A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Jamey Johnson “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran” (Mercury Records)
Jamey Johnson assembles an array of veritable living legends to pay homage to his late, legendary idol with “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.”
But the hall of fame credentials of Johnson’s duet partners are less impressive than the fervent respect they bring to the 16 masterworks from Cochran’s songbook. For Johnson, who sang at Cochran’s deathbed, the collection is clearly a labor of love; after all, he picked it as the follow-up to his 2010 Grammy-nominated album “Guitar Song.” But all the artists who sing on the duets album either knew Cochran or previously recorded his songs, and co-producers Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson, who were friends of the songsmith, subtly suffuse each track with amber-hued warmth.
Even stalwart fans of rock- and pop-infused contemporary country may find themselves longing for the good old days after “Living for a Song.” The ever-present fiddles, steel guitars and barroom pianos aren’t surface-level adornments; Cochran’s cannily crafted songs are classically country down to their very bones.
Johnson goes it alone on only track, the beautiful ballad “Would These Arms Be in Your Way,” which Cochran wanted him to cut. He matches his gruff drawl with the distinctive heart-sore voices of Willie Nelson on “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” Kris Kristofferson on “Love Makes a Fool of Us All” and Ray Price on “You Wouldn’t Know Love.” Kristofferson, Nelson, Merle Haggard and Cochran himself sing along with Johnson on the title track, a poignant songwriter’s anthem that is all the more effective for the late songsmith’s presence.
The Alabama native shows an uncanny instinct for finding just the right mix of complementary and contrasting voices; for instance, Johnson, Nelson and Oklahoma natives Leon Russell and Vince Gill make a surprisingly ear-pleasing combo on the fun toe-tapper “Everything But You.” Gill and Russell also join Johnson for the honky-tonk dance number “A Way to Survive.”
Elvis Costello’s tender croon partners intriguingly with Johnson’s mournful cries on the torch song “She’ll Be Back,” former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn tears it up with Johnson on the jukebox heartbreaker “A-11,” and George Strait makes for a perfectly patriotic duet partner on “The Eagle.”
Johnson has more fun than probably ought to be allowed with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel of the uproarious hip-shaker “I Don’t Do Windows,” But the singer-songwriter and Haggard keep it low-key and bluesy on “I Fall to Pieces” rather than try to outgun Patsy Cline’s beloved 1961 rendition.
Considering Cline’s role in Cochran’s legacy, the scarcity of female voices on the collection might be its sole weakness. Johnson pairs with Alison Krauss for “Make the World Go Away,” Emmylou Harris on “Don’t Touch Me” and Lee Ann Womack for “This Ain’t My First Rodeo,” and they are three of the album’s brightest highlights.
Johnson plans to bring his fall tour in support of “Living for a Song” to three Oklahoma venues: He will play Nov. 29 at 7 Clans Paradise Casino in Red Rock; for more information, go to www.ticketstorm.com. He will perform Nov. 3 at Buffalo Run Casino in Miami; for more information, go to www.buffalorun.com. He will play Dec. 1 at Lucky Star Casino in Concho; for more information, go to www.luckystarcasino.org.