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“Circle” Vol. III
Hank Cochran
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Music Journalist

Hank Cochran — Nashville’s Hit Dreamer
by Larry Wayne Clark

This interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association.
2002, all rights reserved

Hank Cochran
If Harlan Howard is the proclaimed “dean of country songwriters,” certainly his friend Garland Perry “Hank” Cochran stands next in line for the title. In many ways the two seem cut from the same cloth. Both victims of rootless and deprived childhoods (Cochran spent time in a Memphis orphanage), they turned to music for a deliverance that bordered on religious salvation. Both spent years in California before seeking — and attaining — fame and fortune in Nashville, a burgeoning music center that the two men helped create. Already celebrated for their songwriting, both reluctantly conceded to unwanted recording careers that produced less than stellar results. Both shared a reckless passion for exuberant living and serial matrimony (Cochran has been married five times, including a 10 year union with country star Jeannie Seely).

Now 66, sporting a bushy white beard and fighting diabetes, Cochran still lives for the songwriter’s buzz in all its many forms. The joy of harvesting a new idea (they come to him so easily he claims he can dream fully-formed songs), the miraculous alchemy of the recording session, even the nuts-and-bolts chore of pitching his (and other people’s) songs. Some “creative types” shudder at the thought of hawking their wares. Not Cochran. He’s been a songplugger almost as long as he’s been a writer, and for him the various processes of song husbandry form one seamless fabric. Since the sale of Pamper Music (a company he helped build, eventually becoming a partner), and following a subsequent stint as a Tree staffwriter, Cochran has been independent and seems to like it that way. His company, Co-Heart Music Group, would be a money-maker had Cochran chosen to retire in the late ’60s. His classic hit songs with artists such as Eddy Arnold, Burl Ives and, especially, Patsy Cline are among the most lucrative in the country canon, and Cochran has enjoyed success through the ’80s and early ’90s, with hits by Vern Gosdin and George Strait (“Ocean Front Property” and “The Chair”). Not that Cochran is the retiring type anyway. Now comfortably ensconced on fourteen acres of farmland in Hendersonville (north of Nashville), he shares his momento-cluttered home with his photographer wife Suzi and a never-ending parade of cronies old and new (I was asked to sign a guestbook) that includes songwriters, singers, pickers and engineers.

Cochran has a newly-built 24-track studio in an outbuilding in which various recording projects are being developed. Among the people I met on the day of this interview (besides Suzi, whose excellent black and white shots adorn various walls) were veteran songwriter and longtime Cochran friend Red Lane, and Danny Griego, a good-looking young singer-songwriter from Arizona who lives with the Cochrans. Griego helped build the studio and is known to make a mean plate of enchiladas from scratch with very little provocation. He’s pursuing a recording career — two, in fact, having signed a deal with a Spanish pop label as well as a country deal with a Nashville indie. And if I seem to be going on at length about Griego, it has a lot to do with the fact that Cochran, ever the gentleman, asked me to make sure that due mention was given his young friend.

It seems that Hank Cochran, the child from tiny Isola, Mississippi, whom no one really seemed to want, and whose life could have taken so many wrong turns, is spending his twilight years enviably: financially at ease, surrounded by those who love him, mentally acute and creatively excited. Not surprisingly, he has a great story to tell about a decades-long career built on relationships with legends like Howard, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Owen Bradley, Ray Price and many more. Fortunately for us, it’s an account that Cochran — often seeming the wide-eyed kid turned loose in a candy store who’s not quite sure how he got so lucky — isn’t at all reluctant to share.

We sit in his office on a gorgeous April day, surrounded by bookshelves stocked with hardcover editions, leaning heavily toward biographies, history and theology (“I damn near quit reading fiction; I figure I got enough going on in there I can scrounge up enough fiction”). Obviously this fourth grade dropout is not only a self-made man but a self-educated one with a keen and hungry mind. As Griego busies himself nearby making CD copies, Cochran relaxes in a couch and lets his story unwind, his speech unabashedly rural and occasionally slurred. He explains that he’s recently had five teeth removed and a new plate installed which is giving him a little discomfort.

How long have you lived in this house?
Eighteen years.

When did you come to Nashville?
January of 1960, I moved here. Come here on the bus.

