Harlan Howard

Tuesday 05 March 2002 01:00

Harlan Perry Howard, songwriter: born Detroit, Michigan 8 September 1927; five times married (two sons, one daughter); died Nashville, Tennessee 3 March 2002.

Known as the "Dean of Nashville Songwriters", Harlan Howard was one of the most prolific tunesmiths in the field of country music.

In a six-decade career he wrote more than 4,000 songs – including such standards as "I Fall to Pieces", "Heartaches by the Number", "Busted", "Life Turned Her That Way" and "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" – which were recorded by artists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Burl Ives and the Kingston Trio.

His approach to songwriting was summed up in his dictum that country music was, and is, "three chords and the truth". He knew intuitively that the genre's strength lay in its lyrical rather than its musical content and believed that matching the right song with the right singer was essential for the song's success.

He became something of a mentor to the aspiring young writers – "juveniles" as he called them – who pour into Nashville each year. From 1984 until 1995 he hosted the annual "Harlan Howard Birthday Bash", a musical fund-raiser for organisations dedicated to songwriters, and could be found dispensing advice from a stool in one of his favourite bars. Pat Alger, who has written hits for, among others, Garth Brooks, recalls:

If you were a songwriter and you were working hard at it, that's all it took to get his respect. He had this great love of writers and he loved to share his own view.

Harlan Howard was born in Detroit in 1927. He grew up on a farm and as a youngster listened to the Grand Ole Opry radio show. He became a fan of the great Ernest Tubb, later remembering:

I was captured by the songs as much as the singer. They grabbed my heart. The reality of country music moved me. Even when I was a kid, I liked the sad songs . . . songs that talked about true life. I recognised this music as a simple plea. It beckoned me.

He started writing at 12, an enthusiasm fuelled by an appetite for books and an ear for a telling phrase. He worked as a fork-lift driver in Detroit and then Los Angeles, writing during his spare moments. In 1956 a meeting with the film-cum-singing stars Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond enabled him to land a publishing deal. His breakthrough came two years later when Charlie Walker recorded "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" and enjoyed a Top Five hit with it.

In 1959 Kitty Wells scored with "Mommy for a Day", and "Heartaches by the Number" became a country chart-topper for Ray Price and an international pop hit for Guy Mitchell. In 1960 Buck Owens took "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" into the Top Five and in 1961 Patsy Cline recorded the immortal "I Fall to Pieces" which Howard had co-written with Hank Cochran. Other notable Howard hits included "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" (Buck Owens, 1965), "Streets of Baltimore" (Bobby Bare, 1966) and "Life Turned Her That Way" (Mel Tillis, 1967; Ricky Van Shelton, 1988).

In 1974 Melba Montgomery recorded a song that the writer later cited as a personal favourite, "No Charge". Also covered by Tammy Wynette, in a version by J.J. Barrie it topped the British pop charts in 1976 and became the subject of a memorable Billy Connolly parody. In 1984 Conway Twitty took "I Don't Know a Thing about Love (The Moon Song)" to No 1 on the country charts, a feat replicated by the mother-daughter duo the Judds with "Why Not Me?" In 1987 Highway 101 enjoyed a chart-topper with "Somewhere Tonight" and in 1991 Pam Tillis had a hit with "Don't Tell Me What to Do". In total, over 100 Harlan Howard songs have found their way into the country Top Ten.

"I never tire of it," said Howard:

Sometimes I do get burned out temporarily, but I can't imagine not wanting to write one more good song, get one more great record, or work with one more great singer.

Paul Wadey

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