Likewise, the literally dozens of new females wanting their slice of the country-pop pie is a mixed bag. 2000 was pretty much the exact point that both Faith and Martina soured on me, and coincidentally or otherwise, a year that in my book seems far lower on truly great songs than nearly any other year around it. But even the newcomers were not completely devoid of a few gems — Eric Heatherly, The Clark Family Experience, Phil Vassar, heck, even early-period Rascal Flatts. And on the female side, one name that stands out to me is Tammy Cochran.
A somewhat rare entrant from Ohio, Cochran got her start at age eight, singing both by herself and with her brothers. By her teenage years, she'd started a band and won a talent show, in addition to taking vocational training. At age 19, she made the move to Music City, but by 1996, a meeting with Warner-Chappell songwriter Shane Decker (Deryl Dodd, Mark McGuinn) led to a contract with Epic Records.
Cochran was not an out-of-the-box success. Her first single, "If You Can," fell only one space short of Top 40, and "So What" got to #51. "If You Can" in particular sticks out as a throwback to the great female balladry of the 60s or 70s. You could easily picture someone like Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette belting out cheatin' lyrics like "If you can hold my body close / And still say you love her most / Then you can walk out of my life, if you can." On the other hand, "So What" was bigger and more glossy, but certainly enjoyable with its refreshingly nonchalant look at a breakup: "Where I am, and who I am, was well worth every lesson / Guess you could say I've learned a lot / Yeah, you broke my heart — so what?"
Third time was the charm for Cochran, as in March 2001, she began a slow climb into the Top 10 with "Angels in Waiting," followed two months later by the release of her self-titled debut. Drawing from the loss of her own brothers — who were both born with cystic fibrosis, and died at 14 and 23 — Cochran was able to fashion an easily identifiable story of losing a loved one too soon. Even for those of us fortunate few whose only losses have not been too soon, the emotion is unmistakable and tangible. The song was also able to benefit through fortuitous timing, as it was just under the Top 10 around 9/11, and took a huge jump from 15 to 9 on the September 29 chart. In the wake of this national tragedy, a line like "Treasuring time, 'til time came to leave / Leaving behind sweet memories…" no doubt resonated with the many families who lost loved ones at that time. In fact, it's that aspect that I find the most interesting about this song — while most of the songs that reflected the emotions of 9/11 were patriotic in nature (not that some of them were any less stirring — Alan Jackson's "Where Were You" is still a masterpiece), "Angels in Waiting" was one of the few that touched on the emotions of loss, even if it had actually come out a few months before. In that regard, it reminds me of Diamond Rio's equally superb "One More Day."
With a top 10 hit under her belt finally, Tammy needed a good song to finish off the album and bolster the momentum for another. "I Cry," another take on breakups, took the usual "I'm better off without you" motif and twisted it around with her admitting that yes, she is stronger, but she still cries at night. Despite its interesting twist and solid production (lots of Dobro and steel, with a few of the least-polished guitar riffs in Nashville at the time), it still sounded rather derivative of Jo Dee Messina and Jamie O'Neal, owing to both the former's "Downtime" and the latter's "When I Think About Angels" melodically. Small wonder that it's one of the only Top 20 hits of the 2000s that I absolutely do not remember hearing on the radio.
Cochran kicked off her second album with its title track "Life Happened," a stunner easily on par with "Angels in Waiting" for its emotional depth. Life stories of other friends — a woman who aspired to be an actor, but is instead selling videos at a mall, a man who wanted to be a NASCAR driver but is now selling used cars and teaching driver's ed, and a bunch of former classmates gathered for a reunion — are all used to illustrate how one's plans for life do not always turned out as one would expect. The line "We set out to chase our dreams on wings of passion / But somewhere along the way, we got distracted" is particularly effective in this sense. However, the female country-pop grip was weakening considerably — Faith Hill's Cry had just blown up in her face, and between Martina McBride's schmaltzy "Blessed" in March 2002 and Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" in May 2004, only one other female act hit #1 on the country charts. On top of that, Epic seemed to be losing its pull by this point, only briefly catching a second wind with the aforementioned Gretchen and later, with Miranda Lambert. "Love Won't Let Me" petered out at #31, and Cochran exited the label.
Since then, Cochran has been pretty quiet. Her 2007 album Where I Am seemed indicative of her lack of success — particularly in the title track's lyrics like "I've seen more hurtin' on this road back from Hell than I wish on anyone" — and 2009's 30 Something and Single is so obscure that it doesn't even have any user reviews on Amazon. Considering how many obscure independent acts I can usually find on YouTube with little effort, I am surprised that I can't even find any of her newer stuff to make proper commentary on.
Cochran could easily have been a contender on the strength of "Angels in Waiting" and "Life Happened" alone. Both of them are flawless, emotion-packed songs that really grab the listener's attention. It's clear that her strengths lie in detailed, impacting ballads of this sort, or even the retro-ish "If You Can." The likes of "So What" and "I Cry" are far from bad, showing just as much lyrical and vocal mettle as the aforementioned songs, but there's less of an identity and punch to them in comparison. I feel that a couple more songs of the same caliber could've both helped her more easily rise through the ranks of early 21st-century female country singers, and to weather the storm when the female country singer market began collapsing around her.