During the last couple of years of his life, legendary songwriter Hank Cochran served as both a professional mentor and a close personal friend to acclaimed country artist Jamey Johnson. That deep connection informs every aspect of Living for a Song, the reverent tribute album Johnson has recorded for the late songwriter. Johnson and the small army of country stars he’s enlisted to collaborate on the project all wisely keep the focus on Cochran’s extraordinary songwriting, making for an album that highlights the depth and range of Cochran’s catalogue and the monumental influence his writing has had on country music.
The album opens with covers of two of Cochran’s best-known compositions, as Johnson is joined by Alison Krauss on a lovely rendition of “Make the World Go Away” before teaming up with Merle Haggard for a spirited, bluesy take on “I Fall to Pieces.” Both songs showcase the economy of language in Cochran’s writing, and the polished, unobtrusive production by Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson strikes the same balance between traditional and contemporary styles that made Johnson’s That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song so distinctive. The production nods toward the era in which Cochran wrote the material without relying on traditionalism as a crutch for credibility.
Ultimately, Cochran’s writing provides all of the genre bona fides the album could ever need. “Would These Arms Be in Your Way” and “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” are among the finest ballads about heartbreak in all of country music, while the wry turns of phrase on “I Don’t Do Windows” and “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” are no less clever and funny now than they were decades ago. Songs like “A-11” and “You Wouldn’t Know Love” repeatedly prove the extent to which Cochran’s straightforward narratives, evocative melodies, and plainspoken language have come to define the conventions of country songwriting, such that even more obscure cuts like “She’ll Be Back” and “I’d Fight the World” still seem familiar.
If the material on Living for a Song trades heavily in archetypes, the performances by Johnson and his collaborators offer some welcome surprises. Johnson’s never been known for the quality of his vocal performances or his range of expression, but he’s never sounded better than he does here. His rough-hewn baritone is well suited to a weary song like “Would These Arms Be in Your Way,” and he proves himself to be a deft harmony singer on “Don’t Touch Me,” a duet with Emmylou Harris. Both the lighthearted duet with Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on “I Don’t Do Windows” and his back-and-forth repartee with a feisty Lee Ann Womack on “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” are notable departures from his grizzled persona. To that end, Living for a Song allows Johnson to challenge himself artistically even as he pays tribute to a dear friend.