Tammy Cochran hopes her angels are helping

Jon Weisberger, June 2001

Take a close look at the Country Music Critics Poll list of the best singles of 2000, and you'll find something out of the ordinary: among the album tracks from established superstars and critics' favorites there's just one genuine single - Tammy Cochran's "If You Can."

A hard country ballad in which Cochran begs her partner to tell the truth "if you can," it was supposed to have paved the way last spring for a debut album on Epic in the fall - but when the singer's powerful rendition failed to light up the charts, the CD was put on hold while label execs figured out what to do next.

"I totally understood why the album wasn't out, but it was hard," Cochran admits. "I was so proud of this album, and I wanted everybody I knew to hear it and to go get a copy. But when the single sold so many copies - considering that it didn't really have any airplay to speak of, it sold a huge number - that made me feel good, to know that people who had heard it liked it."

"I first heard 'If You Can' in 1995," the singer continues. "I was getting ready to do a showcase for a record label in town, and a song plugger at EMI played me this song. I just totally fell in love with it, and you can see why. I did my showcase, and I didn't get a record deal," she laughs, "but I found 'If You Can,' and I held onto that song for a long, long, time. Finally, I had a chance to do a demo and played it for (producer) Blake Chancey, and the rest is history."

Today, with the CD finally out and a third single from the album ("Angels InWaiting") drawing some attention and airplay, Cochran hopes that the history yet to come is a long one, but to the Austinburg, Ohio native, it already seems plenty long enough.

"Austinburg has one blinking light, it has a dance hall, a school and a roller rink. It was kind of a farming community, with not much to do. I went to high school in Geneva, which is 10 miles away, and they had 4 lights there, and they were real lights, with the yellow in the middle," she chuckles.

Cochran began singing at home, but by the time she was 15 she was starting to sing at that dance hall, and what she was singing was country music.

"The kids liked the rock 'n' roll stuff, but there was nothing to do in that town except go to this little dance hall, and they played country music," she recalls. "I sang a few fairs and festivals to track tapes, and then I joined my first band when I was 15 - and got out of that band, joined another band, got out of that and formed my own band. I was a little band hopper."

Singing the hits of the the mid-late 1980's - "whatever was on the chart at the time," she says - Cochran polished her skills, a job she confesses was a big one. "When I was 16, we put out a little cassette with 10 songs. I listened to it a few months ago because I ran across it, and it was awful. I was no Billy Gilman, let me tell you!"

Still, Cochran persevered, and as her abilities developed, so did her ambition. Graduating from high school, she studied briefly at a vocational school before giving in to her dream of making country music her career at the end of 1990. When she did, she had some unusual help.

"My parents said, 'you can go to Nashville or go to college.' And you know they're honest to a fault; if they didn't think I could do it, I can honestly say that my mom would have said, 'you know what? Go to college.' But they didn't, and when I said Nashville, Dad took early retirement, and we sold the house and just picked up and moved.

"I've seen many people doing the same thing I did when I first came here - trying to get a record deal and doing everything you think you're supposed to be doing - whose parents were not supportive. So when people say to me, 'Tammy, you're so lucky to have these people,' I totally agree with them. In the eight years it took me to get a record deal, there were times I got depressed and disenchanted, but if you surround yourself with great people who believe in you, that's the best thing - and that definitely describes my parents."

Ironically, though, it was not until she had pulled back from her efforts to land a record deal that she finally got the chance to get one.

"I was going through some stuff," she recalls, referring to a short-lived marriage, "and one night I decided to go to the Broken Spoke. I hadn't been there in a long time, but a friend of mine just happened to be playing there. He said 'Tammy, come on up and sing with me.' And I said 'ok, I'll sing, but I haven't sung in a while.'

"I was nervous, and there were probably 10 people there, but one of them was a songwriter by the name of Shane Decker, who at the time worked at Warner Chappell. (He now also works with Mark McGuinn.) He gave me his card, and said 'I really, really want you to call me because I know some people in town, and I think I can really help you get a record deal.'

"I'd been in town for eight years, and I had heard this once or twice," the singer laughs. "It wasn't that I didn't believe him, but you know, you get disenchanted. So I just said 'ok, yeah, I'll do that.' He asked if I'd be back the next night, and I said I guess I could be. Well, he brought up Blake Chancey the following night to hear me."

Chancey, whose success as co-producer of the Dixie Chicks has made him one of the hottest producers in town, was impressed enough to record her - that's when she brought him "If You Can" - and eventually to convince Sony Nashville to sign her to its Epic imprint.

With contract in hand, Cochran, Chancey and associate producer Anthony Martin turned to song selection; according to the singer, it wasn't an easy job. "They knew that there are things I won't sing about, and I'm a 30-year-old woman. I want to sing things that other 30-year-old women and men can relate to. And it was hard to find songs that are melodically cool and have lyrics with a lot of meat to them, so it took almost two years to find nine songs to go with 'If You Can,'" she says.

Among those making the final cut were what would become her second single, "So What" ("it never played it on the radio, but the video ran all the time; I think it was the cool car in it," Cochran chuckles), a Russell Smith-penned classic, "What I Learned From Loving You," previously recorded by Chely Wright and Lynn Anderson, among others - and one song co-written by Cochran in memory of her brothers Alan and Shawn, both of whom died of cystic fibrosis while she was growing up.

"I tried for a year and a half to write that song by myself, because I stupidly thought that if I wrote it all by myself it would mean more. But I couldn't do it. When I met Jim McBride and Stewart Harris, I wound up telling them the story, because even though they're power songwrtiters who have tons of hits under their belt, they're so down-to-earth and so kind that I instantly felt good with them. So I told them, 'this is what I've got, and I know it's going on the album because I'm making sure it gets on the album, what do you think?' And they loved the idea."

Still, Cochran wasn't sure that "Angels In Waiting" was right for her third single release. "When Epic came to me and said it was time to pick another single, they said 'we've got two choices.' They gave me the first and I said 'ok, what's the other one?' They said 'well, we're not sure if you're going to like the idea, it's kind of personal,' and I knew what it was. I told them, 'I have to ask my parents.'

"So I had lunch with my mom that day, and I remember sitting there and saying 'we think there's a new single, I think it's going to be "Angels, but I want to make sure it's ok. And my mom said, 'way to go.' She said, 'Alan and Shawn would love this, this would be a great tribute to them.' So that's what we did. It's really sad that so many people can relate to it, but every time I do this song live, people come up to me and say, 'where can I get that song?' Because everyone knows what it's like to lose someone you care for."

With its touching message and a video built around home movie footage of her and her brothers - "I knew Mom had it, but I'd never seen it before," says Cochran - "Angels In Waiting" may be the vehicle to give the singer's career a healthy boost, though as her recent Academy of Country Music nomination for Top New Female Vocalist suggests, she's making a growing number of fans.

In the meantime, she's started work on a second album - "we've already got three or four songs picked out," she says, "and one of them's mine" - and will be hitting the circuit this summer with a six-piece band.

Cochran's pretty happy with the way things are going - and when she isn't, all it takes is a reminder of what the alternative might be.

"One of my friends from Ohio called me a couple of months ago and said 'Tammy, I thought you were going to be a secretary,'" she says with one last hearty laugh. "But with the way computers have come along since I was in vocational school, I couldn't do that now even if I wanted to."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com