Friday night — Hockey Night in Nashville? At the Nashville Municipal Auditorium, Harlan Howard’s beloved Nashville Knights have just blown a 2-0 lead to lose to the East Coast Hockey League’s Toledo Storm. Climbing into his white Cadillac, the white-haired Howard says sadly, ”I just don’t think our guys are in good enough condition to outlast ‘em.”
It’s ironic that he should cheer for a team that has so little endurance, because Howard, 64, is the undisputed king of Nashville songwriters, and easily the most durable. His resume dates back to 1958 and includes Patsy Cline’s ”I Fall to Pieces,” Ray Price’s ”Heartaches by the Number,” and Pam Tillis’ hit ”Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” After the game, at the Ultra Violet Diner near Music Row, Howard matter-of-factly addresses his own legend, declaring, ”The life-span of a creative writer is about five years. But I’ve written hits in five decades, and I’m gonna write hits in the year 2000!”
That’s good, because if there’s one commodity that Music City has always demanded, it’s a well-written song. And if there’s one talent it respects, it’s the composer’s.
About now that little city slicker inside your head may be saying, ”Hold on just a second! Composers? Respect? Talent? This stuff’s simple, right? Just write something quick about trains ‘n’ trucks, with three chords and a funny title!” If so, then veteran tunesmith Whitey Shafer (George Strait’s ”Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind”) will set you right, summing up the country songwriter’s challenge: ”The first thing you gotta know about a song is to know the ending before you start. You’ve got three minutes to tell a story.”
Most writers agree that the song factories on Music Row are the best training ground. Paul Overstreet, who wrote three hits (”On the Other Hand,” ”Diggin’ Up Bones,” and ”No Place Like Home”) for Randy Travis’ first album, Storms of Life, says, ”When I first got to town, I was writing the kind of stuff where nobody knew what you were talking about. I had to really study. I started working at it like a craft.”
Nashville’s publishing houses are a lot like the minor leagues. A kid comes to town, lands a job on a publisher’s staff, writes his G string off, and eventually embarks on a performing career. But as he spends more time on the road, he loses the daily discipline of writing. Where does he go for songs? Back to Music Row’s new writers; the cycle continues.