August 23, 2008
“I like to give artists a song they have to sing the rest of their lives. Songwriting is both my living and my pleasure, so I’m a happy man.” ~ Harlan Howard
The dean of country music songwriters, Harlan Howard paved the way for all future practitioners of his craft, lending an authenticity and eloquence to the music that will last for the ages. Through five decades of classic songs, Howard put his indelible stamp on the country music industry through sheer genius and, like many fellow artists and songwriters, rose through the ranks with country music as a constant love through a hardscrabble life.
Born and raised in a Michigan farm town, Howard, an orphan, was first drawn to country music by his weekly appointments with the Grand Ole Opry radio shows on Nashville’s WSM radio. This love affair with the music continued when he traveled to Nashville on weekends during his stint as an Army paratrooper in Georgia, and it was that appreciation for the fine art that led him to leave for Los Angeles in 1955 to work in the factories while attempting a career in songwriting. A year after arriving in Los Angeles, Howard met Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond, who were impressed with the young songwriter’s catalog, culled from numerous hours of writing songs in his head while working at the factory. One of the first tunes that Howard wrote eventually became a country classic, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”, first recorded by Charlie Walker and a #2 hit in 1958. Another early success came in 1960, with both Guy Mitchell and Ray Price taking his “Heartaches by the Number” to top of the pop and country charts, respectively.
In that same year, Harlan moved to Nashville with his second wife, Jan Howard, and their three children. Soon after, Harlan’s success rate skyrocketed. He enjoyed as many as 15 of his own songs in the country Top 40 simultaneously, a long-standing record. His friendships with young writers such as Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Roger Miller further developed his songwriting skills and laid the foundation for the future of country songwriting. They would collaborate in an effort to create the “next big hit” for a number of Opry stars at the time. One superlative song in this stretch was “I Fall to Pieces”, immortalized by Patsy Cline. The likes of Johnny Cash, George Jones and Buck Owens all achieved considerable success on the charts in the 1960s, displaying Howard’s unique ability to write witty love songs (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, Owens’ 1964 classic) or heartbreaking ballads (Bobby Bare’s breathtaking 1966 song, “Streets of Baltimore”).
Howard’s fortunes took a dip in the 1970s, although he would find sporadic chart success with songs such as Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge”. Throughout the decade and into the 1980s, Howard wrote infrequently, but the mid-to-late 1980s brought greater triumphs for Howard. The Judds’ version of his “Why Not Me” earned the CMA Single of the Year award in 1985, and the Reba McEntire chose his “Somebody Should Leave”, another #1 single in 1985, as the final single from her album My Kind of Country. “Life Turned Her That Way”, a Top Ten record for Ricky Van Shelton, earned Howard his sole nomination for Song of the Year from the CMAs (the song had also received a wonderful treatment from Mel Tillis in the late 1960s).
In 1989, Howard took further control of his career by starting his own publishing firm, Harlan Howard Songs, Inc., with wife Melanie, and leaving his long-term post at Tree Publishing. Howard’s run of hit records continued during the surge of female radio success in the 1990s. “Don’t Tell Me What to Do” helped Pam Tillis’ career gain new traction, becoming her first Top Five single (and a nominee for the CMA Single of the Year) in 1991. Also, the first single for Patty Loveless after career-threatening throat surgery was 1993’s “Blame It On Your Heart”, a #1 smash for two weeks. The tongue-twister, a co-write with Kostas, was named BMI’s most-played song of 1994, and launched Loveless into the top tier of country music superstars.
As a result of his consistency and continuous wealth of classic songs, the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed him as a member in 1997. Other honors included induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Popular Music Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. His list of 100+ Top Ten singles is an honor roll of country music and its ability to challenge, change or just plain entertain the listener. For Howard, it was easy to determine the ultimate mettle detector of a country song and its prospects for greatness. He maintained that it must be, simply, “three chords and the truth”.
The Harlan Howard Songbook
- Above and Beyond the Call of Love/Buck Owens; Rodney Crowell
- Blame It On Your Heart/Patty Loveless
- Busted/Johnny Cash; John Conlee
- Don’t Tell Me What to Do/Pam Tillis
- Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)/Buck Owens
- Heartaches by the Number/Ray Price
- I Fall to Pieces/Patsy Cline; Aaron Neville & Trisha Yearwood
- I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail/Buck Owens
- Life Turned Her That Way/Mel Tillis; Ricky Van Shelton
- No Charge/Melba Montgomery
- Pick Me Up On Your Way Down/Charlie Walker; Faron Young
- Somebody Should Leave/Reba McEntire
- Streets of Baltimore/Bobby Bare
- Why Not Me/The Judds
- Your Heart Turned Left and I Went Right/George Jones