Like most Music Row gatekeepers, Melanie Howard used to flinch whenever she found the word “folksinger” attached to a songwriter’s name.
“I’d see that, and I’d immediately just put it aside,” says the owner and president of Harlan Howard Songs, the publishing company she started with her late husband, the most-recorded country songwriter in history. “I’d think, ‘Folksingers don’t write country hits.’ ”
As it turns out, two self-described folksingers—Mary Gauthier and Lori McKenna—wholly changed the direction of the company that bears one of Nashville’s most legendary names. Howard broke ranks with Music Row convention by signing Gauthier, then McKenna, eventually getting both signed to Nashville country labels and raising the profile of the critically acclaimed, but previously little-known, singer-songwriters in the process.
Gauthier, a 45-year-old lesbian, and McKenna, a 37-year-old mother of five from south of Boston, confound much of the commonly accepted wisdom of Music Row: they write alone, they write deeply personal songs and they broach dark and difficult subjects without regard for how radio programmers in Milwaukee or Amarillo might react.
Both also accounted for two of the strongest major-label releases in Nashville in 2005—Gauthier’s Mercy Now (Lost Highway) and McKenna’s Bittertown (Warner Bros.), the latter a rerelease of a 2004 album previously on an independent label based in the Northeast. Not only that, Blake Shelton put his version of Gauthier’s “I Drink” on his most recent album, and Faith Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs for her recent platinum-selling album, Fireflies. As if that weren’t enough, Sara Evans included McKenna’s magnificent “Bible Song” on her current album, meaning McKenna’s fourth-quarter royalty checks will top the cumulative sum of what she’s made in music up until now.
So how did a company named for the writer who epitomizes classic country songwriting end up as one of the most progressive music publishers in Nashville?
First, Howard had to get over her aversion to the term “folksinger.”
Three years ago, Gauthier had her manager contact song publishers in town to see if any would be interested in signing her and helping pitch her songs to other singers. They sent out 60 letters, complete with CDs, an artist bio and a raft of press clips.
When the package crossed Howard’s desk, she noticed that the bio and clips made liberal use of the folk tag. She stopped there; she didn’t even bother to play Gauthier’s CD. As it turned out, not a single publisher responded to the mass mailing. When Gauthier’s manager followed up with phone calls, the singer told the manager to call Harlan Howard Songs first. “I think Harlan would get my songs,” she said.
But Harlan Howard died in March 2002, shortly after the letters went out. His widow assiduously avoided calls from Gauthier’s manager, slicing her finger across her neck every time her assistant told her who was on the line. But the calls persisted, and eventually Howard decided she should deal with it.
“You busted me,” Howard told the woman who managed Gauthier at the time. “I’ve got the CDs here, but I haven’t listened to them. Give me 15 minutes and call me back.”
Howard picked up the jewel box, looked over the credits and liked the title “I Drink.” “I thought that sounded like a song Harlan would come up with,” she said during a recent interview at her office on Wedgewood Avenue. “When I listened to it, I was blown away. I played it about three times. I loved it the first time, and more each time I listened to it. And I knew Harlan would’ve loved it too. It was his kind of song.”
When the manager called back, Howard said she’d like to meet Gauthier. Within an hour, the singer-songwriter was standing at Howard’s desk. “I knew absolutely nothing about her,” Howard says. “But I knew I had to work with her.”
Howard signed the Louisiana native to her first publishing contract. She then played Gauthier’s songs for Luke Lewis, co-chair of Universal Music Group. Lewis loved the songs, but worried that his company wouldn’t be able to market music that dark in tone and stark in arrangement. But Howard convinced him to go hear Gauthier at the Bluebird Café.
The next morning, Howard and Gauthier left for Europe to attend a business conference. When Howard returned to their hotel in Cannes after the first day, her message light was blinking. “No one knew I was there,” she said. “I thought it had to be a wrong number.”
Instead, it was a message from Lewis saying he was knocked out by Gauthier’s performance and wanted her on his Lost Highway label, home to iconoclasts like Lucinda Williams and Willie Nelson. Mercy Now, the album she went on to make for Lost Highway, became Gauthier’s best-selling record while receiving rave reviews and earning her the Americana Music Association’s New/Emerging Artist of the Year award.
It was Gauthier who introduced Howard to McKenna, another songwriter who didn’t fit the Nashville mold. Gauthier began her career in Boston, as did McKenna, and she’d always been a fan of McKenna’s music. Being smart about it, Gauthier told Howard about her friend by saying, “I think some of her songs have the potential to be country hits.”
Howard went to McKenna’s website, loved what she heard and called the songwriter at home in Massachusetts. “I need a publisher,” McKenna said. “I don’t even know what a publisher does, but I know I need one.”
Once the contracts were signed, Howard took McKenna’s songs to Missi Gallimore, the wife and assistant to producer Byron Gallimore, who works with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. The Gallimores took five of McKenna’s songs to a dinner at the McGraws’ home and the couple flipped over her music.
Hill recorded at least five of McKenna’s songs, and three of them—“Fireflies,” “Stealin’ Kisses” and “If You Ask”—ended up on her 2005 album. Hill also wanted to record McKenna’s “Bible Song,” but Sara Evans beat her to it.
“I’d record an entire album of Lori McKenna songs if I could,” Hill says. “I absolutely love where she’s coming from in her writing, and I completely relate with her and what she says. I really can’t stop listening to her music. I’ve always got one of her CDs on in my car.”
As Howard explains it, McKenna comes from a world unlike that of most other country songwriters. Growing up blue-collar in a suburb of Boston, McKenna still lives on the same block where she was born. She’s known her husband since third grade and nearly all of her friends since childhood.
“Her songs are all about real relationships—with her family, her children, her husband, her friends,” Howard says. “She has all these continuous relationships she’s had all of her life. When she talks about ‘one man,’ she means it. That’s all she’s ever known. That’s the simplicity of her life, and I can’t imagine what that’s like, but she can’t imagine it any other way. And she finds so much to say about that subject matter and has such incredible insights about how people relate to each other. I’ve never heard anyone like her.”
McKenna at one point asked Howard if she should move to Nashville, or if she should set up songwriting appointments. “I told her ‘absolutely not,’ ” Howard laughs. “I know that’s what everyone tells writers—you have to move to Nashville, you have to co-write. Well, bull. I completely disagree. What makes Lori’s songs great, and what makes Mary’s songs great, is they aren’t like anyone else’s. They’re pure and they’re real, and we need more like them. I prefer my writers to write alone. It just makes for stronger songs, in my opinion.”
Howard laughs, acknowledging that she’s bucking convention. But she enjoys the role. “Nashville needs more writers like Mary and Lori who take chances and write about the things they know,” she says. “I’m tired of most of what’s on the radio. Anything I can do to make that better, I’m all for it. I feel like Harlan’s up there smiling. He’d be all for better country songs.”