Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Tom Cochrane has written a large number of songs that can be considered bona fide Canadian rock classics. At the 2009 SOCAN Awards Gala, for instance, five Cochrane compositions earned SOCAN Classic Awards. In the international arena, his biggest-ever hit has been his rock ’n’ roll anthem, “Life Is a Highway.” It reached No. 6 on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100 chart, No. 2 in Australia and New Zealand, and charted strongly in many European markets. The smash single helped Cochrane’s 1991 Mad Mad World album become his most commercially successful ever, with over a million copies sold in Canada alone.
“Life Is a Highway” has continued to log serious mileage. It’s been covered by the late American country star Chris LeDoux, then returned to the charts in 2006 via a version by U.S. country band Rascal Flatts. Included in the soundtrack for the Disney/Pixar animated film Cars, it became a huge hit once again, earning platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America and a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Song from a Movie. Cochrane recently reflected upon the phenomenal journey of the song.
What sparked the song?
I travelled to Africa with World Vision in the fall of 1989. After that experience I needed a song as a pep talk, a song that would bring things into perspective. I was exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. I had pretty good calluses on my psyche. I’d never trade the trip for anything, though, and it led me to do a lot more work with World Vision. I write as a form of therapy, and I felt 100 percent better after I wrote that song. It’s basically talking about how you have to keep your eyes on the road ahead of you. You can only control how you act and how you interact with the people you come into contact with. How you treat people can either defuse or cause negative energy, depending on what you do. The song is about that, using the road as a metaphor.
It is clearly a message that has resonated with people.
That song was a pep talk to myself and, lo and behold, it became a pep talk for millions of others! People on a mass level and from all different walks of life relate to it. I feel very lucky to have written it and very happy it has brought so much joy to a lot of people. I’ve received all these letters from people over the years thanking me for a song that has got them through tough times. I see “Life Is a Highway” as one of those positive rock ’n’ roll songs that make people feel good.
Is it true there was an earlier incarnation of the song called “Love Is a Highway”?
That’s right. I had a sketch of the song back in 1985, mainly the melody. Kenny Greer [guitarist with Red Rider] kind of discouraged me, feeling it wasn’t quite in the nature of what we were doing then. The original sketch of the song is included on our box set, Ashes to Diamonds.
Did you enjoy watching Rascal Flatts have a big hit with it, 15 years on?
That was fabulous. It was my first country hit and their first crossover hit. When they did the song, they had no idea it was going to be the hit it became. They even recalled the album they were working on then so they could add it as a bonus track.
Ever get tired of playing it in concert?
Why would I? I’m a real believer in the electricity and positive energy people put out. It is wonderful to get that when you play it live.