Harlan Howard Birthday Bash
Usually on the Tuesday closest to September 8th, a large stage was erected in the parking lot of BMI, bars were set up and a huge honky-tonk took over Music Row. Harlan invited his favorite songwriter/artists to join him in celebrating the art of songwriting. Harlan loved the craft of songwriting; he was proud to be a songwriter. He wanted to share his love of songwriting with the world. He adored shining the spotlight on creating a three-minute vignette set to music which conveyed the gamut of emotions.
Prior to finding it’s home on Music Row, Harlan used to host this shindig at his house. He’d invite songwriters and music industry folks over for a guitar-pull where the guitar would be passed from one songwriter to the next. The only rule was you had to play a song that you wrote. You would hear country standards, brand new songs and current hits. Eventually, the party outgrew the neighborhood and thus moved to Music Row.
If you knew Harlan, you knew he was a shy man. He preferred to hold court with a few friends gathered around a table at Maude’s Courtyard, The Third Coast or The Longhorn Steakhouse. Normally a confident man, a crowd of people terrified Harlan. Public speaking only compounded his shyness; add a microphone to the mix, and there better be copious amounts of alcohol involved to soothe his introverted personality.
The Harlan Howard Birthday Bashes were a right of passage on Music Row. Every Fall, music industry insiders, fans of songwriters and fans of music gathered to sit and listen to two songs from about 20 writers. Harlan would invite a host or two to join him on stage to do the honors of honoring songwriters. Some of the host/hostesses included: Merle Kilgore, Buck Owens, Rodney and Roseanne Cash, Brooks and Dunn, Travis Tritt, Mel Tillis, Nanci Griffith and Mike Reid, Emmylou Harris and Bobby Bare and SKB or Schuyler, Knobloch and Bickhardt. This is only a partial listing and in no certain order.
Songwriters who shared the stage and their songs included Max D. Barnes, Bob Morrison, KT Oslin, Charlie Peacock, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Russell Smith, Roger Cook, Bill and Sharon Rice, Jim Lauderdale, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Dean Dillon, Pat Alger, Craig Wiseman, Hank Cochran, Kostas, Paul Davis, Tony Arata, Gretchen Peters, Bobby Braddock, Chet Atkins, Guy Clark, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Steve Earle, Jack Clement and Bob DiPiero just to name a few. Honestly, the songwriters who performed are so numerous, you’d get tired of me listing them. Suffice it to say, it’s an incredible array of friends, co-writers, hall of famers and luminaries who graced the birthday bash stages.
I have to give a shout-out to Robert Frye who managed the stage for all of the bashes. Thank goodness for his help. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give kudos to the musicians who donated their time and talent and performed year after year. It wasn’t always the same band, but some of the musicians included Bobby Ogdin – keyboards; Larry Paxton on bass; Brent Rowan – guitar; Paul Franklin – steel; Rob Hajacos – fiddle; Mark Casstevens – acoustic guitar and Jerry Kroon on drums. David Briggs was the musical coordinator. It took a village to pull off the best honky-tonk songwriter show on Music Row.
All in all there were 15 birthday bashes. After Harlan’s death in 2002, there was one final throw-down to honor his legacy on Music Row. The bashes were much loved and often standing room only. There were commemorative signed posters and t-shirts which I occasionally still see around town. It’s an institution that ran its course, but nevertheless, they were sure-fired fun while they lasted.
Here are some of my favorite photos from Harlan Howard Birthday Bashes.