Popular and peer opinion, chart success, and scores of awards for the best of over four thousand songs he penned explain why Harlan Howard was dubbed not only Nashville’s dean of country songwriters but one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Born in Detroit, the Michigan farm boy who was named after Harlan, Kentucky, the home of several relatives, moved to Los Angeles in 1955. There, while working as a forklift operator, Howard, a polio survivor, pursued a dream of writing songs after an initial lack of success pursuing the same goal in Nashville and the end of his first marriage in Tucson, Arizona.
Howard was befriended by Tex Ritter and Johnny Bond, and with their help and that of Wynn Stewart, Bobby Bare, and Skeets McDonald, his songs were recorded. Harlan’s first hit, Charlie Walker’s 1959 recording of Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, was quickly followed by Heartaches by the Number, simultaneously a pop hit for Guy Mitchell and a country chart-topper for Ray Price.
With a newfound confidence, Harland moved to Nashville in 1960, arriving with a new wife, the former Lulu Grace Johnson (whom Harlan married on May 11, 1957), the future recording artist and Grand Ole Opry star to whom her husband gave the stage name Jan Howard. In 1961, Harlan signed with Acuff-Rose Publishing and simultaneously had an unprecedented fifteen songs in the country charts’ top forty. He received ten BMI Awards that year alone. Howard would later form his own publishing companies, Wilderness Music (1965) and Harlan Howard Songs, Inc. (1992). Along the way, while Harlan wrote such standards as Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces (co-written by Hank Cochran) and Ray Charles’s hit Busted, he cut his own songs. Sunday Morning Christian, a satirical tale of hypocrisy, was Howard’s first and only hit as an artist. It became a top-forty country hit in 1971.
Known for his excesses, Harlan was a regular at Nashville’s watering holes, and the most famous of his five marriages, as documented by Jan Howard in her 1987 autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, was doomed due to domestic violence. Yet, Harlan’s public persona was that of a charitable man.
Just as he had been mentored, Howard gave back to Nashville’s songwriting community and its “juveniles,” as Harlan affectionately called songwriters who sought his counsel. In 1983, friends organized the first of twelve annual Harlan Howard Birthday Bashes as a benefit for songwriters. Briefly revived in 2003 as memorial to Howard, following a six-year absence due to his declining health, the event was not the same without its honoree and was again discontinued.
On March 19, 2002, in accordance with Harlan’s wishes, family and friends gathered at the Ryman Auditorium, not to mourn Howard but to celebrate his life. Bobby Bare, Rodney Crowell, Sara Evans, Emmylou Harris, Jim Lauderdale, Jonell Mosser, and Michael McDonald were among those who came to eulogize and to pay a musical tribute to Howard. On June 20, 2007, the Academy of Country Music posthumously awarded Howard its Pioneer Award.