“Country music is three chords and the truth,” Harlan Howard once said with the gravitas of a tenured professor, which in effect he was. The Dean of Nashville songwriters penned more than 4,000 songs in his five-plus decade career, writing some of the genre’s most enduring tunes for its most regal of stars: “I Fall to Pieces,” “Busted,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and “Heartaches by the Number” for voices including those of Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Charlie Pride, k.d. lang and scores more. Howard died on March 3rd after several years of ill health; he was seventy-four.
“I am devastated by the loss of my friend, and old writing partner,” said Hank Cochran, who co-wrote “I Fall to Pieces” with Howard. “I must admit that’s one hell of a guitar pull up there now that Harlan has joined Chet, Waylon, etc. This town and country music will never be the same.”
Howard was born in 1927 in Detroit, and grew up with little in the way of roots or a family. He was an avid reader, which picked up for his unfinished education, which only extended to the ninth grade. A fan of the Grand Ole Opry, Howard was writing songs as early as twelve-years-old. It wasn’t until 1955 that began to pursue the craft as a career, moving to Los Angeles over Nashville due to the greater opportunity to land factory work to supplement his fledgling song scribe career. There Howard met Johnny Bond, Tex Ritter, Wynn Stewart and other California country singers, who helped him make publishing connections. By 1959, he had a hit and a classic on his hands, with Charlie Walker’s cover of “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.” Later that year, Ray Price took Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number” to Number One on the country charts. Testament to the song’s malleability was Guy Mitchell’s recording, which rose to Number One on the pop charts for two weeks that October.
Howard rode the wave of success to Nashville in 1960 where he would become a mainstay for the next forty years. Once in Music City, his career exploded in the Sixties with a string of country hits that has never been approached by another writer: “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)” and “Above and Beyond” for Buck Owens; “I Fall to Pieces” for Patsy Cline; “Heartbreak U.S.A.” for Kitty Wells; “Busted” for Johnny Cash (later covered by Ray Charles as a Number Four pop single); “Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right)” and “You Combed Her Hair” for George Jones; “Foolin’ Round” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” for Owens, again; and “Streets of Baltimore” (a co-write with Tompall Glaser) for Bobby Bare. In 1961 alone, Howard wrote fifteen charting singles.
“The most memorable song of his that I recorded was “You Comb Her Hair,” Jones said. “He was one heck of a songwriter and he helped a lot of young songwriters in this town. They don’t write songs today like he wrote them. His were just bigger songs.”
Howard’s songs were so good, several artists made a point to base an entire album upon them. In 1961 Buck Owens recorded a dozen Howard compositions for Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard and in 1967 Waylon Jennings recorded twelve for Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan.
The writer himself had some success as a recording artist. In 1961 he released his debut, Harlan Howard Sings Harlan Howard. In the early Seventies he also scored a minor hit with “Sunday Morning Christian.”
Despite a few brief periods of writer’s block, Howard’s influence was nearly as great in the Eighties and Nineties as twenty and thirty years before. Dwight Yoakam, mined Howard’s vaults for “Heartaches by the Number,” while the Judds turned “Why Not Me” in to a chart-topper in 1984 and Patty Loveless, who rode a comeback wave on “Blame It on Your Heart,” which hit Number One in 1993, sunk their teeth into newer material. “I won’t be able to sing that song again without thinking of Harlan — not that I ever could,” Loveless said. “I’m just glad I was able to be a small part of what he has accomplished. He was a special person in my life and one that opened many doors for me in Nashville. I will miss that smile, I will miss him dearly.”
Howard’s role in country music’s history was subtle and yet omnipresent; and it’s safe to say there isn’t a single fan of country music who doesn’t love a Harlan Howard song, whether they know it or not. Part of his timeless appeal was drawn, obviously, from the songs themselves. Howard literally created a template for a half-century of country, fusing Hank Williams’ poetic simplicity with a rapscallion’s smirk. He could be playful, toying with country cliche like a cat, with glee, agility and a wise eye, inking bittersweet lines like, “When you’re tired of foolin’ round with two or three / come on home and fool around with me” and tight verses: “You were mine for just awhile / Now you’re putting on the style / And you never once look back / At your home across the track / You’re the gossip of the town / But my heart can still be found / Where you tossed it on the ground / Pick me up on your way down.”
But Howard had more than one crayon in the box. The jester couldn’t always find the humor in heartbreak, as in one of his best co-writes: “You walk by and I fall to pieces,” as vulnerable a lyric as Nashville ever produced. And he could also wield claws, as in his own hit single, the accusatory “Sunday Morning Christian,” which reached Number Thirty-eight on the country charts in 1971.
Howard was also revered for his encouragement and interaction with younger artists, earning his “Dean” title by his actions, rather than his venerated status as resident songsmith. “Harlan was the standard we held our careers up to, frequently with disappointment,” said Matraca Berg, who over the past ten years, has written her own Howard-esque string of hits. “I’ve known Harlan since I was sixteen. He was a friend of my mother’s [Nashville songwriter Icee Berg]. Later, after he said, ‘So you want to be a songwriter, kid . . .,” he bought me my first shot of tequila and proceeded to tell me what I was in for, if I had the guts. Harlan loved to do that. Teaching ‘the juveniles’ — and we hung on to every word.”
“He’s one of the last of the guys from the old days,” said Delbert McClinton, who received his own words of encouragement from Howard, but was never able to take the Dean up on his offer to get together for a co-writing session. “There are bars in town here that have plaques at the bar saying that this seat is Harlan Howard’s seat. And nobody gets to sit there but him. I know of two bars here that plaques at bar stools that belonged to him.”