were involved, and the acquisition of Pamper led to Tree becoming one of the largest publishing entities in Nashville.

Hank continued to write for Tree, and as the hits rolled out—I Want To Go With You (Eddy Arnold), (A) Way To Survive (Ray Price), Don’t Touch Me (Jeannie Seely) and Which One Will It Be (Bobby Bare)—so did the money roll in. And like so many successful songwriters, Hank tried his hand at performing.

His first country recordings in Nashville were released by Liberty Records, a West Coast-based label, which also had signed up Eddie Cochran back in 1958, and had in 1962 signed Willie Nelson. Hank still had friends and associates out on the Coast and with Liberty he enjoyed hits with Sally Was A Good Old Girl (a Harlan Howard song) and the self-penned I’d Fight The World, a song best known through the Jim Reeves' version. This was 1962, and a year later he enjoyed another minor hit with A Good Country Song on the Gaylord label.    

Two years later he signed with RCA in Nashville and released two albums—HITS FROM THE HEART and GOING IN TRAINING. Both albums featured many of his well-known songs at that time and have Hank giving creative, imaginative lyrics an impressive vocal treatment. The production was typical mid-1960s Nashville fare with strings breezing in and out behind Hank’s soft, country vocal style. These records enabled fans to appreciate just how many good songs Hank Cochran had written, but they meant nothing in terms of commercial success.

By this time Hank was beginning to suffer the effects of fame and success. His marriage to Shirley, that took place in the mid-1950s, was under a great strain, Singers would come into Nashville looking for material to record and turned to Cochran, the man with plenty of good ones. There were all-night drinking sessions when he would sing his new creations to whichever artist wanted to listen, and the continual drinking led to problems that usually ended up in drying-out sessions in hospital.

Eventually Hank and Shirley separated and got a divorce, and a new lady, Jeannie Seely, was to feature strongly in Hank’s life. He wrote several songs especially for Jeannie, and she enjoyed hits with Don’t Touch Me (a Grammy winner for Best Country Performance by a Female Artist in 1966), I’ll Love You More, Just Enough To Start Me Dreaming, Welcome Home To Nothing and When It’s Over.

The pair became husband and wife, and there’s no doubt that for many years Jeannie was a sobering influence on Hank. Another important artist associated with Cochran is Jack Greene, who for many years recorded and toured with Jeannie Seely. Jack had recorded some dozen Hank Cochran songs, including hits like He Little Thing’d Her Out Of My Arms, Hangin; Over Me, Satisfaction and Wish I Didn’t Have To Miss You, the latter a duet with Jeannie Seely.

Having provided so many hit songs for his wife, who was recording for Monument, led to Hank signing to the label and recording an excellent album, HEART OF COCHRAN, and scoring on the country charts in 1967 with All Of Me Belongs To You. This album contained lesser-known songs than the two recorded for RCA, and the whole record is characterised by understatement and economy. But apart from that isolated chart success, other singles like It Couldn’t Happen To A Nicer Guy and Speak Well Of Me To The Kids failed to make any impression. 

Though many of Hank’s songs have been recorded by the smoother song stylists, basically his material is best suited to those singers with a hard country edge to their voices. Country singers like George Jones (You Comb Her Hair), Merle Haggard (It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) and Who Do I Know In Dallas), Gene Watson (He Little Thing’d Her Out Of My Arms) and Ronnie Sessions (If The Back Door Could Talk).

Nashville is now an industry, a boom town full of guitar pickers and gold records. Country music had never enjoyed so much success, and most of this success is due to songwriters like Cochran, who have kept plugging away at the craft they enjoy and are good at, but maybe it’s ironic that in the midst of all this money the music itself has started to forget its roots. It has become soft and slick and none too profound. The songs offer platitudes and sentimentality in the place of real truths and emotions. It has become the culture of conservative Middle America.

There are exceptions, of course, songwriters like Hank Cochran, Harlan Howard, Glenn Martin, Sonny Throckmorton and Bob McDill are among the finest songwriters in the world. But much of mainstream country is caught up in its own commercialism, having been diluted into middle-of-the-road music to hit the widest market. Consequently the music no longer reflects the honesty of its roots, though several of the long-standing songwriters are still writing straight from the heart with feelings in words and music that cut right through to the listener.

