Exclusive Interview: US Veteran Stephen Cochran Finds and Delivers Hope

In this exclusive interview, country artist Stephen Cochran discusses his career and his experiences in Afghanistan after the 9-11-2001 terrist attacks compelled him to enlist in the Marine Corps and later become the spokesman for the V.A.

In late February of 2010 I got a chance to sit down and talk with Stephen Cochran, a newcomer who has been building his career up since he was a child.  When the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks happened, he put his dreams aside to enlist in the Marine Corps to help defend America. And while there on his last tour in Afghanistan, Stephen was critically injured.  After an experimental procedure by VA surgeons, he made a miraculous full recovery.

In this exclusive interview, Stephen talks about all of these facts and how he eventually returned to Nashville and released a first album with some chart hits.  He also discusses his experience as the spokesman for the VA and how much it matters to him to be honored with that distinction, all of this happening as he works on his next album.

Matt Bjorke: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Stephen Cochran: You know, the earliest recording I have is when I was three. My dad was a musician and songwriter, and he had had a tri-state hit back in the 80s. Back then, you could have three states playing your single, and you’d have a big hit. So, he went on this radio tour and I went with him. As far as I can remember, if I heard a song on the radio, I could memorize it. I just didn’t memorize the titles too well. So, we got on the radio and they said, “Well, what do you want to sing?” I said, “I wanna sing ‘Going down the backwoods’ by Alabama.” You know, “Dixieland Delight.” So, I sang the whole song on the radio. I think I started playing guitar around five and dragging (my dad’s) microphones around. I’ve always said if you want to be a doctor, you go to medical school; if you want to be a lawyer, you go to law school, and I’ve been in country music school my whole life. So, I don’t think there’s ever been a time where I didn’t know that this was where I was going. It’s just the getting there that’s been a little hard and a little different than what I expected.

MB: I can relate to that with my job…

SC: I had signed a developmental deal coming right out of college and was working on my dreams coming true. And literally, the ink hadn’t even dried and September 11th happened. This is the only country where you can take a dream and make it a career, and anytime I’m going to stand up and defend that, I feel like I need (to). So, I dropped out of college, walked away from the deal and enlisted in the Marine Corps. I spent five and a half years in the Martine Corps. And was injured in my last tour that broke my back and was paralyzed from the waist down. Pretty much all the record labels went away after that. It was, “We really love his story, but you know, there’s just not much we can put into someone who can’t walk.” So, the VA (United States Department of Veteran Affairs) stepped in. it’s so weird the VA stepping in at the point not knowing anything about what my future was going to hold. But, they said, “We have a new procedure called a kyphoplasty that we’d like to try on you.” They were doing that on elderly people with degenerative disks. So, they stepped in and did the surgery. They were ready to put me in a wheelchair at that point and four days after the surgery, I had the first sensations in my legs in nine months. Six months of intense therapy, I was back in the studio cutting some new songs. We signed a record deal, put out singles, had some good hits on radio and some even better videos on GAC and CMT. Now, we’re making another transition. We’re going from the independent side to the major label side, which you’ve always got to bring you’re A-game if you’re going to do that. It’s like stepping up from the minor to the major leagues.

So, I sat down this past year and I put every experience that I’ve lived, my heart and soul into writing this album. Everybody says “sophomore curse.” I don’t even look at this as my sophomore album; I look at it as my first album, because in the first album we put out, I was a Marine who was singing country music. I think people will see on this album, I’m a country music musician, singer, and songwriter who was in the Marine Corps. We have a lot of great stuff that we’re getting ready to unveil this year, starting tonight. This was the first time at CRS that I’ve ever said, “I don’t want the lights. I don’t want the electrical instruments. I want to do my first show here acoustically.” We’re seeing a trend in country music where it’s all about storyteller songs, and that’s the way I wrote. On my first album, I only got to write six songs because they said they were looking to hear a cool catchy hook. So now, seeing it come full circle to where people are looking for those storyteller songs and me writing like that, it just kind of fell in my lap, as far as being a songwriter and saying, “Hey, I can write an album like that!” And, that’s what we did. If you listen from 1 through 12, you’re going to hear my whole life I’ve been through these past five years.

MB: So, your dream of making it in country music, is that what helped you make it through Iraq and Afghanistan?

