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Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, others remember country music songwriter Hank Cochran

July 16, 2010 | 11:53 am

Hank Cochran-boat

Hank Cochran, the celebrated country songwriter and singer who died Thursday at age 74 from pancreatic cancer, spent most of his life immersed in music, searching for the next song to write, and it sounds like that’s the way he spent his final time on Earth.

“I spent the last day of his life at his bedside along with his family and a few close friends,” singer and songwriter Jamey Johnson told me in an e-mail he sent a few hours after Cochran died at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. “Buddy [Cannon, the songwriter] joined us later in the afternoon and brought along Billy Ray Cyrus. We sang a range of old gospel songs and many of his own songs to him: ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ ‘Is it Raining at Your House,’ ‘Set 'em Up Joe’ and ‘Make the World Go Away.’

“My 6-year-old daughter even sang along with us on ‘The Chair,’ and she got a kick out of Billy Ray's ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ which even got Hank singing along for a note or two,” Johnson noted. “Although Hank was tired, he didn't want anyone to leave. He was enjoying the fellowship.”

Because Cochran had been struggling for a long time with cancer, many of his friends kept in close touch and spoke to him in person or by phone in his final days. Ray Price told me, “I talked to Hank on Monday and had a chance to say goodbye. This is not a real happy day; he will be missed, I guarantee it. … He was a great person in our business, and he contributed an awful lot.”

Merle Haggard said he also checked in with Cochran on Wednesday night while Johnson and the others were in the room. Haggard had been told when he called that Cochran wasn’t responsive, but when he spoke into the phone “Hello, Hank,” Cochran perked up and said, “Hey -- hi, Merle.”

Haggard asked his fellow songwriter, many of whose songs Haggard recorded over the years, “If we were to write a song together right now, what would it be called?” He said Cochran replied, “Oh . . . ,” and that may have been the last thing he said. “He was our idol,” Haggard said, speaking on behalf of a triumvirate of country’s finest writers: himself, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Kristofferson sent me this note on Friday morning about his longtime friend:

"When I came to Nashville in 1965 there were four songwriters who were in a class by themselves at the top of the business: Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard. They didn’t just write the most hits; their songs were beautiful, timeless classics. And on top of that they were some of the funniest people on the planet.

"Once we were all together being filmed taking turns singing our songs when suddenly the action was interrupted by Poodie Locke -- Willie’s famous roadie -- punching Hank in the face hard, apparently over a woman he’d stolen. It sort of disrupted things for awhile, and I remember Willie saying, “It was kinda like seeing your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Cadillac. I thought, ‘All right! Oh, no!'

"Later back stage we were all drinking and laughing, and Hank was sitting off by himself. He was wearing a pith helmet, with dark glasses to cover the black eye. I went over and asked him how he was doing. He didn’t say anything for a few moments, then he said, 'My horoscope said this was going to be a better day.' That’s all he said all night.

"And now Hank’s gone. So is Poodie. And Roger, and Harlan," Kristofferson wrote. "I'd like to think they’re all hanging out somewhere, with their music and laughter."

As for Jamey Johnson, who co-wrote the Academy of Country Music’s song of the year for 2009, “In Color,” he was introduced to one of his songwriting heroes through their mutual friend Cannon. Cochran “lived more in 74 years than I could in 150," Johnson said. "He wrote songs because he simply couldn't hold them inside. Always quick with a great line or a joke, he was a constant reminder that even in the sometimes-murky waters of the music business you can still find a way to have a lot of fun. ... He loved his wife, he loved his life, and he lived for a song.”

I’ll always remember seeing Cochran saluted during a country songwriters tribute I covered in 1993 here in Los Angeles, where he first got his music career off the ground in the '50s.

He was part of what, with each passing year, strikes me as a dream lineup of country writers who were honored that night. Cochran sat there in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion alongside Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and Howard. The event's fifth honoree, Miller, was saluted posthumously that night.

And the performers that evening: Ray Charles, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood and Hal Ketchum. Gill sang Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away,” which has been recorded by dozens of singers over the decades, and Ketchum handled “I Fall to Pieces,” the one he wrote with his longtime friend, Howard.

I've long considered “I Fall to Pieces” a masterpiece in the way it conveys a world of emotion with just a handful of words:

I fall to pieces
Each time someone speaks your name
I fall to pieces
Time only adds to the flame

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Hank Cochran in 2004. Credit: Tim Campbell