Poets and Prophets: Hank Cochran

March 24, 2007
Following the maxim “make it short, make it sweet, make it rhyme,” songwriting legend Hank Cochran has produced some of the greatest country songs ever recorded. He gave museum patrons a glimpse into his life and career Saturday (March 24), during a ninety-minute interview, with multimedia elements, in the museum’s Ford Theater. 

Speaking with Museum Editor Michael Gray, Cochran, 71, shared stories about his early life, the career path that led him to Nashville, and the inspirations for hit songs such as “She’s Got You” and “Don’t Touch Me.” He spoke in an endearing, rambling style that kept the capacity audience hanging on his every soft-spoken word. The program was the first in a new, quarterly museum series, Poets and Prophets, honoring legendary country songwriters.

Born in Isola, Mississippi, Cochran recalled picking cotton at age eight or nine, and moving on to oilfield work as a roustabout by age twelve. A guitar-playing uncle, though, showed him what music could do for a young fellow. “He had all the girls,” Cochran observed. So Cochran got a guitar and learned to play, too. “That’s what shaped me,” he quipped.

Moving to California, Cochran fell in with Eddie Cochran (no relation), performing as the Cochran Brothers. They made records, and toured with Lefty Frizzell, but after seeing Elvis Presley perform in Memphis, the duo updated their style. “Eddie rocked and I rolled,” Cochran said. He found the rock & roll milieu not to his liking, however. “I can’t handle those people screamin’ and grabbin’ at me,” he told his partner, and they split.

After signing a publishing deal with newly formed Pamper Music, Cochran moved to Nashville to work for the company as a writer, talent scout, and songplugger. He arrived in January 1960. “There was snow everywhere,” he remembered. Cochran found his way to two popular musicians’ haunts: Mom Upchurch’s boarding house in East Nashville and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where he could get “beer and chili on credit.” Both proved useful places to be as he networked to get established in the music business.

The Pamper offices in Goodlettsville had a garage out back. Cochran and one of his recruits—fellow writer and friend Willie Nelson—turned it into a writers’ lair, where hits came off their pens like sausage off a diner griddle. Cochran had no shortage of stories about Nelson, whom he described as “so much different and better than anybody in town.” Cochran recalled Nelson’s journey out to Goodlettsville, in precarious transportation, to sign his writer’s contract; a scheme to replace Nelson’s bad car tires with better ones, from Roger Miller’s car, which was on the verge of repossession; and an altercation in a Lower Broadway bar between Nelson and his wife that put Cochran in the emergency room at Vanderbilt Hospital with a split chin that Nelson reluctantly allowed a weekend-duty physician to stitch up.

Cochran took special care to recall the saga of the creation, pitching, recording, and breaking of “I Fall to Pieces.” And there were other tidbits: Patsy Cline cried when she heard Hank sing “She’s Got You” the first time. Bobby Bare was going with Jeannie Seely when Cochran wrote “Don’t Touch Me.” He promised Seely she could record the song, then had to turn down Buck Owens, who also wanted to cut it when he heard it. “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me” affected Cochran so deeply that he couldn’t bear to sing it for two years after he wrote it. Wife Suzi had to insist that he present “Ocean Front Property” to George Strait—neither Cochran nor co-writer Dean Dillon thought the song worthy of such a pitch.

Briefly, Cochran recalled his early sixties flirtation with a singing career, and the audience heard a snippet of his most successful recording, the #20 chart hit for Liberty “Sally Was a Good Old Girl.” Cochran closed the afternoon session with his own performance of another of his compositions, “Ain’t Life Hell.” 

Living in Nashville has kept him humble, Cochran said. “If you get the big head in this town,” he counseled, “look around you. There’s probably someone right next to you who can out-write you and out-sing you.” But few, if any, have come along who could out-write Cochran. For his part, he credited divine grace for blessing him with his songs: “I believe,” he said, “the good Lord give ‘em all to me.”

--Jay Orr