Did you figure you were going to be a songwriter or a performer at that time?
I come here to write songs.

But you did have several record deals?
Yeah, I’d record anytime, you know. Another way of getting songs out. But, I never really wanted to be a star. I couldn’t handle it. Even in the ’50s when me and Eddie Cochran was working as a duo, I’d push him out there and I’d run backstage and hide. That’s when rock & roll was really coming in, and we was doing a few rock & roll tunes and opening for Lefty Frizzell. I loved Lefty, he was my idol. And then to get to work with him and be really great friends! Lefty was my hero when I was just learning to play the guitar, ten, eleven years old. Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, was all like my favorite artists — and one of the biggest records I ever had was “Make The World Go Away” by Eddy Arnold. It’s really weird. Burl Ives was one of my favorite artists.

You and Harlan Howard pretty much made Burl Ives’ pop record career. Which songs did you write?
I wrote his two hits, “Little Bitty Tear” and “Funny Way Of Laughin’.”

I remember those Burl Ives records really well.
When I was a kid picking olives in California, I was buying Burl Ives records. When the 45s first came out there was a little bitty machine about that big [“measures” a portable record player] — remember them?

“Blue Tail Fly,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Yeah, them. And I liked [sings], “The fox went out one stormy night and he prayed for the Lord to give him light/For he’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o…”

So who were your songwriting heroes?
You know, I didn’t have any. Most everybody was a Hank Williams fan but I was never that big a fan. I was a Lefty Frizzell fan. Somebody played me a thing a few years back where Lefty and Hank Williams was talking and Hank said, “Well, Lefty, you need to come and join The Opry.” And Lefty said, “Well, why, Hank?” And he said, “Well, you just should. It’ll really help your career and everything.” And Lefty said, “Well, I got three or four in the Top Ten, you got two, so why should I?” [laughter]

Hank would later change his mind about The Opry, wouldn’t he? So Hank was okay in your books but he was no Lefty.
He wasn’t no Lefty, that’s about it. I put my last quarter in the jukebox one time to play Lefty Frizzell. We was hitch-hiking. The guy I was hitch-hiking with just cussed me out royally, you know, ’cause that’s all we had. Couldn’t even get a candy bar or anything.

So Lefty was more important than food!
I had to have it. I needed that zing. That push. [chuckling]

That Frizzell sound has been copied a lot since, but I guess it must have been pretty exciting in those days?
There wasn’t nobody [singing that way]. He was just completely out there by himself. Them women’d go crazy. And he’d shake them shoulders like nobody else. [his contemporaries would] just come out there and stand like a stick and play that guitar and sing. Which was fine, but he’d shake them shoulders a little bit on “If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time,” and he had all of ’em screaming. If he’da had the right manager behind him like Elvis did, he’d have been another Elvis.

How long did the relationship with Eddie Cochran last?
Two or three years. We went on a tour — we had a country record out, a real good country record — and we went on tour working the record, you know, and did the Big D Jamboree. There was one policeman who was just scratched all to hell and back and I asked him, “What in the hell happened to you?” He said, “Aw, you wouldn’t believe it.” I said, “Try me!” He said, “They had some guy here last week named Elvis Something and we was supposed to guard him or something.” He said, “I thought that was a bunch of bullshit! Guard somebody from singing!” He said, “I wisht I’da been more on my toes; them damn women climbed over us, scratching, trying to get to him. I got a buddy who’s in worse shape than I am!” I said, “What the hell did he do?” He said, “You’d have to see it.”

I told Eddie, after we saw what Elvis was doing, “Hell, we can go back to the west coast, you know, and start doing that. And the Everly Brothers had just started. And we went back to the west coast and we just got hot as all-git-out, you know. But I told Eddie, I said, “Man, I can’t handle this, this is it.” All them people screaming and trying to get at you.

You just didn’t like it?
No, I didn’t like it at all. I said, “I wanna just stick with the country, stay where I’m from.” So I went back to country and he stayed rock & roll. Last time I saw him was just before he left for England where he got killed. He came over to my house and kicked on the door, and I went and opened it. He had a sack of beer in each arm. He said, “Let’s drink some beer and have a big time!” He said, “I got a brand-new car.” He had a new Ford station wagon or something. We just got in and let somebody else drive and we had a large time that night. He said, “What’re you doing?” I said, “I’m fixing to go to Nashville. Hell, I can be hungry anywhere so I might as well be hungry in Nashville.”

