“BE CAREFUL WHO YOU LOVE”
Updated: May 1, 2019
Harlan Howard spent his adult life as a professional songwriter and was proud to be one. He often referred to his songs as his children. He loved them all equally. Some were more profitable than others, but that didn’t matter to Harlan. He thought all of them worthy of his time. As a lonely child living on farms in Michigan in 1930’s and 40’s, country songs were his friends. It’s only natural that he’d come to think of his songs as family.
Harlan left Los Angeles headed for Nashville, Tennessee on June 6, 1960. He firmly planted his flag in the rich, dark soil staking his claim as a songwriter. He knew he had enough money saved from three huge hits on “Heartaches By The Number” (Ray Price and Guy Mitchell) and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” (Charlie Walker) in 1958-59 to last for a few years trying to prove he had more hit songs in him. He hit the ground running and that run lasted nearly fifty years.
During the early years on Music Row, writers were sometimes asked by recording artists and others to share the songwriter credits thus sharing the income stream in order to get a song cut. I won’t go as far to say it happened often; but I know for a fact, that it happened to Harlan several times in his early career. Harlan agreed to add the artist name on two songs and declined on the third request.
Harlan was young and hungry when he agreed to add their names to his songs. He quickly realized that it negatively affected the way he perceived the artist. Resentment reared it’s ugly head and stared Harlan in the face. He realized that his only means of income was songwriting; whereas, the artist also had the added benefit of income derived from touring and merchandising. Harlan made a mental note not to allow “O.P.” other people’s names on his song. In doing so, it would diminish the pool of talent to pitch songs too.
Somewhere along the road to fame, Harlan heard the story of an alcoholic man in east Tennessee named Arthur Q. Smith aka James Arthur Pritchett who was famous for writing songs and selling them for next to nothing or perhaps to pay his bar tab. He was intrigued by the story and went on a mission to verify it. He asked his friend, Chet Atkins, if he knew Arthur. He replied he did and told Harlan that he had purchased a few songs from him. Chet told Harlan that he had put his own name on the composition, “a deal’s a deal,” he said. Harlan asked Chet if he knew anyone else who had purchased songs; he sent him to talk to Bill Monroe.
Harlan asked Bill Monroe if he’d ever bought songs from Arthur Q. Smith. Mr. Monroe confirmed he had purchased a few and told Harlan a title or two. He was matter of fact about the business transaction. His sentiment mirrored that of Chet’s, a deal’s a deal. He told Harlan he had paid $25 for each title. He told Harlan to talk to Don Gibson. Mr. Gibson refused to speak to Harlan about Arthur Q. Smith.
The moral to the story, in Harlan’s mind, was that it was acceptable to purchase songs if there was a willing buyer and a willing seller. Taking credit for the copyright was a bit shadier, he reasoned. He allowed, if you bought a song and put your name on it and freely admitted to the purchase; your conscience could live with the aftermath. If you bought a song, took credit as the creator and never admitted to the behind the scene transaction, the deceit would haunt you.
Harlan was so moved by the story and the thought that loomed over him “there but for the grace of God, go I,” that he wrote a song within a song about Arthur Q. Smith’s struggle with the demon of alcohol. It was a tribute to a man he never met only heard tell of. A man who may have been a lot like Harlan’s own father, Ralph Howard, who also battled alcoholism. “Be Careful Who You Love” has been recorded by Hank William, Jr., Marty Stuart, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and even by Harlan Howard. Here is his version. If this story intrigues you, I urge you to google, Arthur Q. Smith.
April 30, 2019
Arthur Q. Smith Photo