Harlan’s Last Call: An Afternoon of Precious Memories

Harlan Howard ’s memorial service Tuesday afternoon (March 19) was so high-spirited, funny and filled with good music it would have made a great live album. Maybe even the basis of a tour. Certainly Howard’s estate wouldn’t suffer from such adaptations, since all but one of the songs performed during the two-hour ceremony were his.

Gathered at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Howard’s friends remembered the late songwriter not only as being the absolute best at what he did but also as one who never lost his enthusiasm for his trade nor his kindness toward those who aspired to follow in his footsteps. Howard died March 3 at the age of 74.

Jonell Mosser’s majestic rendition of “Ave Maria,” which opened the program, was its only solemn moment. After that, as master of ceremonies Ralph Murphy promised, it was “all Harlan, all day.”

Murphy, who was one of the songwriter’s closest drinking buddies, described Howard as “that lovable thirsty guy at the corner of the bar.” It was here, Murphy explained, that Howard sat for hours, talking and listening to anyone near him and gleaning ideas for songs. “You always called the corner of the bar the ‘pole position,’” Murphy said, addressing most of his opening remarks directly to his old friend.

Interspersed within the live performances were three video presentations that featured reminiscences by those who knew Howard best, as well as clips of Howard singing, talking and responding to his 1997 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Murphy read a letter from Kris Kristofferson that said, in part, “In the universe of country music, Harlan is as relevant as the Ryman.”

Many of the performers told stories about their encounters with Howard or explained how his songs had helped their careers. Pam Tillis , who sang her Howard-penned hit, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” said she knew of only one time that the fabled composer carried a grudge. She said he had caught his biggest fish ever and had stored it in the freezer of his fishing cabin, planning to have it mounted. Unfortunately, he had given Tillis’ father, Mel, and Porter Wagoner permission to use the place. When they returned to the cabin — more than a little in their cups and hungry — they ate the prize catch.

Naomi and Wynonna Judd said Howard visited them at their home, just as their career was taking off, and that they nervously greeted him, wearing their “best Kmart dresses.” Naomi said he advised them to take notes whenever they were in a bar or truck stop to store up ideas for songs.

Trisha Yearwood noted that when she was singing demos for a living, her last session contained a Harlan Howard song. “That was the right way to retire,” she reflected. “I know there’s not supposed to be tears,” Yearwood continued. “So if you cry during this next song, it’s Harlan’s fault. This is the saddest song I’ve ever heard in my whole life.” She then sang “Melancholy Blue.”

“This is the first song I ever sang in public,” said Rodney Crowell as he kicked off the classic “Above and Beyond.” Grand Ole Opry star John Conlee sang “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” one of his two 1982 hits with Howard’s songs. (The other was “Busted.”) “This song [which is about a man driven insane by bad love] proves you can write about any subject and it will work,” Conlee observed, “if it’s in the hands of a master.”

Songwriter Dennis Morgan performed “Sweet Jesus You’ve Come Through Again,” which he co-wrote and which he said was Howard’s last composition. Bobby Bare, who, with Nanci Griffith , sang “The Streets of Baltimore,” speculated that he might be Howard’s “oldest friend,” noting that the two had first worked together in 1955.

Of all the luminous performances, none surpassed Melba Montgomery’s throat-catching mother-and-son dialogue, “No Charge,” which some say Howard regarded as his favorite creation.

Sara Evans and Jim Lauderdale wrapped up the program with a medley of Howard’s hits — “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)” and “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.” Evans said Howard encouraged her by telling her that she reminded him of Loretta Lynn when Lynn first came to Nashville. Lauderdale filled in for Buck Owens , who was prevented from attending by a snow storm.

Playing in the backup band were Larry Paxton, David Briggs, Kenny Bell, Bruce Bouton, Bill Hullett, Troy Lancaster, Michael Rhodes, John Jarvis, Steve Turner and Wanda Vick.

Many of the most telling remarks about Howard’s character came from the friends who spoke of him in the video presentations. Here are some samples:

“He had an inside line to the human heart,” producer Norro Wilson.

“He was foremost a student of life,” producer Paul Worley.

“Anytime you sat around Harlan, your day got better,” songwriter Dennis Morgan.

“He’s the kind of person you meet and you wish to God you’d known him longer,” Luke Lewis, chairman of Mercury/Nashville and Lost Highway Records.

Songwriter Jamie O’Hara recalled Howard telling him time and again how he wished he’d written “You Are My Sunshine,” a song he figured just about everyone knew and loved.

Songwriter Peter McCann quoted Howard’s retort to people who complained about how hard the music business is — “Kid, nobody sent for you.”

An enthusiastic drinker and smoker, Howard was less than granite in his periodic attempts to stand firm against these temptations. Journalist Hazel Smith said he had heard that alcoholics were people who started drinking before noon. Thus, he would sit with his eye on the clock, waiting impatiently for the proper hour to arrive. Mosser told of watching Howard enter a bar, strip off his anti-smoking patch, light up and order a bloody mary — then entreat her not to tell his wife.

The last video scene was the most poignant. Shot from behind, it showed Howard, his back bowed by age and infirmities, shuffling slowly out into the rain.

Set List

“Ave Maria,” Jonell Mosser

“Heartaches by the Number,” Jim Lauderdale

“Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” Pam Tillis

“I Fall to Pieces,” Mandy Barnett

“Why Not Me,” The Judds

“Melancholy Blue,” Trisha Yearwood

“Blame It on Your Heart,” Patty Loveless , Kostas

“Sweet Jesus You’ve Come Through Again,” Dennis Morgan

“The Streets of Baltimore,” Bobby Bare, Nanci Griffith

“No Charge,” Melba Montgomery

“I Don’t Remember Loving You,” John Conlee

“I Don’t Know a Thing About Love,” Jimmy Melton

“Busted,” Michael McDonald

“Somewhere Tonight,” Emmylou Harris , Pam Tillis, Jim Lauderdale

“Above and Beyond,” Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris

“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache),” “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down,” Sara Evans, Jim Lauderdale

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.