Had he had a hit or two by then?
Oh yeah.

Wasn’t “Summertime Blues” his biggest?
“Summertime Blues.” “C’mon Everybody.” Sittin’ In The Balcony.” That was his first one, I think…[sings] “just-a sittin’ in the bal-cony…”

So were you a little regretful that you had broken up?
Oh no, absolutely not. I went back up to northern California to the place me and him was working before, place called The California Hayride, came out of Stockton, California.

Everybody was doing some kind of Hayride!
Mm-hmm. Eddie Kirk. Cottonseed Clark. Cal Smith was on there. So was Del Reeves, which was Curly Reeves then. And after I came [to Nashville] I tried to get all them to come with me, you know. “Oh no, you go on, Hank. Then call us.” And that’s exactly what happened. I came here and after I got a foot in the door I brought all them cowboys back here.

So how was Nashville looked upon then?
It was the place for country. I think Buck [Owens] was just getting started. In fact, the publishing company I signed with — which was Pamper — they had a label called Pep. And Buck Owens was on Pep at the time. Then he went to Capitol.

He made some awfully good records.
He sure did. Old Mooney [pedal steel pioneer] — who was a real good friend of mine ’cause he’d worked with Wynn Stewart — he had a Stilson. You know what a Stilson wrench is? It’s a pipe wrench. He had a Stilson pipe wrench with a coat hanger that went up through the neck of his steel and hooked around one of his strings. That’s where he got his pedal sound. That was before the pedal steel. You know, all them great licks Mooney was playing on all them records? That was a coat hanger and a Stilson wrench! [laughs]

And he would just step on it?
He’s step on that, pull that [imitates a pedal steel bending a note]. And everybody in Nashville was just knocked out by Ralph Mooney ’cause he was doing that sound.

I’d never heard that before.
That’s the truth. He had it fixed so it would pull just the right amount.

Pretty inventive.
Sure was, ’cause he played some fantastic licks on that.

How long were you here before you got your first hit — which was “I Fall To Pieces,” I believe?
Yep. Well, I came here in January of 1960 and moved in with Mom Upchurch, where all the people were staying, you know, like $10 a week? And I got a job with Pamper Music making $50 week. I sent $25 back to California. I had $25 a week. Then they got me a ’49 Chevy coupe to drive. So $25 and $10 to Mom Upchurch, about $12 to buy gas and beer and food was what I lived on for quite a while.

And then I got to be friends with everybody there who was staying with Mom Upchurch, got to knowing Justin Tubb. And Ray Price was one of the owners of [Pamper Music]. So knowing him, I got to knowing other people. Then Harlan moved back here and his wife Jan, who was a singer, and she started singing on The Opry, so she let me play rhythm guitar [for her]. That was $10 for the first spot and $3 for any spot afterwards, so sometimes I made $13 on Saturday. And Justin took me on the road with him on the weekend when he’d go out to play a couple of dates and I’d play rhythm guitar, sing a few songs, like the opening. Bring him in, sing harmony with him.

So you were scraping by.
Oh I was scraping, you ain’t kidding . Got to know Patsy when she was fixing to record for Decca. See, before “I Fall To Pieces,” she was actually on Four Star, and all her songs had to be Four Star’s…

And they weren’t very good.
No, they wasn’t. So when she got cleared of that, Owen was producing her then and the first record he ever cut was “I Fall To Pieces.” So that was my first hit.

She was famous for never liking the songs that became her big hits. What did she think of “I Fall To Pieces”?
She didn’t like it. Hell, she wasn’t the only one. There was a bunch of people. Owen thought it was a hit from the moment I sang it to him. Then I took him a demo of it and he pitched it to two or three artists ’cause nobody liked it. ’Cause it was different, you know.

It’s a hard song to sing. It took a set of pipes like Patsy’s to get those bottom notes and still have the top end.
Right. But there was a lot of people turned that down. When she cut it, Owen just said, “You’re cutting this.” So on her first session she cut “I Fall To Pieces” and another thing of mine called “Shoes,” and a thing of Freddy Hart’s called “Loving In Vain.” They put it on the back [of “I Fall To Pieces”].

