Harlan Howard Biography
"Life Turned Her That Way"..."Above And Beyond"... "I've Got a Tiger By The Tail"... "Don't Tell Me What To Do"..."Somebody Should Leave"..."Somewhere Tonight"..."Too Many Rivers"... "Why Not Me"..."Busted" "Blame It on Your Heart"...
Most people know Harlan Howard by the songs he's penned - more than 4,000 of them. In a career spanning more than six decades, the "Dean of Nashville Songwriters" has imbued himself as one of the greatest - and most prolific – living songwriters. One critic daringly dubbed him the "Irving Berlin of Country" because of the number of classics he has added to the annals of country music.
More than 100 of his self-penned tunes have hit the top ten and his compositions have become chart-toppers for artists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Buck Owens, Dean Martin, The Judds, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton. But Harlan Howard's friends know there's more to the man than song titles. Behind his enshrinements in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the CMA Hall of Fame, the National Academy of Popular Music Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame is a complex and unique man - a true interpreter of life well and fully lived.
Those fortunate enough to number among Harlan's intimates know he was born in Detroit and raised on farms in Michigan, but times were tough for a young farm boy in the years following the Depression and he began to run the streets. He started writing country songs around the age of 12, listening to and loving the Grand Ole Opry, Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman. Although he managed to complete just nine years of formal education, he educated himself by reading books – sometimes as many as four and five a day.
Harlan decided to move to Los Angeles in 1955 to pursue his dream of songwriting. He could just as easily have moved to Nashville, but, lacking faith in his ability as a songwriter, he knew he would have to rely on factory jobs as a means to live. LA had music and factories; Nashville had music but no factories. While working as a forklift operator, he devoted every spare minute to perfecting the craft of songwriting. He was possessed by songwriting, and each day left the factory with several new songs stuffed in his shirt pocket.
"I'd come home from work sometimes with six songs," the writer said. "During that period of time, I never knew there was that much money in songwriting. I was just writing because I loved it. I never thought I'd be able to quit the factory and make a living full-time as a writer."
A year after moving to LA, he met Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond and played them some tunes from his cardboard box full of songs. Slowly at first, with their help and that of others such as Wynn Stewart, Bobby Bare and Skeets McDonald, he began to have his songs recorded. His first real hit came in 1959 when Charlie Walker recorded "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down." Shortly after that both Ray Price and the pop singer, Guy Mitchell, put his "Heartaches By The Number" on the top of the country and pop charts simultaneously and his destiny was sealed.
Buoyed by his success and the royalty checks from those two songs, he moved to Nashville in 1960. As the hits began to chart, the legend of Harlan Howard began to soar. A year later - in 1961 - his career exploded, and he had as many as 15 songs in the top 40 of the country charts at one time - an amazing feat for any writer and one never since equaled.
Harlan also began hanging out with the other struggling writers, such as Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller at Tootsies Orchid Lounge across the alley from the old Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry. Patsy Cline was a favorite Opry star who used to stop in between shows. This nucleus would gather wherever there was a guitar and swap their latest songwriting efforts, hoping to plug a few songs to Opry stars. From these late night/early morning "guitar pulls" another Nashville legend was born. Many a "juvenile" (a Howard-coined favorite term for fledgling young writers) has benefited from an all-day or all-night session at a Howard-hosted guitar pull.
While he has scored hits in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90’s, Harlan is running just as fast nowadays. According to Harlan, "The lyrics usually flow easily and often." The "three-chord kid", as he is often called, believes country music is mostly lyrical content - about 90% words and 10% melody. He considers his songs his children and tries to find the perfect home for them; crediting much of his success with matching the right song with the right singer.
Artists such as Nanci Griffith, Mel Tillis, kd Lang, Collin Raye, and Patty Loveless have chosen Harlan Howard compositions to establish themselves on country radio. Producers rarely pass up an opportunity to listen to a tune submitted by Howard for fear of missing the next country classic.
Although he has influenced several generations of songwriters, his greatest sense of accomplishment still comes from helping the "juveniles" along the way. "I've always hung out with songwriters," Harlan says. "Most of the older guys don’t come to Music Row anymore - that makes me the dinosaur. The young writers wanna be me. Well, I wanted to be Irving Berlin. I wanted to do what the great writers on Tin Pan Alley did, except I wanted to aim for this pure southern country music."
As one Harlan Howard co-writer states: "Harlan looks at songwriting differently than other writers - it's the love of his life. I think what he's contributed to the songwriting community is that he's made writers feel it's important to be a songwriter. It's a career; it's not just something you do for a while and then go on to something else. Harlan is 100 percent songwriter all the time."
About ten years ago, Harlan’s publisher, Tree, was sold to the foreign conglomerate, Sony. Uncomfortable writing for owners who were more concerned with the bottom line than with artistic expression, Howard took on a new endeavor and started a small publishing company, Harlan Howard Songs, Inc. With his guidance, several "juveniles" have had recent chart-topping successes such as The Chain of Love, Clay Walker; Real Live Woman, Trisha Yearwood; Someone You Used To Know, Collin Raye; and She Was, Mark Chesnutt. His hit by Patty Loveless, Blame It On Your Heart, was named BMI Song of the Year as the most performed country song of 1994.
Now in his seventh decade of life, long after many other writers have begun to relax on their royalties, Howard doesn't intend to put aside his pen. "I've been wanting to do this since I was 12, so it's a lifetime hobby and quest," he states. "I never tire of it. Sometimes I do get burned out temporarily, but I can't imagine not wanting to write one more great song, get one more great record, or work with one more great singer. 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."
On March 3, 2002, Harlan passed away at home with his wife, Melanie, by his side. He was 74 years old. A memorial celebrating his life and songs was held at the Ryman Auditorium. Clips from the celebration can be seen on his official website at www.harlanhoward.com. Artists such as Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Bobby Bare, Michael McDonald, Jim Lauderdale and Sara Evans were on hand to render classic Harlan Howard tunes to a SRO crowd.
A lifetime student of the Civil War, it was a dream of Harlan’s to be buried close to General Zollecoffer, the first general killed in the Civil War. Thanks to the generosity of the General’s descendents, a tombstone is being erected in the family plot. Ever the consummate writer, Harlan wrote his epitaph years ago…"He wrote the songs; I held the pen."
For more information contact:
Harlan Howard Songs, Inc. (BMI)
1902 Wedgewood Avenue
Nashville, TN 37212
(615) 327-1748 (FAX)
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