South of Nashville, country music still has old-time twang
By MITCH TALLEY
Just playing good ol’ country music is enough for Stephen Cochran and his South of Nashville band.
Cochran says at this point in their career, he and the band – which will be playing at Rocco’s Pub in Jasper on March 19 – know they’re not going to become the latest, greatest thing to hit Nashville.
“We all have full-time jobs and families,” Cochran said in a recent phone interview with The Best of the North Georgia Mountains. “And the truth is we’re not in a position where I think any of us are trying to make it – quote, unquote – in Nashville. I mean, I have worked in Nashville, and I’ve written a lot of songs. I’ve gotten to do a lot of neat things with country music – open up for some of my heroes, but this is not a full-time thing. It’s just because we love entertaining and we love music.”
That love for music – old-time country music, to be exact – goes back a long way for Cochran.
“It’s the same old thing as probably for a lot of singers,” he said. “My dad sang, and I grew up watching him. He was the very first person I ever knew in the world who had a karaoke machine. I mean, we’re talking about in like, the early, early ‘80s. He would take it to parties and all kind of events, and so I grew up watching my dad sing. I always knew it was something I wanted to do. First time I was on stage, I was 3 years old, and I’ve been doing it kind of ever since.”
Cochran says he didn’t actually start playing with a band until “a little later in life” in 2010 when he was in his late 20s, early 30s.
“I had been going around doing karaoke and had won a few contests,” he explains, “but really was just watching a lot of people I knew and respected doing live music. And I was like, man, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be doing that and kind of just took it upon myself to start a band by the name of Cotton Road. We were together for three or four years before I had to leave, and then I came back and started again with South of Nashville. Just my love of music and going out and seeing live music got me really wanting to do that on my own.”
Seven years and a few lineup changes later, South of Nashville includes the current lineup of Cochran doing lead vocals, with bandmates Rich Lalla on drums, Mike Miller on bass, Walter Dean on steel, and Gordon Dufrene on lead guitar.
“My band is awesome,” Cochran says, “and I am very grateful and fortunate to get to play with these amazing musicians.”
Cochran and his band are following in his dad’s footsteps as country performers. “I grew up loving country music,” he says. “I mean, I love the stuff from people like Bobby Goldsboro and Ray Price and so much of the old stuff. I’m not a huge fan of the new stuff. I think country music has lost its voice with a lot of this new stuff, but up until the early 2000s, I think country music tells the best stories, and the songwriting in country music, especially with the old stuff, is the most real type of music that you can find out there. I’ve just always loved what I grew up on.”
The goal when he started South of Nashville, he explains, was to perform songs that people who love country music grew up with and “once when they hear it, they say, man, I completely forgot about how much I love that song.”
That kind of variety wasn’t always apparent in the area, Cochran says. “I might go see three different bands in a month and hear almost the same setlist, with maybe a few exceptions,” he says. “Bands were just playing the same songs. The ‘80s and ‘90s is the best era of country music to me, and I wasn’t hearing that from other bands. People were either playing the really old stuff or the really new stuff, and there’s a whole section of music that had gotten lost. I was like, man, somebody needs to be bringing these songs back. So my goal was to get people to hear songs that they had forgotten about, but they had loved those songs when they were listening to them on the radio years ago.”
At a typical “high energy” South of Nashville show, naturally you’ll hear a lot of that ‘80s and ‘90s country, but with a few unexpected surprises along the way, Cochran says.
“I think one of the highlights of our shows is when we do a thing called Stump the Band, where we’re not worried about necessarily playing these songs perfectly,” he says, “but we let the audience request any song of any genre and we do our best to play it and have a lot of fun with it. People will try to give us rap songs or girls’ songs; I’ve done everything from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Miranda Lambert. The crowd has a good time with that.”
Cochran says South of Nashville is “all about entertaining the crowd, making sure they’re having a good time.” The band’s goal at a new venue is simple – “to get invited back.”
“I mean, that’s really kind of what I’m thinking about is for us to put on a show, entertain enough until they want us back,” he says, “and I can honestly say that we’ve yet to play a place where we weren’t invited back.”
One place where you’ll definitely see South of Nashville on the billboard quite often is at Rocco’s.
“It’s one of our favorite venues to play,” Cochran says. “We love the crowd there, the atmosphere, and Rocco has always taken good care of us. To be honest with you, it’s an easy show. They run the sound, so we just get to play three hours, three and a half hours. The crowd always has fun at Rocco’s, and the dance floor stays filled up. Rocco is a great guy. He’s got a good thing going there in Jasper, and we’re very fortunate, very happy to be a part of it.”
As for that South of Nashville name, Cochran laughs when asked how he came up with the moniker, joking “just a lack of creativity, to be honest with you,” before pointing out its double meaning.
“We’re all from Georgia, and Georgia is absolutely south of Nashville,” he says. “But we’re also a little bit south of Nashville now as far as what we play musically. You’re not going to hear a whole lot of the new stuff on the radio now from us. We’re kind of taking a step back and going back into what I consider the last great era of country music. We do a few of the newer songs every now and then if it’s someone I really like or one that we’re getting a whole lot of requests for. We’ll look at it and see if it’s something we want to do, but for the most part it’s about nostalgia and bringing people back to a time in their life that they really enjoyed listening to country radio.”
As for making it big on today’s scene, Cochran admits that ship has sailed.
“To be honest with you, that’s a young man’s game, and none of us are as young as we used to be,” he says. “We’re all in our 40s and 50s, and it’s just not realistic to think of a group of people that age making it in today’s country music.”
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s not having a blast every time he goes out on a stage, usually somewhere in the Northwest Georgia area.
“I get to do what I love every other weekend and have a great time playing music,” he says. “I’m still getting that same buzz, that same feeling. But no, we’re not actually trying to make it. I think those days have passed. “But I will say this, for somebody that is a nobody, I have gotten to do some amazing things,” he says. “I have got to share the stage with Ronnie Milsap, who is one of my heroes, and Daryl Singletary, Jimmy Fortune, Tracy Lawrence, Tracy Byrd, T. Graham Brown. I’ve got to share the stage with all those guys. That for me was the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do because there’s a lot of people who are probably a lot more talented than me that will never get to do the cool stuff that I’ve got to do.
“I got to sing on stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. I’ve had a song on 94.9 The Bull back in 2011 on their Backyard Country program, so I was able to hear a song that I wrote that I’m singing played on an Atlanta radio station. So I got to do some really neat things. If I never get to do nothing else with music, I’d be happy.”
Find out more about the band at: www.southofnash.com.