And it took us six months to break that record. Pamper broke that record, absolutely. We had two promo men who worked on that, and the guy that actually broke the record was a guy named Pat Nelson who was one of our promotion men that lived in Columbus, Ohio. I went to Owen and I said, “Mr. Bradley, I think ’I Fall To Pieces’ is a hit, and there’s certain places that’s playing it and it just breaks open and it just stays.” I said, “Can’t we get some help from y’all?” And he said, “Son, if you’ll get me [an order] for 5,000 records, we’ll go to work on it.”

So we put Patsy with Pat Nelson and he took her to his home town, and he got her record played on the number one station up there. And they asked Pat, they said, “[ask] Patsy would she stay over a week if I put her record on and she’d do the sock hop or whatever it was.” And she said, “Yeah.” And the first order out of the Columbus distributor was 5,000. And [Decca] got on the record. That’s what happened.

Did she still not like the song by this time?
She loved it [chuckling]. Yeah. She had that [near fatal auto] wreck and I used to sneak in her room — I wasn’t supposed to, she was really in bad shape — ’cause we got the [trade] magazines on Sunday. I’d sneak in and show her the chart. I said, “We’re even in the pop charts!” And she said, “No!” I said, “Hell, yes we are.” She said, “No — you mean I got a hit?” I said, “You got a smash! Get outta that damn hospital.”

It’s hard to believe that hit potential wasn’t obvious to everyone.
It is now.

It’s a perfect record too. He produced it so well, it’s a great song, she sings the hell out of it.
I don’t know if you know it or not but about a month ago, or two months, George Strait cut a song of mine called “You’re Stronger Than Me” that Patsy cut. And I went in to hear it before the record come out. Tony Brown was playing it for me and we got to talking about Patsy, and he said Patsy has never been out of [MCA’s] top three sellers. Even now, today. Never been out of their top three. I just got a [plaque] about a month ago — that album Greatest Hits is ten million, and I got four songs on it.

That bought you a few sacks of beer.
Still do! I told somebody the other day, I said, “Patsy’s been dead thirty-something years and still keeping me alive!” She was something.

What’s been your biggest song?
It would be between, probably, “I Fall To Pieces” and “Make The World Go Away.”

So you got off to a pretty good start for yourself.
Just right off the bat, and hung on in there. I told ’em, I said, “Y’all better get used to this face ’cause it’s gonna be in yours from now on! I ain’t leaving.” So after a while I guess they took me for real.

You say you were sending $25 a week back to California. Who was there?
I had a wife and three kids [laughing]. Finally I went to Hal Smith, who was one of the owners of Pamper, and I said, “Hal, I bet I owe every sumbitch in this town a dollar.” And he said, “Well, go around and try to find how much it is you owe. Things are beginning to pick up a little bit and maybe we can get ’em paid off and get your family to move here.” And I went around, and said, “It’s a hundred-and-twenty-five dollars, including Tootsie.”

I guess that was a few bucks then.
Well, beer was a quarter. Tootsie let us drink on credit.

I was reading in your website bio where you say you can write a song in your sleep.
Well, I wrote some pretty big hits in my sleep. I wrote “Funny Way Of Laughin’.” Got up out of a dead sleep. Always kept a little Wallensack tape recorder, which everybody used to own one, and got up, put it down on there, and went back to sleep. Got up the next morning and said, “Boy, I think I wrote a song. I hope I did.”

How many published songs do you have? Do you know?
I think, approximately, somebody said around 5,000, ’cause there’s been a thousand recorded. Now that’s the truth.

That’s more than Irving Berlin had!
I had BMI print me out a…

A list of titles?
Yeah, a few years ago, and it was about this thick [indicates a tome-sized volume], and I’m serious. And that small print that they use!

Some you couldn’t even remember?
Absolutely. Not at all! And I got a fan in Australia and he sent five — at least five —CDs, and me doing the majority of the singing. There are demos and records that I had out, and each one of them’s got about thirty-something songs on it. And half those things I don’t even remember!

Who represents you now?

