The typical songwriter who rolls into Nashville is an unknown hopeful with an acoustic guitar and a notebook full of half-finished songs and titles. When Harlan Howard arrived in 1960, he was already famous, with his first No. 1 and a $100,000 royalty check in his pocket.
Not that he hadn’t paid his dues. After a stint in the early ’50s as a paratrooper in the service, he touched down in Los Angeles. There he spent most of the decade working in a printing factory and writing songs in his spare time. Though he landed a few records with West Coast country acts like Tex Ritter, Freddie Hart and Buck Owens, his big break came when Charlie Walker took “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” to No. 1.
Howard told me in 1996, “I’d had my first hit, but I’m still working at this factory, and I still haven’t received any money yet. One day, I’m on the job and I get a long distance call from Nashville. It was Ray Price, and he says that he’s recording and he liked ‘Pick Me Up on Your Way Down’ and do I have any new songs? So I sent him a tape of three songs, one of them called ‘Heartaches by the Number.’ To this day, that is still the biggest hit I’ve ever had.”
Harlan Howard was born Sept. 8, 1929, in Lexington, Ky., and raised outside Detroit. It was the sound of the Grand Ole Opry that first got him interested in songwriting. “I was living on a farm in Michigan with these older folks, helping with the chores and going to school. I was 12 years old and these folks would go to bed at eight o’clock at night, and this was before TV, so I got to listen to this little roundtop radio. One Saturday night, I had my ear up to the radio and I discovered WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. Ernest Tubb happened to be singing. He had the richest, manliest voice I’d ever heard, and I flipped out.
“These songs he’d sing on the Opry—I got to writing them down. By the time he was done, I might have half the song, because I couldn’t write that fast. So I’d turn the radio down and I’d just sing it until I had the melody in my mind. And then—they were kind of short—I got to writing another verse or two to his song. I got me a title, the melody, the phrasing, so I’m just copying what’s up above in terms of syllables and rhymes. It’s not really writing, but in a roundabout way, it sure as hell is teaching you structure. I wrote a couple of verses for the song ‘Born to Lose’ that to this day, I think are as good as what they already had.”
Using those classic songs as models gave Howard a penchant for writing to catchy titles. He said, “I can show you restaurant napkins, bar napkins, whatever, full of titles. All these years, from age 12 to now, I’ve trained myself to listen to everything that’s said. I read the paper from front to back. Even there in the news, you might find something that’s interesting. A title, an idea—all these things are floating around.”
Arriving in Music City with an illustrious freshman class that included Willie Nelson and Roger Miller, Howard soon proved that he had more than one hit in him. “Busted,” “Mary Ann Regrets,” “Tiger by the Tail,” “The Everglades”—these were all penned during his first few years in town. By 1965 he’d had a whopping 400 songs cut.
Of one of his most beloved songs, “I Fall to Pieces,” Howard recalls, “I wrote it with Hank Cochran. It was his idea. It was a nice song, a good song, but I have to believe that Patsy Cline, her treatment of the song, made it better than I thought it was. I always wrote in batches, and to me it was in the middle of a batch of like 15 songs. There were some others I thought were just as good or maybe even better. But man, when you get a record like that, wow! Plus the public really liked it. It was a hit for about a year or something. It surprised me.”
He adds with a laugh, “I was writing some weird little songs at the time, being a new writer in town, and I was probably more interested in those. But ‘I Fall to Pieces’ was where I learned to be a commercial slut.”
Like “I Fall to Pieces,” most of Howard’s songs focus on relationships that are coming apart rather than together. “The toughest songs in the world to write are love songs,” he said. “‘I love you and I will forever and blah blah blah.’ I’d rather get into a song about a relationship that’s a little bit shaky or even tragic. That in my mind represents country music and the drama of the man-woman thing. That to me is the most fun to write. But country music has gotten away from that. The truth of what’s going on with people is being ignored. People drink, they cheat, they do all these things. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce. It’s almost like 50 percent of the country fans are not being represented, people whose marriages fell by the wayside. And that’s where I come in.”
As a lyricist, Howard prided himself on his ability to say a lot with a little. “Roughly you got three minutes. So when you can condense a whole bunch of history of a relationship and get that out of the way and get to the heart of the matter, it’s so much fun to do. One of the things that I’m really proud of as a writer is a lot of my buddies have always told me that I might be the best at squeezing a lot of stuff in one line, and a lot of them liked the first line of ‘Don’t Tell Me What to Do’ [a hit for Pam Tillis in 1995]. It says, ‘We tried and we failed and it’s over / I didn’t fit the image in your mind.’ I got rid of a bunch of clutter, two verses worth at least. The first line tells you that the relationship has failed and why it’s failed, so the situation is over. I condensed the hell out of that, and it flowed like a river.”
In the decades after his arrival, Howard came to be regarded as the King of Music Row, a writer who stayed on the charts with a wide range of hits, from Joe Simon’s “The Chokin’ Kind” to “Blame It on Your Heart” by Patty Loveless. Howard was so loved and respected that the community even threw an annual Birthday Bash picking party in his honor.
As he told me, “I’m totally content just being a writer. I’m here to do one thing. I just love a great song, as a listener, as a writer.”
Harlan Howard died on March 3, 2002. He was 74.
—By Bill DeMain
Category: Legends of Song