Advertisement

Harlan Howard, 74; Prolific Songwriter

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harlan Howard, the dean of Nashville songwriters who once described country music as “three chords and the truth” and saw his own six-decade version of the truth told through the recordings of Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and scores more, has died. He was 74.

Howard’s name and face would go unrecognized by casual country music fans, but not the hit recordings of songs he wrote or co-wrote, including: “I Fall to Pieces” by Cline, “Busted” by Charles, “Heartaches by the Number” by Ray Price and “Why Not Me?” by the Judds.

In all, he wrote more than 4,000 songs and had more than 100 of his compositions crack the country top 10.

“The world has lost its best songwriter--ever,” was the simple statement Monday from Buck Owens, a friend and collaborator who met Howard in 1954.

Advertisement

Howard died Sunday in Nashville of an apparent heart attack after weathering a number of health problems and operations in recent years.

Ongoing circulation problems in his legs limited his mobility in recent years but not his spirits, friends say.

A beloved figure in the music industry and a noted raconteur, he died at his home while watching the women’s basketball team of Vanderbilt, a school whose teams he followed passionately.

“I found him with a smile on his face,” his wife, Melanie Smith-Howard, said Monday.

Advertisement

Harlan Perry Howard was born Sept. 8, 1927, in Detroit--a publicist later persuaded him to cite a more industry-appropriate birthplace of Kentucky, but he abandoned the myth in recent years, his wife said Monday.

His parents were indeed from Kentucky, and like many of the transplants seeking work with the automobile industry, they brought their love of country and blues music to Michigan. The Depression and troubles at home splintered the family, though, and Howard spent many of his youthful nights in foster homes.

He dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work as a laborer but he already had another occupation on his mind.

Inspired by Ernest Tubb, he had fancied himself a songwriter since the age of 12 and his unfolding life saga informed his lyrics with a lonesome tinge.

He joined the Army in 1947 and a stint as a paratrooper gave him time to learn the guitar and took him close enough to Nashville to spend weekends there, but he found it difficult to crack the city’s songwriting club.

It was on to Tucson in 1954, and a year later to Los Angeles, where he found steady paychecks.

“Nashville had no factory jobs so there was no way to support myself while I tried to write the songs,” Howard told The Times in 1992.

“L.A., on the other hand, had jobs, and there was a growing country music scene out there.

Advertisement

“Driving that fork truck was real dull, but it gave you lots of time to goof off. I’d go home every day with six songs in my pocket.”

Moving west also led to a new friendship, with a Bakersfield singer named Buck Owens. The two would have a series of hits, but began their collaboration with the song “Mommy for a Day,” which Kitty Wells would record.

Howard had by then written his first country hit, “Pick Me Up on your Way Down,” which Charlie Walker took to No. 2 on the country charts in 1958.

A year later, “Heartaches by the Number” was a Howard-written hit not only for Price on the country charts, but also for Guy Mitchell, who reached No. 1 on the pop charts.

Still, the songwriter was working in a book bindery in Huntington Park for $200 a week when, in 1960, he opened the mail one day and found “Heartaches” had delivered him a royalty check for $48,000. Within days another one, for $52,000, arrived.

“I went out and did the typical hillbilly thing: I bought a brand-new white-on-white Coupe de Ville,” he told Robert Hilburn of The Times in 1992.

“Paid $5,200 cash for it.... The next thing I did was move to Nashville and hit the ground running, writing day and night for 10 to 12 years.”

He ran hard. In 1961, he had 15 songs on the country chart at one time.

Advertisement

He also struck up cocktail friendships with other writers such as Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson and Roger Miller at Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville, across from the Grand Ole Opry.

Howard launched a recording career of his own, but unlike Nelson, he could never change his sheet-music success into a performer’s spotlight--nor was Howard willing to forgo his passion for fishing to hit the tour road.

The zenith of his career with a microphone was “Sunday Morning Christian,” which peaked on the country chart at No. 38 in 1971.

Others had far better luck with his compositions and they came from all corners of the pop landscape: Cash, Burl Ives, k.d. lang, Brenda Lee, Dean Martin, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Hank Snow, Conway Twitty and Bobby Vinton, among a list that goes on and on.

His songs were marked by self-effacing humor, raw heartache and a bittersweet world view that became a touchstone quality in country music.

The reach of his hits earned him the nickname “the Irving Berlin of country music” and, more simply, “Mr. Songwriter.” Noted for his doting attention to younger generations of artists, he was famous in music circles as a mentor as well.

“He was so good to young people,” singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson said Monday. “He was always in our corner.... The gift of a great Harlan song was they were direct, simple and from the heart. He’s up there with Hank Williams. He was one of the heroes.”

Rodney Crowell, from another generation of Nashville disciples dedicated to Howard, said the songwriter brought an edge to country and created much of its lexicon.

“I told him he was a pre-Dylan,” Crowell said Monday. “He threw acid into the mix. He was coming behind Hank Williams and all those sentiments were still fresh--'I’ve got heartaches by the numbers and troubles by the score.’ It was poetry. Harlan was right there writing all that down.”

Howard is survived by three children by different marriages: Jennifer Carnella, Harlan Howard Jr. and Clementyne Rucker Howard. He also adopted a son, Carter “Corkey” Howard.

Services are scheduled at the Roesche Patton Funeral Home in Nashville today and Wednesday. The Ryman Auditorium at the Grand Ole Opry will host a celebration of his life and music on March 19.


Advertisement