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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Howard


Updated: Jun 27, 2019

When Harlan Howard moved from California to Nashville in June 1960, he hit the ground running. Fresh from shucking his blue collar, Harlan got up early, smoked cigarettes, drank a pot of coffee and sat down to hunt and peck at his Remington typewriter. Like his penchant for reading several books at once, it was also his custom to have songs in various stages of completion. Some days he’d work on several ideas at a time – a chorus here, a bridge there or perhaps a new title to compose. Regardless, Harlan wrote like he was still in the factory. It was his job to write Monday through noon on Thursday. Come Thursday afternoon, it was wheels up for Harlan as he headed east towards Center Hill Lake. Fishing was Harlan’s great equalizer. It was his preferred sport and the lake was his place of Zen.

A writer who was in town having success, not only as a songwriter but also as a performer, was Mel Tillis. Harlan and Mel hit it off immediately. Besides their love of women, songwriting and storytelling, they shared a love for fishing. Center Hill Lake, Sligo Boat Dock in particular, was a boys club for folks in the music industry in the mid 1960’s. Stories abound of the fishing days of glory with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, Shorty Lavender, Mmmmel Tillis, Harlan’s older brother, Milton Howard and, of course, Harlan.

In the early days of the burgeoning music scene in Nashville, most songwriters wrote alone. They’d gather in the afternoons and early evenings to swap songs. It was the birth of the guitar pull where writers would congregate and pass the guitar around and play their newest creations. It was a way to test their songs long before the industry practice of hiring researchers to predict a songs hit-factor became popular. Can you imagine sitting around a table in the upstairs back room at Tootsies Orchid Lounge listening to brand new songs by Hank Cochran, Willie Nelson, Mel Tillis, Tom T. Hall, Bill Anderson and Harlan Howard just to name a few of the songwriters in town? I can imagine it, but I wish I’d witnessed it.

In late 1966, Mel Tillis cut a song that Little Jimmy Dicken’s had cut of Harlan’s titled, “Life Turned Her That Way” which was released on Kapp Records in early 1967. It was common practice in those days to cut outside songs meaning songs you did not write. It was also commonplace for several artists to cut the same song at the same time. Mel’s version of “Life Turned Her That Way” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s HOT 100. It went on to reach #1 in 1988 in a remake by Ricky Van Shelton on Columbia Records, but that’s another story.

Fast forward a few decades, the year is 1990 and it is December. Harlan hears an 11th hour plea for up-tempo, first single, song material for new-to-country, Pam Tillis on Arista Records being produced by his buddy, Paul Worley. Harlan combs through his catalog of songs and offers a few hit worthy songs -- all of which were rejected. The single comes out and low and behold it’s a Harlan Howard/Max D. Barnes song titled, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do.” Pam had a boot-legged copy of a non-released Marty Stuart record that contained the same song but was titled, “I’ll Love You Forever (If I Want To).” Pam’s first single off her Arista debut, Put Yourself In My Place was a Top 5 on Billboard’s HOT 100.

Sony/ATV was then Tree International and they hosted a party of celebration for Harlan, Max and Pam. At the party, Harlan noticed a young boy with Pam who happened to be her eight year old son. Harlan, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, sauntered over to him where I overheard him asking if he could sing? On the ride home Harlan mused, wouldn’t it be great if I could have a hit with him! He said, I had a hit with Mel, now with Pam; I need a hit with a third generation Tillis. He wondered aloud if that feat had ever been accomplished before.

Sadly, that feat was not attained, but it makes for a great story! Harlan was, first and foremost, a songwriter; but he loved the art of finding the perfect song for the artist. He loved and appreciated helping young artist establish themselves at country radio. He loved providing the hit that they had to sing night after night while he was home working on his next masterpiece.

Oh! Remind me to tell you the story of the big fish that got away. Well sort of got away. It involves Mel and Harlan and Center Hill Lake.

Respectfully written, June 24, 2019

Melanie Smith-Howard

Mel Tillis - "Life Turned Her That Way"

Mel Tillis and Harlan Howard at Harlan Howard Songs in honor of Harlan’s 70th birthday, 1997

Pam Tillis - "Don't Tell Me What To Do" video

Pam Tillis at Harlan Howard’s Celebration of Life, Ryman Auditorium, 2002

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