Only Harlan Howard could name one of his albums All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter. For anyone else, it would be an act of hubris, but for Howard, it backs up baseball great Dizzy Dean’s assertion that a person isn’t bragging if he’s simply stating the truth.
Indeed, Howard is the most successful and most prolific commercial songwriter in country-music history. He’s penned more than 100 hit songs, and his stripped-down, straightforward style set the standards by which country songs continue to be gauged.
A native of Kentucky who grew up in a working-class family near the factories of Detroit, Howard was driving a forklift in Los Angeles when he enjoyed his first major success, “Heartaches By the Number.” Now a honky-tonk standard, the tune was a country hit for Ray Price and a pop smash for Guy Mitchell. With the royalties from that song, a 32-year-old Howard moved to Nashville in June 1960. He then hit upon the hottest streak any writer has ever experienced in Nashville. During one week in 1961, he had 15 songs in the Top 40.
At this point, Howard has scored hits in five decades, and during that time, he’s crossed generations: He wrote Mel Tillis’ first big hit, “Life Turned Her That Way,” in 1967; 23 years later, he gave Mel’s daughter, Pam Tillis, her first No. 1 with “Don’t Tell Me What to Do.”
In the last year, the 68-year-old Howard has struggled with his health. He underwent four major surgeries in 10 months, including difficult work on his heart, his back, and a nagging pinched nerve in his foot. But he’s back at work, writing songs daily in a stately brick house on Wedgewood Avenue.
I recently met with Howard to talk about All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter. The album was originally released in 1965 on Monument Records and has just been reissued on CD by Koch International. It features Howard singing 10 of his own compositions, all songs made famous by other people, including Ray Charles (“Busted”), Patsy Cline (“I Fall to Pieces”), Buck Owens (“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” “Above and Beyond”), Brenda Lee (“Too Many Rivers”), and Ray Price (“I Don’t Believe I’ll Fall in Love Today,” “Heartaches By the Number”).
You named your album All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter after an award Billboard gave you in 1965. The amazing thing is the title is as true today as it was 31 years ago.
In your younger days, you think about things like that. As you get older, all you really want is to have one more really good thought and get one more really good song out of it, and then get a great record from someone who really can sing.
Do you write differently now than 30 years ago?
Back then, I was still learning. I made a lot of mistakes. I screwed up a lot of good song ideas because they weren’t written properly. The ones I didn’t write properly, as time’s gone along, I’ll hear them on the radio or see them on the Billboard charts. They’re not my songs, but they have the same title. It’s not that anyone stole anything. Writers think alike, and those great titles kind of drift out of the sky. So when you get a great title, you better write the heck out of it. If you don’t get it recorded, you’ll hear it five years from now.
How serious were you about recording?
I did five albums, and they were all fun. But they weren’t designed to make me a singing star. My heart was in doing them, but my heart wasn’t into being a singer. Except for one show, I never really worked professionally. I sang five songs in Houston one night. I was so nervous that for two months before the show, I couldn’t write a song. I thought that if I tried to sing more often, it would be at the price of my writing. I’m not geared for stages, with people looking at me and all that stuff. I love being in the background. I love being a writer. I feel sorry for Johnny Cash and Waylon and some of my other friends who have to build walls around their houses. They can’t go to Kroger or a hardware store. I feel like I’m living pretty much a normal life, just like a citizen should.
Most of the songs on the reissue are classics, but some I wasn’t as familiar with. “Call Me Mister In-Between” is one I’ve never heard.
That was a Burl Ives hit. My buddy Hank Cochran wrote a hit for Burl called “A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down.” I got the next single, “Call Me Mister In-Between.” Then I got another, “Mary Ann Regrets” [also on the reissue]. This was during my little folk era.... I flirted around with folk a little bit, with deep respect. But when I wrote “Busted,” I headed right back into hardcore country, back where I felt a little more comfortable.
Your songs are known for saying an awful lot with few words. How hard is it to keep it simple?
I love words more than anything. There was a song Max Barnes and I wrote called, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” The first line said, “We tried, and we failed. I didn’t fit the image in your mind.” A lot of people, especially youngsters, might take a lot of verses to say that. I love condensing, getting things out of the way so you can get to the heart of the matter. The sooner you do that, the sooner you lay the groundwork in people’s minds. If you can do that in a line or two, then you can get somewhere. I love playing around with words, tightening up a song and getting rid of the outside elements. Get your story set briefly and get to where you want to get. That’s fun for me....
I never want a song to be too long. Three minutes are plenty. To write a three-minute novel, wow, it’s much better than writing a novel itself. I can’t imagine getting a cabin out in the woods and spending a year writing a novel. What if nobody liked it? Then a whole year would be gone. I can write a lot of songs in a year.
You say it’s fun, but is it easy?
You know, I’ve got about 4,000 songs I can account for. After all those ideas and titles and everything, and thousands and thousands more I’ve heard and remember, it’s hard to think of something you haven’t written or heard before. I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve never been sued, and I don’t know of any songwriter who’s ever been mad at me. I like that, and I’d like to keep it that way. So anything I’ve heard is a no-no. If I can remember it at all, I’m not about to rewrite it.
The business is different now than when you started. There are a lot more songwriters, for one thing.
It’s not as much fun. It’s the same business, but much larger. The money’s larger, the pressure for people to get mercenary and do their own songs is much greater. If you can slip a mediocre song on a triple-platinum album, it pays just as much as the hits, you know, in mechanical royalties. It just means that only superior songs that I write or cowrite will work. It’s gotta be killer, and if it gets cut, it’ll probably be a single. I sure wouldn’t want to be a youngster just hitting town now. I wouldn’t trade the late ’50s and early ’60s, and all the great friendships, and all the excitement. The town was small, and you could see a producer just by walking in the door and saying “Hi.” I miss that small family thing.
Do the ideas still come?
Oh yeah, but not as often, and they’re just as often by accident. You might stir one up just strumming on the guitar, or during a restaurant conversation. Part of my brain is always drifting around looking for titles. It’s the spoken word, it’s reading newspapers, whatever. I look and listen for anything catchy, like a title that stands out. Songs that stand out on a jukebox, that’s really what I’m looking for.
Do you foresee a time when you won’t work as hard at it?
I’m in that now, but I still feel like a professional writer. Kostas and I had a big hit with “Blame It on Your Heart” a couple of years ago. For my piece of mind, I need another one of those. All songwriters do. We’re supposed to have a hit once in a while, or people will think maybe we have retired. I used to think that when I was 65, I was going to end up playing shuffleboard. That isn’t true at all. That’s a factory worker’s mentality, and I carried that thought for years: 65 and out. But 65 came and went, and now I’m 68. I’m not stressed out about it, but I’m pretty confident that anytime now I’m ready to have another hit. I used to get so nervous about it. I always felt that maybe this was the last song I was gonna write. That hunger was pushing me hard back then. I’m not hungry now. But I still want to write a new hit song, and I want to hang around and write a hit in the year 2000. That will make six decades. God sent me here to be a writer, and I want to be like Irving Berlin. I want to be writing right up until I fall off a bar stool.
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