Songs that Hank Cochran wrote almost 20 years ago are still being recorded today and made into new hits. Charly McClain scored a few years ago with Make The World Go Away, Loretta Lynn lifted She’s Got You from her Patsy Cline tribute album and made the top ten, Del Reeves made the charts some five years ago with You Comb Her Hair. Then there’s Jim Reeves who made the charts posthumously twice with I’d Fight The World in 1967 as originally recorded in 1962 and then again in 1974 with new backing added. And Patsy Cline has also had new backing added to her old recordings, and I Fall To Pieces has once again become a major hit.

His consistency as a songwriter led eventually to Hank making a return to the studios in 1978 to record a new album, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS. His songwriting has taken on an even more sarcastic tone as his cutting, wry and sardonic humour fiercely hits below the belt. Production by Glenn Martin is simple yet highly effective, as Cochran is joined vocally by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely.
Mixing his usual down-and-out forlornment with a spark of rejuvenation, he reflectively explores bleak and stale settings, new and old love prospects, old friends and skid-row inhabitants, while his gruff voice and character is at its best in terms of control.

Willie, a Glenn Martin song paying tribute to Willie Nelson, is a pleasant, laid-back duet with Merle Haggard. That’s followed by the standout track, the self-penned Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine. Initially, it’s hard to see any commercial value at all in this dour, bleak song. Gradually the pieces fall into place, and it takes on a semblance of sense, if still a bit ponderous. On Ain’t Life Hell, Hank is joined by Nelson. Each note sounds as if it's being wrenched forcibly from the Cochran lungs. No doubt this comes as much from his vocal limitations as from any conscious attempt at stylisation. Nevertheless, ignoring its origins, it's an attractive voice that Hank possesses—although I can quite conceive of someone being put off by the very properties which I find appealing. Such is personal taste.

One again the album was critically acclaimed, but it failed to make an impression in terms of sales, but Cochran is determined to continue as a recording artist. He is not looking for a big hit single, but steady album sales, which will enable him to experiment on record, both with songs and arrangements. Last year he signed a contract with Elektra Records and released an album, MAKE THE WORLD GO AWAY. This time he had dug deep in his overflowing song bag and revived some of the classics from the past, like You Comb Her Hair, I Fall To Pieces, A Little Bitty Tear and A-11.

Practically the whole emotional gamut of Cochran’s work is covered in this album, from the stoic resignation of He's Got You to the brash assertion of Sally Was A Good Old Girl. The musicians, especially Billy Earl McClelland and Rafe VanHoy, play with considerable intelligence and only subtly assert their personalities over the diverse material. The freshness and vitality of the album is derived as much from its restraint—and the brittle, understated production—as from the strength of the songs themselves. 

Nowadays Hank resides in Nashville, but he also has a boat which enables him to get away occasionally. Though he and Jeannie are still married, they have not lived together for the past five years. They are still the best of friends, but have decided to file for divorce. Hank of course is still busy writing songs. That album on Elektra included some fine new creations like I Don’t Do Windows and Love Makes A Fool Of Us All. Mickey Gilley scored a number one hit with That’s All That Matters To Me, and more recently he's had songs recorded like I Know An Ending (When It Comes) by B.J. Wright, and Don’t Touch Me by T.G Sheppard.

Besides having his songs recorded regularly, Hank made his acting debut last year in the Willie Nelson film, Honeysuckle Rose, and also spent the summer opening Nelson’s road show. But it is as a songwriter that he gains the most satisfaction. He is not a prolific songwriter. In 21 years as a professional writer he has only about 400 songs to his credit, but some of them have become the biggest hits of the last two decades. And that’s not a bad achievement for a man who considers himself just a simple country boy.

Hank Cochran Album Discography
The Many Sides Of Eddie Cochran (features Hank Cochran on some tracks: guitar/vocals) – Rockstar RSR-LP 1001 (British release)
Hits From The Heart – RCA Victor LSP 3303
Going In Training – RCA Victor LSP 3431
Heart Of Cochran – Monument SLP 18089
With A Little Help From My Friends – Capitol ST 11807
Make The World Go Away – Elektra 6E-277
All the above albums are U.S releases except where indicated.