“They played Hank Snow, Hank Williams Sr.,” Cochran says. “And my grandmother turned me on to Jimmie Rodgers when I was just a little kid. If I was born to do anything, musically, it’s to play bluegrass. When I learned to play banjo, it just fit — the high harmonies of traditional bluegrass. And I love the kind of lyrics that bring something to mind. Lyrics that make you go, ‘Whoa! That’s the truth. I’ve been there. Or, I know somebody who has.’”
Ever since he was in sixth grade, Cochran has been doing his part to give back to those old musical traditions. The singer/songwriter has compiled a still-growing body of country and folk originals that he performs onstage at bars, coffee shops and music festivals as well as through the new high-tech online venues of Reverb Nation and YouTube.
The newest song on Cochran’s Reverb Nation page, for instance, is “Mama’s Bible.” The chorus describes the book as “Her own piece of heaven, leather-bound / Mama’s bible has never let her down,” and another line observes “Mama’s bible, I’ve seen it slap the Devil in the face / Mama’s bible, it’s walked through hell and never singed a page / Sword or shield as needed, a road map for the lost...” As often happens, the inspiration for the song came to Cochran in pieces. One fragment arose while he was working on a paracord project — crafts made from parachute cord — and wondered what the process would be like for a blind person. “So I came up with the line, ‘There’s a power inside when you hold it, kind of makes you feel complete / Like a blind man sitting by the fire, he can’t see the flames but he can feel the heat.’
“I got to thinking how that applied to religion and belief, and not long after that I was actually getting my mom’s bible out of her car, and I knew the direction that line was going to go.”
Not long after Cochran finished school, he played for a while with what he called “a rock band, of sorts” that had gigs in the Chattanooga area. “The group did cover songs, and when they took a break there was nothing for me to do because I didn’t drink. So instead of just sitting there, I started doing an acoustic set of my original songs during the break.”
The response he got encouraged him to stay on the lonesome songwriting path, as opposed to performing the more in demand Top 40 playlists. If his body of work has a common thread so far, it’s a two-parter: faith and religion, and the love that got away.
The latter category includes a heartbreaker called “What Would We Be?”: “I found some old photographs in the closet, memories of me and you / The ghosts of the past started circling around, like they had nothing better to do / I put those pictures back where I found them, but I couldn’t get you out of my mind / I wonder where we’d be now, if we had given us a little more time?” And the chorus adds, “I wonder if you ever wonder / What we would be, if we’d been stronger? What we would be, if we’d swallowed our pride?”
According to Cochran, he’s always been drawn to songs of unrequited love. But like most subjects, he says, it has two sides: “I really like writing those bittersweet, almost-there songs. But on the other hand, the greatest curse you could put on somebody is to give them everything they want. Because then, what do they have to look forward to?
“My version of heaven is not of visiting with your family, but of knowing they’re about to arrive, at any minute. Looking forward. Looking at your watch. ‘Almost there’ is the best part of all.”
Beating the isolation
Songwriting can be an isolated pursuit, but Cochran’s path got a little less lonesome a year or so ago, when other area residents following the craft formed a group called (with a nod to the popular movie “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) the League of Extra-Ornery Songwriters, that meets monthly to share advice and ideas and critique one another’s work. The League has just released a new, self-titled CD compilation of members’ songs, including two from Cochran: “He Believes in Angels” and “When I Go.” (The CD is available at www.extraornerysongwriters.com)
“He Believes in Angels” is a love story, about an elderly man who still carries in his billfold a high school picture of his wife who passed away long ago. “When I Go” treats the question of what would make for a really good funeral.
“When I go, I hope it’s raining / Rain always helps me sleep,” one verse says. And the song concludes, “When I go, I hope that someone / Can say I helped them along the way / That I brought a bit of sunshine, on a cold cloudy day / May someone say that they love me, and it be truly so / Find laughter between the teardrops / May I find peace when I go.”
Music for the new CD was recorded by Fred Miller, whose studio Knodding Off Music is located in Mount Olive. “Skip writes what’s on his mind and it comes from his heart,” Miller says. “He has a perspective and insight that most people can appreciate and identify with. On a more personal note, it’s my wish to have his song ‘When I Go’ as the benediction for...when I go.”
Many of Cochran’s songs are about material so timeless they could have been written decades, even centuries, ago. One exception is a new protest song, of sorts, titled “I’m a Book.” It opens, “I was here before Google, and the World Wide Web / iPhones, iPads, Kindles — I’m the original ‘gotta have’ / I’ve been a billion places, to the stars and beyond / I’ve even been a booster seat, for a baby to sit on...”
“I saw an app the other day,” says Cochran, “that lets you speak some lyrics into it, and the software arranges them to music. Now, that song might be my words, but it doesn’t have my soul. So much of the popular music, to me, is what I call cookie-cutter stuff.
And especially some of the country music.
“I mean, nowadays we have classic cars. And we have classic songs. But nothing today is being made to become classic. It’s like our society; it’s all throw-away. We don’t save anything. Songs, cars ... they’re all to make a quick buck off of. The cars all look alike. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I envisioned for our country.”
It’ll be quite a few more years yet until Cochran finds out how many of his songs have stood the test of time. Until then, the best measure of success is word of mouth — namely, compliments. “I do love compliments,” he says. “Awhile back, I played a show at Daniel Day Gallery in Birmingham, and one of the songs I did, called ‘Here,’ was about losing my dad, back in 2005. After the show a lady came up to talk to me, and she was crying. She said her grandmother had passed away a week earlier, and she was having a hard time dealing with it. But she said she found some comfort in the song, and that for a minute it was like her grandmother was in the room with us.
“And I let her know how much that meant, to me. Because when you can connect, through music, to somebody you’ve never seen before — it makes everything worthwhile.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org