Harlan Howard: 1927 to 2002
The story is told that sometimes at the pickin’ sessions held at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville during the 1960s, one of the songwriters would wax enthusiastically about a new idea he had for a song. Harlan Howard would reply, “Don’t bother. I’ve already written it.” And more often than not, it would be true. Few songwriters in country music history wrote more successfully on a wider variety of subjects, and for as diverse an array of singers.
When Howard came to Nashville in 1960, he became part of that remarkable group of Good Old Boys — including Hank Cochran, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, and Willie Nelson — whose songs moved country music back to the blue-collar roots it had almost forgotten, and unleashed a major economic resurgence within the industry. His death on March 3 at age 74 closed one more door to country music’s working-class past.
Howard had lived the life he wrote about in his songs. He grew up in Michigan during the Depression years, the son of Kentucky migrants who had fled the coal fields to follow their dreams in the land of Henry Ford and his automobile industry. He told their story in one of his most affecting songs, “Busted” (at Johnny Cash’s request, however, the lyrics were altered to refer to cotton picking instead of coal mining).
After his parents’ divorce, Howard lived and worked on a succession of farms as a ward of the state of Michigan. Farm life could be hard and boring, but one night he found salvation in the voice of Ernest Tubb, reaching out from the Grand Ole Opry through the Philco battery radio, singing a plaintive ode, “When The World Has Turned You Down”. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Howard’s internship as a professional songwriter had begun. He started jotting down the lyrics that he heard in the songs written by Tubb and other Opry performers. Almost imperceptibly, his own creations soon began to replace those written by his musical heroes.
Howard’s songwriting ambitions never flagged from this point on. During his four years as a paratrooper (beginning in 1944 when he was only 17), he learned a few chords on the guitar, and even picked up the idea for a couple of songs (“Above And Beyond” and “Heartaches By The Number”) from Army practices and lingo. After military service, he returned to Michigan and resumed his life as a factory worker, but soon relocated in California along with his new wife, Trudy.
He was working as a forklift operator in a Los Angeles book bindery when he persuaded veteran cowboy singers Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond to sign him to a writers’ contract with Vidor Publishers. By 1956, his drinking and singing partners Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens had introduced him to the budding Bakersfield Sound. His first commercially recorded songs, including “Above And Beyond”, “You Took Her Off My Hands”, “The Key’s In The Mailbox”, “Mommy For A Day”, and “Excuse Me” (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache”) — the last two written with Owens — came during this period.
Although his career thrived, his marriage suffered, a victim largely of his musical obsession. He went through the first of several divorces and married a local singer and Missouri transplant, Lula Johnson. Singing as Jan Howard, she later recorded a very popular version of Harlan’s “Evil On Your Mind”.
Charlie Walker’s hit recording in 1958 of “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”, and Ray Price’s similar success in 1959 with “Heartaches By The Number”, convinced Howard that Nashville was the place to be. Writing for Pamper Music Company, he began turning out a stream of hits such as “I Fall To Pieces” (with Hank Cochran), “Busted”, “Streets Of Baltimore”, “The Blizzard”, “The Choking Kind”, and “Another Bridge To Burn.” Howard’s emerging prominence as a songwriter coincided with, and was in fact a major contributor to, country music’s commercial resurgence in the early 1960s.
Harlan Howard was a true working-class poet, but like Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, James Talley and other colleagues who have shared that designation, he seldom commented on work itself. Work and its various associations were not the compelling bases for his songwriting. He neither praised nor denigrated labor; instead, he ignored it. Like country musicians from Jimmie Rodgers’ day to our own, Howard used music to escape work. He knew what work was all about, and he never romanticized it.
His songs instead came from those experiences felt by working people as they pursued their daily lives outside the workplace. He observed and listened carefully to their conversations in bars and restaurants, and if he heard a good line, he appropriated it and turned it into a song. One song, for example, came from a conversation heard at George’s Roundup Club in California, when a young man shouted angrily to a woman who had left his table. Howard never knew what had precipitated the remark, but it became the inspiration for one of his most popular songs, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”.
In song after song, he exhibited an uncanny ability to construct context and extract a universal feeling from a chance comment. Lengthy sessions at Linebaugh’s Cafe or at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, passing the guitar around and listening to his buddies talk and sing, provided ample opportunities for “research” as well as for relaxation.
Although Howard’s songs concentrated on the day-to-day concerns of average people — the problems and dreams associated with preserving relationships and surviving in an often hostile world — they were governed by a strong morality and rough populism that mirrored the feelings held by most country fans. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and, as he argued in “Sunday Morning Christian”, hypocrisy is intolerable.
The former paratrooper also never abandoned his blue-collar patriotism. In a song written and recorded by Howard himself during the Vietnam-era protests, “Dear Mr. Professor”, he voiced his complaints against those critics who, in his opinion, were subverting the minds of young people and encouraging destructive dissent.
But if some songs conveyed simplistic thinking or anti-intellectual postures, Howard also demonstrated an openness to new ideas and a commercial awareness of changing circumstances in country music. He was in the vanguard of those writers who recognized the growing power of women as performers and consumers. Consequently, such songs as “Heaven Help The Working Girl”, “No Charge”, and “Somebody Should Leave” exhibited a sensitivity to women’s needs that was well in advance of most of his contemporaries.
This capacity for change, coupled with his ability to tailor his songs to the styles of individual singers, kept his material fresh, his career productive, and his legacy sure. We will miss him.