RAMBLIN' ROUND: Harlan Howard: 'Three chords and the truth'

Album cover

One thing I've learned about tribute albums dedicated to celebrating a particular singer or musician is that the tribute recorded by someone else rarely reaches the heights of the original version.

That said, I'll sometimes buy a tribute album simply to hear other artists' renditions of enduring songs. When I listened to the "Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute" album, I had no illusion that I would hear any artist on the album singing a better version of Hank's songs than the ones recorded by Hank himself.

When I heard the opening notes to "I Win Again", I knew that the tribute offered by Keith Richards would not even come close to rivaling Hank's original or even the Jerry Lee Lewis version — but I also knew the inimitable Rolling Stones guitarist and self-avowed longtime country music fan would not approach the song that way.

Richards did the song as a bluesy-shuffle, with Muscle Shoals Swampers-type horns added about midway through the recording. While Williams' original version remains untouchable, followed closely by Jerry Lee's, Richards certainly captured the song's down and out vibe.

In addition to hearing the occasional memorable track on tribute albums, I've learned about several wonderful musical artists through tribute albums recorded by those who admired them.

That's how I discovered one of the best songwriters ever to play his art in Nashville, the great Harlan Howard.

I didn't discover him by hearing one of his own recordings. Instead I first learned about him as a kid, when my parents acquired a collection of record albums, which included one called "Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard."

What? I thought I already knew of all the country music greats. Who was this Harlan Howard guy?

The album didn't include Howard's picture on the cover. Instead, it showed a pre-Buckaroo Buck Owens holding an acoustic guitar, wearing a tan jacket, slacks and cowboy boots, with some sheet music opened on a bench in front of him — as if Buck learned songs by reading sheet music!

Reading the liner notes, I learned that Howard was a songwriter — who had written or co-written all 12 songs on the album.

As I scanned the track list, I didn't see a song I recognized, except "Heartaches By the Number," which had been a big hit for Ray Price. When I played the album though, it only took one listen for me to realize the album and the songs in it were amazing.

It marked the first time I heard the song "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down." I would later learn Charlie Walker had the original hit, but with me, the song will always belong to Buck, with rollicking pedal steel guitar accompaniment by Ralph Mooney, since Buck's excellent band, the Buckaroos, had yet to be formed when Buck made the album.

I loved the opening lines: "You were mine for just a while, now you're puttin' on the style and you never once looked back at your home across the tracks." 

The album didn't even include Howard's best-known songs — but it was still packed with gems I still like today, including "The Keys in the Maibox", "I Don't Believe I'll Fall in Love Today" and "Keeper of the Key." Today, they would be called deep cuts, outstanding album tracks that never became a hit.

That's alright though. Howard had plenty of hits to his name

Once I learned who Harlan Howard was, I was amazed at how many exceptional songs he's written, including Pasty Cline's timeless classic "I Fall to Pieces," which he cowrote with Hank Cochran; "The Blizzard", a song I first heard by Hank Williams Jr. but was a hit for Jim Reeves, and "I've Got A Tiger By the Tail," a cowrite with Buck Owens that became Buck's biggest hit.

Howard wrote those songs in the 1960s, but his string of hits continued through the following decades, such as in 1984 when he cowrote "Why Not Me," a number one song for The Judds and the title of their debut album.

Howard also penned one of Reba McEntire's biggest hits from the 1980s — but he didn't make it easy for her. The story goes that McEntire — who'd had some hits but not yet reached superstar status — asked the already legendary Howard if he might have some songs for her upcoming album. Howard played her a few, but Reba declined them, not feeling they were up to his standards.

Howard then let McEntire know he'd been testing her, to see if she could tell a good song when she heard it and to see if she would be nervy enough to turn down a song of his she didn't like. Howard then played her a song he'd been holding back — "Somebody Should Leave." Reba recorded a heartbreakingly poignant version of the song, taking it to number one.

My favorite Harlan Howard story though is how after some of his songs achieved success on the pop music charts, a friend challenged him to write something so country, it couldn't possibly go "pop."

He accepted the challenge, and wrote a song called "Busted", with the most "country" lyrics he could pen:

"The bills are all due and my baby needs shoes, but I'm busted. Cotton is down to a quarter a pound, but I'm busted."

Things get even more dire on the next lines: "I got a cow that's gone dry and a hen that won't lay, a big stack of bills that get bigger each day. The county's going to haul my belongings away, I'm busted."

Johnny Cash recorded the song and took it to number 13 on the country charts.

But then Ray Charles recorded a soulful, funky, horn-laden version of "Busted" on his album "Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul" — and it shot to number 4 on Billboard's Hot 100, proving a great song is a great song, regardless of the genre.

Howard once famously defined country music as "Three chords and the truth." I'd say "Busted" is a perfect example.

One more thing. As a kid, I'd been impressed to see that Harlan Howard had a hand in writing all 12 songs on the Buck Owens tribute album.

That turned out to be a small percentage, though. During his lifetime, Harlan Howard wrote, or co-wrote lots more — with approximately 4,000 songs credited to the onetime youngster from a Michigan farm who yearned to grow up to be a songsmith.

I believe he achieved his goal.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

Contact James Beaty by email at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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