Then, just when you were trying to figure out the exact mixture of hilarity and bad taste you'd been hit with, he would launch into some heartbreaking ballad, or one of those driving old bluegrass standbys. And if it was one of the latter, once it was done, he'd say, "Boy, that's a whole lot more work than writing a song."
Nashville's a songwriting town, and Harley Allen was a world-class songwriter, so a lot will be written about that in days to come. But before — and while — he was writing the hits, Harley was a singer, one of nearly unparalleled beauty and sadness. By the time he was in his late teens and singing with his brothers in the hillbilly bars of Dayton, Ohio, he had a reedy, mournful tenor voice that seemed to always curl a phrase just a moment before you thought it might, or rise just a bit higher than you thought it could. And whichever of a dozen different ways he'd surprise you as a singer, it always turned out to be exactly the right one to make you feel the same longing, the same emptiness, the same self-mocking yet utterly serious sense of despair that seemed to be haunting him.
"I've been right, but mostly wrong — wrong about you, right about me," he wrote in "High Sierra," and if that was quintessential Harley writing, the way he sang it was no less revealing.
Harley Allen could be brutally dismissive and, it seemed, compulsively irascible. Yet he was also a profoundly humorous man, and — often covertly — a warm one, too, devoted to people and things he appeared not to care about. Cancer took him too soon, and while there are many reasons to miss him, in the end, those are the ones that count the most.