Just yourself. You do your own plugging?
Yep. Always have done that. I haven’t had over half a dozen songs recorded that I didn’t have something to do with. Immediately when I went to work for Pamper, I went to work as a plugger, pitching songs to people. I didn’t have very many of mine, you know, and I learned if I was gonna pitch one of mine up against one of Harlan’s or somebody, it’d better be pretty damn good.

From what I hear about Nashville back in those days, it seems like a lot of the plugging that happened was someone like you grabbing Eddy Arnold or someone and saying, “Hey, let me play you something” and picking up a guitar to play it right on the spot.

I was talking to Merle Kilgore about this not long ago.
Well, me and him was right there together. Burl Ives, after he had cut “Little Bitty Tear” and it was a big hit, he was coming to town to cut again. And he called me and wanted to know it I had anything else. And I said, “No sir.” He said, “’No sir’!” I said, “No sir, I sure don’t. And believe me, I’ve really been looking.” He said, “Well, you’re the first truthful sonofabitch in this town!” [laughter] I said, “Thank you, but I don’t. I’m really looking.” And he said, “Well, I’m gonna be [staying] at such-and-such or call Owen, if you find anything.” I said, “Yes sir, I sure will.”

And that was when I had a little bit of “Funny Way Of Laughin’.” Never did finish it. And that night when I went to bed, that pretty near wrote itself. I got me up and put it down. The next morning I listened to it and said, “Hell, that’s it!” So I called [Ives] and said, “I got that song.” He said, “Well, we’re all gonna get together at a certain time.” And I went down there. There was about five of us — there was Merle Kilgore and Mel Tillis, myself and Harlan…[trying hard to remember] …probably Wayne Walker, maybe Justin [Tubb], I don’t know. We all sat around and passed the guitar. I tried to hold back until maybe they’d quit, and then put mine on him. Which I did. I sang “Funny Way Of Laughin’” that I’d wrote that night. And he said, “That’s the next single!” And I said, “It is?” He said, “Sure is, son.”

You say Owen Bradley produced that?
Uh-huh. Owen did all the Burl Ives hits. There’s the last picture of Owen and Burl Ives ever took, right there, see it, behind the desk? [indicates a black and white photo, both men looking very frail] Just before Owen died. Isn’t that something?

Wow. That is great.
I went out to Owen’s a couple of years ago, to The Barn [Bradley’s studio], just to see him and, you know, hug him and see how he was doing. And he was doing great. I said, “I wrote a song called ’Patsy’ and I wondered if you’d help me put it down, if you’d play piano on it. He said, “Why sure!” And I said, “You think you got enough tracks here?” And he said, “I think we got a little more than what we had when we cut ’I Fall To Pieces’.” They had three tracks then. I said, “How many you got here?” He said, “Well, I got 48, I think, here at the office.” And he played piano, I played rhythm guitar, and we put it down.

Great producer.
Great person too.

Tell me about your relationship with Willie Nelson. I know you had a lot to do with getting his career started.
Yeah. Me and Willie. Well, forty — a little over forty — years since we’ve been together. I’m meeting him the 19th of May in Pensacola, and we’re still just the same as it always was between me and him.

You like to play golf?
Nope. But I like to ride around and bug hell out of him [chuckling]! They get really serious about it, you know.

Loves his golf, doesn’t he?
Yeah. But he’ll get funny with it, or he’ll just mess with you, but some of them out there, you know, they take it serious. He’ll say, “I want this hole.” They’ll say, ’Whattya mean, you want it? Hell, you had five strokes, I only had three! Whattya mean, you want it?” And he’ll say, “It’s my golf course.” [laughs uproariously]

That’s quite a story about you coaxing Willie to try for a staff writing job at Pamper.
It was in 1960. [Willie] said, “If I can get ahold of enough gas…,” ’cause we was in Goodlettsville and there wasn’t no freeway then. It was Dickerson Road and Gallatin Road.

He came out and we sat around out there. I’ve got the building that all this happened in right out in back, and I’ll show it to you.

The building! You mean you moved it out here?
Uh-huh. ’Cause I wound up being half owner of Pamper Music, and part of the deal was if they ever sold the building, I could have [the outbuilding]. And he called me and said he was gonna sell it, so I got somebody to move it out here, and it’s right out there. You know, out of a carport we built a little ol’ office place where we could go and sit and write songs and do all that. So [the day of that first meeting] we went out there and he sat down and sang me some songs. I said, “Well, I’ll go in there and talk to Hal. What would you have to have?” He said, “Well, I’d have to have $50 a week to at least live on till I get something going.” And I said, “Well, let me go in and talk to him.”