SC: I think it was just the guys to the right and left of me helping me get through there. I’m the type of person anything that I’m doing at the time, I want to be the best at it. At that point in my life, I was a Marine; I was in Special Operations. If my mind was distracted off of anything, we could have lost men, so I tried to do everything I could to do make me the best Marine at that point. Of course, everybody in the Marine Corps knew that music was my passion. When we weren’t in combat, I was always playing a guitar and singing Garth Brooks songs or whatever they wanted to hear. We actually had a couple drinking nights; we found a karaoke bar in Camp LeJeune that was doing a $50 karaoke winning (prize), so we would go in and win the $50. We did that every Wednesday at Logan’s in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. It was no surprise; everybody knew that I wanted to go into country music at the Marine Corps., but at the point we were there, I gave everything I had to the Marine Corps.

MB: How did you come to write the song “Hope” for the VA?

SC: You know, like we were talking about earlier, the VA didn’t know six years ago, when they did this surgery, that I would have a platform to speak from. So that should really show people that they’re wanting to heal and fix every veteran, not just the ones theythink could be a mouthpiece for them. The Research and Development department is the one that came up with the kyphoplasty. So, when they called to look for a spokesperson – because this year is their 85th year anniversary – it’s one thing to be the only country artist that has fought both conflicts that are still going on right now. It’s a complete different other thing for the VA to say, “We want you to be the spokesperson for every veteran from World War II to current day and times.” It’s a huge honor for me! I almost had to step back a little bit and say, “Is this too big for me right now?” I’ve had a rough year as far as transitioning and getting myself mentally right. Post traumatic stress disorder is something we’re having a lot of problems with, where most people don’t know what they’re dealing with. And it’s not just military men and women. It’s anybody that’s had something traumatic in their life happen where they had to move on from. So, the VA called and said, “We want a theme song and you, being a spokesperson and musician, we thought you could knock out both of these for us.” So, I sat down and just wracked my brain and it just came to me. We’ve been pushing hope, but if we’re going to start a revolution and actually have these military men and women step up and say, “Hey, listen to what we’re saying and now join us!” There’s a line in the song that says, “Let everybody join us/let every nation hear us.” That’s what I really wanted it to be; I wanted it to be a battle cry. You know, this 1% of our population protects the 99% of us, where in every other country, you’ve got 99% protecting 1%, be it royal families or whatever. This is the only country has that 1% and yet, we’re still the most feared and ferocious military in the world. 40% of our homeless are the veterans and that’s something we’ve got to stop. If we supported an organization that we cared about once a month, we wouldn’t need government funding for anything. So, it’s getting the message to not only of supporting the military but supporting something that means something to you – cancer research, sickle cell, whatever illness that we don’t have a cure for – that sits hard in your heart, you need to go out and support that cause once a month. Then, we wouldn’t have to ask for money from anyone. It’s not the American government that’s made America great; it’s the American people who have made America great.

MB: So the “pre-record” you did, that must have been somewhat of a culmination of a dream come true?

SC: “Pre-record” – I like that! Think I’m going to steal that from you! But yeah, it was awesome! I can remember and actually standing in the studio and opening up my back brace so I could hit the high notes. A lot of people don’t understand it. Most of these big records they’re hearing for the first time, they were recorded at somebody’s house. There’s not a lot of budget for new artists to put an album and that’s where we recorded that whole new album was at a good friend of mine’s house.

I honestly – after everything we’re accomplished in country music, I had never walked into one of these big major studios you see in like the Kenny Chesney videos and stuff – until this year. And, we walked in to do “Hope,” and it was a lot of nerves at first. I mean, wow, this is where Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift recorded and you’ve got some of the same producers in there saying, “Well, let’s see what he does when he steps up to the microphone.” I somehow convinced someone to let me bring my touring band in with me and let them play the music on it, because they wrote the music for it. We knocked it out in three takes. Best compliment I’ve ever gotten in my life – they said, “Not only do we not have studio players that can’t do that; we’ve never had a road team that’s ever been in here and done anything.” So, I kind of get gratification from the next level of this industry was a good start to putting this album together, and I’m excited about every song on it – not just one or a couple. It’s hard if somebody says pick three singles off the album. I say this album, it’s me. I’m excited!

MB: You’ve charted four songs from that “pre-record.” I’m sure there were your favorites that weren’t released as singles. Besides “Hope,” what other songs are you proud to have recorded?

