"Three Chords and the Truth" his songwriting motto
Nashville giant wrote "I Fall To Pieces"
In America's country music capital, Nashville, Tennessee, there are probably more successful songwriters per square mile than anywhere else in the whole United States. Despite the sheer number and profundity of the talent, Harlan Howard stands out as the true royalty of the genre, the kind of songwriting genius whose engine of ideas keeps fueling the songwriting, even today, in his fifth decade of turning out great hit tunes.
Howard is also the kind of songwriter with whom recording stars tend to become identified, so moving have many of the songs been that he has penned for specific performers.
The late, great Patsy Cline, for example, despite her many wonderful performances, will always be closely associated with "I Fall to Pieces," the emotional song also later recorded by Linda Ronstadt, among many others. Country star, Buck Owens, will always be identified with another memorable Howard opus, "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," while Ray Price and Guy Mitchell, who recorded country and pop versions of "Heartaches by the Number," produced a closeness for both with Howard and his songs.
An orphan raised on farms in Michigan, Howard found the life of a farm boy difficult, and beginning in his early teen years, he developed a fondness for the radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and the performances especially of Ernest Tubb and the songs of Cindy Walker and Floyd Tillman, on those Opry shows on Nashville's renowned WSM Radio.To continue pursuit of a career in songwriting, Howard, in 1955, moved to Los Angeles, a location dictated in part by the fact that if songwriting success proved elusive, there were always factory jobs in LA. He actually held a variety of jobs there, including truck and cab driver, gas station attendant and factory worker. But through it all, every spare moment was devoted to honing his skills in songwriting. "I'd come home from work sometimes with six songs," he once declared. "I never thought I'd be able to quit the factory and make a living full-time as a writer."
A year after arriving in Los Angeles, a chance introduction to Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond eventually led to good fortune through recordings of his work not only by Ritter and Bond but also by Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Bobby Bare, Skeets McDonald and later by Charlie Walker, whose recording of "Pick Me up on Your Way Down," became Howard's first major hit and later, in fact, a country classic.
Buoyed by these successes, in 1960, Howard and his second wife, the singer, Jan Howard, and three adopted sons, moved to Nashville, a move that was to produce a year later, a veritable explosion of Harlan Howard hits. He enjoyed as many as 15 of his own songs in the country Top 40 simultaneously, a feat never equaled, before or since.
Howard came to think of his songs as his children and he constantly tries to locate the perfect home for them, crediting much of his success to matching songs with the most appropriate artist. This has led to more recent hit recordings with such contemporary artists as Nanci Griffith, K.D. Lang, Pam Tillis, Collin Raye and more recently with Patty Loveless and her recording of "Blame It on Your Heart."
Since entering his elder statesman' status, Howard has elected to help 'juveniles,' as he puts it, along the way. "I've always just hung out with songwriters," Howard has said. "Most of the older songwriters aren't here anymore. Since I'm the only one left from the '60s that makes me the dinosaur. The young writers wanna be like me. Well, I wanted to be a professional like Fred Rose or Irving Berlin."
The songwriter community lost one of its greatest legends when Harlan died in 2002. His melodic ballads will be missed terrible throughout the popular and country music world.