I went in and talked to Hal and I said, “I found this person — man, he’s great. He’s a great talent. I think he’s a star, and he writes fantastic songs.” And I said, “Nobody in town wants him or wants his songs, and I think he’d be great. And then I’d have somebody to work with.” And he said, “Well, what does he want?” I said, “He said he had to have $50 a week.” And he said, “Well, we was fixing to give you a raise. If we sign him we won’t be able to give you a raise.” I said, “Well, sign him and give him my raise , and do me later or something because it’s gonna help me and everybody here.” So they did. They gave him my $50 raise.

So was he with Pamper when “Crazy” happened? “Hello Walls”? “Night Life”?
Yep. All of ’em. He was with Pamper up until ’69 when we sold the company.

So Willie was a good investment!
You ain’t kidding. The best investment was, you know, the association that me and Willie has got. I consider him probably the best friend I got, and I know if I call him and need him he’ll be here.

He got a little sour on Nashville, didn’t he?
Yeah. He got a little shoved around, you know, by practically everybody because he didn’t take their bullshit, and ’cause he’s not that type of person. If he tells you something you can damn sure count on it, and that’s just the way he believes. And he ain’t changed a bit from then till now.

And he still, when he plays a show and it’s over, he signs autographs out there for like two, three hours. Not too long ago I said, “What are you doing still on the road, doing so many dates and such?” And he said, “I like it. If I wasn’t doing it on here on the road, I’d be doing it at home or wherever I was at the nearest honky-tonk or something. So as long as they wanna pay me I’m gonna be out here doing it.”

He’s just a nomad, isn’t he?
He’s got to be picking and singing just like Chet’s gotta be picking that guitar. If he goes a few hours without picking that guitar, man, he just looks like he gets his drawers in a wad or something! [Willie] loves to pick and he loves to play, and he does it.

What about you? Do still feel the same about writing?
Yeah, just the same way about the writing. But walking out on that stage still just tears me all to pieces, so I can’t hardly…

But I still just go and do it.

You have to force yourself to do the performing?
I really do.

But the writing…
I love to do that. God gave me the talent and, thank God, He’s still giving it to me. I lean on Him more than ever.

Do you have some disappointments? Songs you think should’ve been hits that didn’t happen?
Uh…”Why Can’t He Be You” has been a hit, with Loretta, which got a BMI award. But I always figured that was a bigger record.

That was a Patsy record too, wasn’t it?
Yeah. But it never was a big hit with Patsy. When I wrote it I had to hold on to the song for like over a year, ’cause I wrote it as “He’s Not You.” And I sang it to her and everything and they was gonna cut it and it’d be a single. Then it went for like a year before she cut, and during that time Elvis come out with “She’s Not You.” So I had to rewrite it. I rewrote it to “Why Can’t He Be You.” And she had it all that time and she had it learned, and she was singing it [the original way]. It’s still a good song but it took something away from the originality of the way I wrote it first.

Were you writing most, or all, of these things on your own?
I’d write most on my own. Back then in the ’60s when I was with Pamper, up until then nobody did very much co-writing. Unless it was somebody that was in the same company. Like me and Willie, in those nine years or ten, whatever it was, I think we only wrote probably ten songs. And me and Harlan wrote maybe a dozen together. And that was pretty much it.

Everything’s co-writing now.

I’ve heard that before, about it being frowned upon to intermingle between publishing companies.
Yeah, it really was. Of course, now I’m really proud because, you know, Patsy’s selling like you can’t even believe, and “Make The World Go Away” is too. And a bunch of those tunes are, which is all mine. Hits that I keep getting cut.

Must be nice.
Yes, it is. Thank the good Lord.

[Note: Shortly after our talk Cochran does indeed show me the transported Pamper auxilliary building, about the size of a toolshed and chockful of remarkable photographs, not to mention memories. He points to various places in the small room and talks about famous songs — “Funny How Time Slips Away” being one — that were written by each of the two men over the years. A strange, somewhat haunted experience.]

This interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the International Songwriters Association.
2002, all rights reserved