To the world outside Nashville, the men and women who actually pen those country radio mega-hits are at best a shadowy presence--ghostwriters hovering invisibly behind the stars. Within Nashville, however, some of these writers enjoy a respect bordering on reverence. Writers like the late, great Harlan Howard who penned "I Fall To Pieces" (a hit for Patsy Cline, for those of you who have been living in a cave) and his co-writer on that song, Hank Cochran. The Heart Of Hank: The Monument Sessions, a re-release of sides Cochran cut for Monument between 1962 and 1966, brings attention back to one of country music's greatest contributors, in his guises as writer and recording artist.
Cochran moved to Nashville in 1960 and quickly established himself as a Music Row heavy. In his long career, his songs have been hits for Ray Price, Burl Ives, Jeannie Seely and George Strait, among others. His own recording career was relatively short--he was never as passionate about it as he was about writing. While he covered a couple of Harlan Howard songs and one lesser known Merle Haggard song on the original album, the lion's share of the songs came from his own talented pen and that's where the energy and interest on this recording lie. These are some great country songs. Classic, in the sense that they've got everything you want to hear in the genre--hook, heartache, word play, catchy tunes--and yet still fresh in their subtlety and intelligence. In the dark wailer "I Just Burned A Dream," Cochran gave heartbreak an almost gothic turn as a man waits for the authorities to come for him after he burned down his house: "My heart is as empty / As where our house used to be / You see, I just burned a dream / You once shared with me." Sarcasm cuts deep on "It Couldn't Happen To A Nicer Guy": "You stole the one I love, ain't that true? / But I hear someone just did the same to you / She left you flat without a reason why / Well, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy." There's even a classic almost-spoken tear jerker, "Speak Well Of Me To The Kids." Cochran takes those messy human emotions that are grist for the country song mill and amplifies them, making each song almost an archetype of the genre.
While Hank Cochran's voice might not have made him a country superstar, his delivery was honest and straightforward and lent a certain vulnerability and charm to his songs. And although The Heart Of Hank may be a record of his foray into the performance end of making country music, there's no doubt where Hank Cochran's heart--and soul--really lie: in the crafting of good and enduring country songs. • Judith Edelman