Hank Cochran Interview --- An Hour With a Legend
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Note: I did this interview in November 2008 and it was published in American Songwriter Magazine, January 2009.
A native of Isola, Miss., Hank Cochran moved to Nashville in January 1960 after living in California and touring the country with Eddie Cochran and Lefty Frizzell. A staff writer for Pamper Music for many years, Hank co-wrote “I Fall To Pieces” with Harlan Howard, a song that shot No.1 when Patsy Cline recorded it.
He’s credited with “discovering” Willie Nelson. A 1974 inductee into the Nashville Songwriter Association’s Hall of Fame (by unanimous vote, the only songwriter to receive such a vote), Cochran has received over 30 BMI Performance Awards for his timeless compositions. Among his many hits are: “Make the World Go Away,” “I Fall To Pieces,” “Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me,” “The Chair” and “Miami, My Amy.”
His songs have been recorded by a slue of other legendary songwriters and performers: Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Chet Atkins, Junior Brown, Jimmy Buffett, Tracy Byrd, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Elvis Costello, Bing Crosby, Don Gibson, Vern Gosdin, Ty Herndon, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Joe Henry, Harry James, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Loretta Lynn, Dean Martin, Reba McEntire, Wayne Newton, Buck Owens, Elvis Presley, Ray Price, LeAnn Rimes, Linda Ronstadt, Nancy Sinatra, George Strait, Carla Thomas, Ernest Tubb, Lee Ann Womack and the list could go on.
His contribution to the craft of songwriting is undeniable. AS caught up with Hank to catch up on some of his newer songs and a few of his favorite memories. Since our meeting Hank underwent surgery to remove to two tumors and six months of chemotherapy, and is recovering nicely.
Will you tell me about writing one of my favorite songs, “The Chair” recorded by George Strait? Dean Dillon and I were on my boat working on songs my wife was laying down in the back of the boat and said, “Somebody already has a song with a title of a song ya’ll are working on.” Dean said, “Well. Excuse me” and I said, “I think you’ve got my chair” and he said, “We have the start of a song right there!” I said, “I’ve got the ending, the melody. You start at the beginning and I’ll start at the end and we’ll meet in the middle for the song.” I wrote the second, he started the first and we matched up lines. I had the line, “Can I drink you a buy and that matched up with a line that he had, “Awe listen to me can I buy you a drink?” He said, “Do ya know how great that is”? We sang it to George next time we saw him, and “The Chair” is one of his favorite songs he ever cut. He put it on his Fifty Number Ones album years later after it was a hit. He put it also on 22 More Songs!
I love your CD, Livin’ For a Song and the song “You Wouldn’t Know Love.” The song is 35 years old-Ray Price had a hit in Europe on it. I wanted it on the CD.
Another song had the great rhyme “pickle” and “nickel” in a song. “When coke was a nickel and people canned their own pickles!” That was the opening line in the song. Somebody else told me I was their hero because I rhymed door and goat!
Do you have a “hookbook” that you use for writing songs? I do not have a hookbook or rhyming dictionary. I do not know where the ideas come from. Some of those lines come through me. I tell the co-writers, “That’s God Given.” I do not have a book of lines. Sometimes when I am going to sleep and get an idea I write it down, but usually do not go back to them. A couple weeks ago I wrote a gospel song-had the idea before going to sleep one night. I wrote the song a couple days later without the notes that I had written. Last week, I found the tablet that I wrote the idea on as I was looking for a phone number. Those ideas were in the song, but I did not use that tablet for the notes on the song. When you are going to sleep, your mind relaxes and those lyrics or ideas come into your mind. You’d better write them down.
You have a song on your CD, “He Little Thinged Me.” Tell me about it. I wrote it in 1975 as I was burned up and burned out. I said, “I’ve got do something” and went to California and bought a boat, 50-foot Grand Banks. I hired a captain; he was John Wayne’s captain and said he could only work for me for a couple months at the most. He stayed with me four years! We took it from San Diego to Hendersonville, Tenn.-took us a year-through the Panama Canal. We made it through some terrible storms. One of the storms that I remember was just horrific. There was a pump behind the wheel and at times the boat was gong over and you could hear one of the props going out of the water. I asked him if this is it. He said “We’ll know in a minute”. He (the boat captain) got it turned around and we made it. We made it to Columbia to survive that storm. When we found a marina and were glad to see land!
Did you write a lot that year? I wrote “He Little Thinged Me” on that trip.
Did you take anything to write with such as recorders, notes, guitar or anything else? I had some tapes I liked to listen to and my gut string Martin that I played. That guitar was about to give up when we arrived in Nashville from all that salt water. I took it to the Martin Guitar rep and they fixed that guitar back up for me.
“Make it short, make it sweet and make it rhyme” is a quote attributed to you. Where did you get that phrase? Just my philosophy, such as nickel and pickle. It has always been with me. I’ve been in Nashville since January of 1960. As you can see, it has grayed me and scarred me.
