DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Country music artist Jamey Johnson has just released an album with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others called "Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran." Cochran, who died in 2010, wrote hits for a host of country singers.

Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE THE WORLD GO AWAY")

JAMEY JOHNSON AND ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) Make the world go away and get it off my shoulders. Say the things you used to say and make the world go away.

KEN TUCKER: That's "Make the World Go Away," sung by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss, a song written by Hank Cochran that was a multimillion-selling hit for Eddy Arnold and Ray Price in the 1960s, and recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Dean Martin. It's typical of Cochran's songwriting in a few ways. It's downbeat verging on despairing. It features a simple but striking central image - make the world go away is a phrase inviting intense isolation, even obliteration. Yet the song also possesses a beautiful lilt.

TUCKER: Another song about losing it all became the first number one hit for Patsy Cline. Here, "I Fall to Pieces" is slowed down, rearranged with a rather jazzy feel, and sung by Johnson and Merle Haggard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FALL TO PIECES")

JAMEY JOHNSON: (singing) I fall to pieces each time I see you again. I...

TUCKER: Jamey Johnson isn't the most likely country artist to record a Hank Cochran tribute album. His rumbling, burly vocal sound and his own songwriting tends to be more rousing and less subtle than Cochran's - to take just one example, Johnson is the co-author of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," a novelty hit for Trace Adkins in 2005.

Yet Johnson gives many effective performances on this album, including this duet with Ray Price, who is now in his 80s, in one of Cochran's most devastating yet beautiful songs, "You Wouldn't Know Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WOULDN'T KNOW LOVE")

RAY PRICE: (singing) For much too long I've tried so hard to hide the way you treated me and the way you've hurt my pride. A blind man could see what you've let go by. You wouldn't know love if it looked you in the eye. For much too long...

TUCKER: Hank Cochran had a career that spanned the 1960s through this new century. He didn't have a hugely successful recording career himself - his voice was rather wobbly and inexpressive. But it was sufficient to give other, better singers an idea of the elegantly simple craftsmanship that went into a composition, and how it could be turned into the kind of hopelessness that begets hits.

One of his latter-day songs was "He'll Be Back," recorded by Lee Ann Womack in 2002. Here, it's been re-recorded as "She'll Be Back," and sung by Johnson and Elvis Costello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE'LL BE BACK")

JOHNSON: (singing) Don't feel sorry for me. It's not like it seems. Yeah, she left this morning. Tonight I've got my dreams and memories.

JAMEY JOHNSON AND ELVIS COSTELLO: (singing) She'll be back. She'll be back.

JOHNSON: (singing) If she's anything like her memory, she'll be back.

ELVIS COSTELLO: (singing) Early morning kisses. Deep down hidden wishes. Old friends come to visit. That's how I remember her to be.

COSTELLO: (singing) She'll be back.

TUCKER: You can tell a lot about Hank Cochran's worldview just from his song titles, which also include "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me," "Love Makes a Fool of Us All" and "Don't Touch Me." They used to call these sorts of ballads weepers.

He tended to write in strict metrical quatrains, with an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. But there was nothing limited or constrained about the emotions that were poured into Cochran's sentiments. And in the throats of the right singers, such as those Jamey Johnson has assembled here, nearly all of them sound like heartbreaking classics.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Jamey Johnson's new album "Living for a Song." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on Ian McEwan's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.

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