SC: In the past? “When a Hero Falls” I wrote about the first Marine who was killed in Afghanistan, which was one of my guys, Ron Payne. We did release it for a Veteran’s Day special one year but never as a single. “When a Hero Falls” will always have a special place for me.

There’s another song called “Alright the Way We Are.” I fought for that as a single. Especially what we’re going through now, it speaks to people in volumes. Look, we’re alright the way we are; we just have to bear down a little bit and we’re going to make it through this. We’ve been through this once; we can make it through again. So, we never released it but I love singing that song; we still play it in our live shows.

“Four Chords and Seven Beers (Ago)” I wrote that and I always thought it would make a good drinking song. Country Weekly quoted that the best song on my album was a song called “One Good Country Song.” To be honest, at the beginning, I didn’t really like that song; we just needed a good country swing song. One of my good friends, Mark Melloan, wrote it. And (Country Weekly) quoted “Angel Choir” as being the worst song. But to me, I thought that was the best song on my album. So, I may be in touch with what the country music industry wants to hear, but every time we play “Angel Choir” out to the fans, we get standing ovations. So, maybe it’s the industry who is out of touch with what the fans want to hear?

Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, The Judds, and Crystal Gayle – they’re all from my hometown of Pikesville, Kentucky. So I just had to give up hope on ever having a sign that read, “Hometown of Stephen Cochran.” Whole holler is more like it. This is the holler where he learned how to holler! If you don’t play an instrument, then you’re usually not invited to any functions, because everybody just sits on porches and plays. It’s home to bluegrass music, basically. You know, my dad, Keith Whitley, and Ricky Skaggs used to play in bluegrass bands together.

MB: Who have you been working with on the new record?

I think to keep from having the same sound on every song, we’re going to multiple people producing it – and I’m producing a lot of it. The first song I ever really had a chance at producing on was “Walmart Flowers.” It did pretty well. Some program directors liked it, some didn’t. It wasn’t the typical [Stephen Cochran] song – I always thought I was more “outlaw” than that, but it’s something that I live, ya know? Heck, my fiancé got Walmart flowers in a mason jar this year (for Valentine’s Day)! I want [my album] to be a lot of me, so any producer who works with us on this album has to put up with me in their ear. So, that’s what we’re doing. How do you go tell someone to go promote and album that you really had no part of, other than writing some songs? Because there’s a lot in the process of writing to producing to putting out an album. You could write a song and have a producer take over and it’s something completely different by the time you get it back. And, I had a couple songs like that – where it wasn’t what I was feeling. This new album is not that way. We’re not working with anybody who doesn’t want to work with us, basically.

MB: How has the Internet helped shape your career?

SC: If you’re not involved with social media, then you’re really behind right now. It’s the future of any music genre – Twitter has just proved that. Look at Blake Shelton and how many followers and fans, and how much he increased his career just by being funny – like he normally is – on Twitter. So, that’s something that we saw immediately and jumped on. The only problem is that I have a very bad Twitter application on my phone. So, I had a bonfire at my house this one time. I thought I was answering somebody, but instead I changed my [status update] and gave my address to 3,000 fans of my Twitter! So, my fiancé’s in the [kitchen] cooking and she’s like, “Where are all these people coming from?” It was like our house turned into a museum – people were like, “Oooh, look at this guitar!” I’m like, “Look, I live here. You can’t take awards home with you; you can’t take things off the walls. Please put everything back. That’s my dog; she’s not going home with anybody.”

I think keeping up with how many social media things that are coming out is the hardest part. But, being involved with them is definitely a must. These are the days of iTunes and Netflix, where I feel thankful. I think it’s making artists produce better quality albums. To me, it’s always been about the fans. Anybody who thinks they’ve made it here without the fans is full of it. It is always about them. On iTunes, you can’t put one, three singles and seven other BS songs on there anymore, because they’re going to buy your three tracks and they’re not going to listen to the rest of them. I feel like if we put 12 songs out that people will really enjoy, you’re going to make “CD” money, because they’re going to buy all twelve songs. I believe that if you like Lynyrd Skynyrd, you’ll find something on this new album that you’ll like. If you like Garth Brooks, you’ll find something. We have something that touches every edge of country music right now – and a little bit of the outside. We get into Southern Rock on here.

For more information on Stephen Cochran you can click here.

For more infromation on the VA you can click here.