“Magic in the Band.” Every artist should listen to that song every night! I wrote that song for George Strait and do not know if it ever got pitched to him.
Tell me about your song, “The Pen.” That really touched me as I am a songwriter. I wrote the song on the guitar that I took on the boat. I was trying to put down my feelings. I was just talking, not singing. My wife Suzi thought I should be singing instead of talking the song. The title of my CD, Livin’ for a Song is all I’ve done for 48 years and try to do what is right and try to help some others. I am just a pen in his (The Lord’s) hand. It was just the old man in me running through.
I signed autographs Sunday (North American Country Music Association International which gave Hank the Legendary Songwriter of the Year) for two hours-kids, teenagers, good looking ladies, older folks that told me they are glad we still have someone in country music that still has soul and feeling. I got a standing ovation-I cannot understand it as they stood as I was crying while singing, “I Fall To Pieces.” I was thinking about Patsy Cline as I was singing the song. I don’t know if I deserved it, but it was sweet for sure. That ain’t work, playing songs and talking to people and them asking for photos and autographs! It was a heavy load and I wasn’t accustomed to it. I’ve played for 20, 30 and 80,000 people and wasn’t as touched as I was on Sunday.
“Miami My Amy” was a breakout song for Keith Whitley-how did that come about to write and get to Keith Whitley? I got to know Keith before writing that song and that song was Keith Whitley’s first hit. I got to know him. Dean Dillon and I were on my boat in Florida. Dean and I would go and sit on a boat in Palm Beach. My son came to see us. My wife introduced my son, Donny, to a good looking young woman. Donny had to go back to California. He asked if he should stay with that girl. I told him I didn’t know. I could look at him and see myself at that young age. Her name was Amy. I told Dean, “Did you see the way Danny feels about that girl?” What do you think about putting it together in a song. “Miami My Amy” loves me after all kind of song. We wrote it!
How did you get it to Keith? I just took, “Miami, My Amy” to Keith as we were friends. He and I even wore the same size boot. A friend of mine in Oklahoma made me a nice pair of boots. Keith told me he loved my boots. I told Keith Whitley, “Give me a number one song and I’ll give them to you.” He tried them on and they fit perfectly. I told him we may have that song right here for your new boots and we sang it to him! He recorded it. Keith got a new pair of boots a little while later when that song went up to No. 1 on the charts! It knocked me out as he and I were great friends. It really got to me when he passed. The guy that lived next to him was a friend of mine. He called me one morning and said he has bad news. I said, “When you call in the morning it is bad news.” The neighbor said, “They just took Keith out of his house… I thought I recently talked to Keith. He was drinking, an alcoholic…
…I understand. Let’s talk about another friend of yours that you helped in the business-Willie Nelson! You said somewhere, “He was so different and so much better than anyone in town,” about Willie Nelson. What was it like back in those days in Nashville and what was it about Willie that made you say that about him? We had a guitar pull on day about 4:00 with 4 or 5 of us upstairs at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge as someone had introduced me and Willie. After a couple of rounds of songs, Willie played better than anyone of us! I asked, “Whose songs are those?” Willie replied, “Mine.” I said, “You wrote those songs” and he said “Yes.” I asked about his publishing and he said everyone in town had turned those songs down. I told him, “If you can meet me the next day in Goodlettsville, you will not say everyone turned them down!” He said, “I can probably make it out there if you can bring me back to town” [laughs]. I said, “If you make it out there I’ll make sure you make it back.”
He came out and sang me some songs and I went in to talk to Harold Smith, my publisher and told him I found this guy that he has to sign. He asked what Willie would have to have for a weekly pay. I said, “I’m getting $50.00 a week and reckon he has to have the same amount as he has three kids and a wife.” Harold said, “We were fixing to give you a raise, but I cannot give it to you and pay him too.” I told my publisher, “Give it to Will and sign him”! He said “Are you sure.” I said, “That’s how much I believe in him.” The publishing company signed him and we’ve been friends ever since.
The same thing happened with a record deal a little on down the road too-right? Yeah, the record company executive said he cannot sign both of us at the same time. I told him, “Well, sign Willie as he is more of an artist that I am.” Willie got that deal!
I want a Willie story that hasn’t been printed? OK-here’s one for you, kind of a road story. I was on the road with Willie and my boat was in the Bahamas. We had a couple days off and suggested we go to the boat. He called his wife and I made the reservations. We had to fly into Treasure Key and take a water taxi to the boat at Green Turtle. I told him “Don’t take any smoke or anything ‘cause there is a lot over there anyway. He put on a clean pair of jeans and put his dirty jeans in his duffle bag. I just packed three pair of jeans and bought T shirts on the island when I visited my boat.
I told Willie not to check our luggage as I went to change my clothes. I came back and our luggage was checked with the airline. My briefcase was part of my luggage with my passport in it. I told him they will lose it for sure. Yeah-it got lost. They all knew me and Willie at customs, stamped some papers and let us go to my boat. After two days, Willie thought we should go get out luggage at the airport. I told the captain of the boat to take us to Treasure Key and wait for us to return. If anything happens send someone for us.
