As a rule, tribute recordings are a mixed bag; they tend to be well-intentioned yet fall short of the mark musically. Jamey Johnson's Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran is a risky offering because it's his follow-up to 2010's Grammy-nominated, gold-selling Guitar Song. Here he assembles 16 tracks with a slew of guests to sing with him. Johnson's connection to Cochran -- a legendary songwriter who passed in 2010 -- was personal and professional; all artists appearing here either knew the man or recorded his songs. Johnson doesn't attempt to draw attention to himself, but instead, presents a series of excellent performances of Cochran's songs with himself as an anchor. This is no mean feat and could easily have backfired. Co-producers Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson have done a stellar job at keeping the sound clean and warm; they offer a sonic window into the way these tunes were conceived as Cochran wrote them, without getting mired in retro sound for its own sake or contemporary country's synthetic trappings. All songs are well suited to Johnson's strength as a singer (check his only solo performance on "Would These Arms Be in Your Way" for proof). The contrast between his world-weariness and Alison Krauss' poignant yearning on "Make the World Go Away" is as moving as the original. His duet with Merle Haggard on "I Fall to Pieces" brings the song back to the very place that attracted Patsy Cline's attention to it in the first place. The slow, weepy honky tonk of the obscure "I'd Fight the World," with Bobby Bare, reveals Cochran's genius at full throttle. Johnson pairing Leon Russell and Vince Gill on the barroom stepper "A Way to Survive" is savvy as hell. Willie Nelson joins them on the humorous "Everything But You." Nelson's performance on "Don't You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me" is almost a scene stealer. "Don't Touch Me" with Emmylou Harris is pure eros in a country waltz. The snappy back and forth dialogue between Lee Ann Womack and Johnson in "This Ain't My First Rodeo" is worthy of Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner. Johnson and George Strait hold forth on American patriotism in "The Eagle," while he and Ronnie Dunn turn in a solid lonesome-at-the-jukebox burner in "A-11." There are some weathered voices here, but Johnson knew what he was doing: they all serve the material in offering a balance of vulnerability and wisdom. In song, Cochran chronicled the sad and hard-bitten aspects of life singularly; many of his songs reflect his personal experiences before coming to Nashville. He also possessed a healthy sense of humor. Both combine in making his work timelessly relevant. Living for a Song is not so much to remind people who Cochran was, but to celebrate the art and life of the man. The risk Johnson and Mercury Records took in doing this pays off in spades. ~ Thom Jurek
Rolling Stone (p.72) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[It's] proof that Johnson, 21st-century country's outlaw ne plus ultra, is also one of its most sensitive balladeers..."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.90) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "Boasting a voice that sounds like the aural equivalent of a Lone Star six-pack, Johnson delivers a rugged 'The Eagle' in tandem with George Strait..."