At a time when tributes are all the rage, the Harlan Howard Birthday Bash does it right.
Sara Evans, Lonestar’s Richie McDonald and Joe Nichols weren’t on the charts when the Bash was Music Row’s best annual party, back when country music’s most famous songwriter could be spotted happily roaming among his well-wishers.
Although Howard died in 2002, his spirit remains alive on Music Row. After a six-year hiatus, the birthday bash again brought together several of Nashville’s most successful songwriters and artists Tuesday night (Sept. 16) in Nashville. The charity event raised money for the Nashville Songwriters Foundation.
The outdoor concert is not traditionally a tribute to Howard’s own classic compositions, such as “Above and Beyond,” “Blame It on Your Heart,” “Busted,” “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Life Turned Her That Way,” “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” and “Why Not Me.”
Instead, the event is a tip of his signature black hat to the well-crafted, hit country songs that make Nashville famous.
And, boy, Nashville should be proud to have them.
Most of the country stars wore blue jeans, but their songs were golden. Rebecca Lynn Howard offered a guitar-driven rendition of “Forgive” and Richie McDonald (and co-writer Frank Myers) knocked out “My Front Porch Looking In” and “I’m Already There.” Nichols sang two album cuts, while Emmylou Harris kept true to country with “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “Two More Bottles of Wine.” She earned a standing ovation.
Before Evans signed to RCA, she sang a new demo of Howard’s song “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and he told her, “Girl, I have been looking for you for years to sing my music. You’re great!” At the concert, Evans happily led the excellent house band with “Born to Fly” and her perky new single “Perfect.”
Radney Foster performed the last song he wrote with Howard, “Scary Old World.” After that, he introduced “Just Call Me Lonesome,” saying, “When I was a kid, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a Harlan Howard song. And this is the closest I’ve come to writing a Harlan Howard song.” Blues survivor Delbert McClinton capped the night, convincing the partygoers to dance at the foot of the stage. In the stodgy music community of Music Row, that’s quite a feat.
As they say in Nashville, it all begins with a song. So it was fitting that songwriters stood as equals throughout the night. The crowd was treated to country classics (Merle Kilgore singing “Ring of Fire”), contemporary favorites (Stephony Smith’s “It’s Your Love”), current smashes (Rivers Rutherford’s “Real Good Man”) and future hits (D. Vincent Williams’ “Room to Breathe,” the thoughtful title track to Reba McEntire’s upcoming album).
The songwriters thought you might recognize these, too: “My Town,” “The Baby,” “Big Star,” “I Just Wanna Be Mad,” “The Impossible,” “I’m Movin’ On,” “Ain’t Nothin’ ’Bout You” and “Long Time Gone,” among several others.
“Are you amazed that all this talent is in Nashville?” the evening’s co-host Brenda Lee asked the hundreds of biz-types milling around the parking lot at the head of Music Row. Lee and Howard were both inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. Howard wrote her hit, “Too Many Rivers.”
Lee’s co-host Ralph Murphy added that Howard made it a point to befriend promising new songwriters in Nashville. Then he added, “As long as there’ll be new songwriters, there’ll always be Harlan.”