The luggage had come in and they guy sat Willies’ bag up on the counter. He asked Willie if that particular bag was his. He asked when pulling a bag out of Willie’s jeans that were in the bag, “Mr. Nelson, what does this look like to you?” Willie said, “Kinda looks like marijuana to me.” The gentleman then said, “Mr. Cochran, what does this look like to you” and I said, “Looks like I need a drink” [laughs]. They had to call the police from Cooperstown-only ten miles away. The customs officer said, “I didn’t know this was Willie’s bag and I have already called the police in Cooperstown. Well, they took us to Cooperstown. I asked if they were going to put us in jail. The policeman replied, “No, but you will have to make bail.” Neither Willie nor I had any money on us. We stood around outside and a friend of mine, Donny, went to the boat for me and got the $800.00.
While we were waiting on Donny with the money we stood around and had a beer. Finally, Donny came back with the money. One of us made a mistake after they released us and asked if they would give us the marijuana back [laughs]! Willie jumped over a rail as we were going down the street back to the boat and sprained his ankle! The next day he was flying to the White House. He did a network TV show with Barbara Walters soon after the trip. One of the questions she asked if he had ever had a problem with smoking, Willie looked right in the camera and said, “No.”
Would you tell me about one of my favorite songs, “Make the World Go Away”? That is one of my favorite songs too! I was at a movie with a girl, Fred Rogers secretary, when I was divorced and living in a little apartment in Madison, Tenn. I was intently listening to the lines in the movie, and the woman in the movie said something, “How do I look” and she said. The guy replies, “You look like you could make the world go away.” I grabbed my date’s hand and she asked, “Where are you going, the movie ain’t over,” and I said, “The hell it ain’t’ come on let’s go”! [laughs]. So I drug her out and we got in the car and I started to write the song and got my guitar out as soon as we got to my apartment. I thought I had a good one. I told my publisher, Mr. Smith the next day, “I think I got one.” He told me to play the song for him. He looked at me and said he thought it is the worst song that I had ever written. I told him, “Everyone wants to make the world go away and get it off their shoulders.”
I knew I was right and he was wrong. He told me I had proved him wrong before and I was determined to do it again. I proceeded and wrote the song lyrics on a big piece of paper and put a big one on each end of it put it on my desk so I would have to see that song every time I was in my office. I got it got cut in a week by a girl named Timi Yero [a minor pop hit] and then by Ray Price [a No. 1 song].
Billy Walker came in one day and said he is doing an album with Eddy Arnold and said he is looking for songs about the world, I told him I have one “Make The World Go Away” and he said that Eddy heard Ray Price’s version and could not sing that song with the high notes. I told him he has to hear the way that I wrote it. I had someone bring up my version that was recorded and Bill said Eddy could sing it like I had originally did it. A film crew from the Jimmy Dean Show happened to be in the studio when Eddy was recording the song. I told them it should be a single and they could put that part on the show, so they put it out as a single and the song quickly went to No. 1. Elvis Presley also cut the song. Timi Yero sang the song to him and he loved it. Elvis wanted the publishing and even tried to buy our company to get the publishing on the song and I would not sell it to him. He loved the song anyway and cut it!
Congratulations! You beat Colonel Tom Parker on a publishing deal! You know a few years back they found a video of Elvis cutting it for a movie and they took it out of where they stored tapes. I worked the an Elvis celebration in Memphis a few years back and the radio personality from Sirius Radio asked me which one of my songs that Elvis cut as he was interviewing me on stage. All of a sudden they dropped a full screen and instantly “Make the World Go Away” with Elvis singing the song came on the screen! The 50,000 fans thought Elvis came back! The fans all rushed the stage and the radio guy said, “Run” and he didn’t have to tell me twice!
Who helped you when you came to town? Billy Walker was the first person that I met in town.
Did you tour with Willie Nelson? I was opening the shows for his fair dates in the ‘70s.
How did that happen? Buddy Lee of Buddy Lee Attractions asked me if I could get Willie to play some fair dates for him. I told him I could call Willie. I told Willie that Buddy and I are working together for some fair dates and wanted to talk with him. Buddy Lee and I went to Houston and up to Willie’s room. Willie told Buddy that he wanted $51,000 up front for each of the dates, plus so much of the profit and he wanted me to open all of his fair dates for five years. Buddy said yes! I didn’t make the total five years [laughs]. I do not know exactly how long, but didn’t make it all those years. I’m 72 and spent the last 48 years in Nashville. I am very thankful and I am still writing songs!
What advice would you give to songwriters? I wish I had a way of telling all the songwriters how to do it. All I know for sure that I would tell you what I did and what has happened to me and you can do whatever you want to with it. It’s a long, hard and rocky road-and even now after 48 years of being in this town. Do not ever let anyone tell you that your song is no good if you believe in it. I am determined to prove someone wrong if they do not like my song. Have the determination and you will do it!