“Harlan Howard’s Journey to Country Music Stardom: The Tale of ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down'”
In the world of country music, some tales are as timeless as the melodies themselves. Harlan Howard’s story is one such classic narrative, filled with determination, inspiration, and a dash of unexpected fate. It’s the story behind the hit song “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” performed by Charlie Walker in 1958, and it’s a story worth celebrating.
Harlan Howard, a Detroit native, discovered his love for country music at a young age, thanks to evenings spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry with his parents. His heart belonged to the sounds of Ernest Tubb, and even as a child, he exhibited an incredible talent for songwriting. Unable to remember all the lyrics to Tubb’s tunes, Harlan did something remarkable – he penned his own lyrics on the spot and sang them with gusto. Dreams of Nashville danced in his head, but the road from Michigan to Tennessee was long, especially for a boy with meager means.
Armed with just an old guitar and a few chords, Harlan continued to hone his songwriting skills during his teenage years and later while serving in the Army. Inspiration struck from all corners of life – a snippet of conversation, a scene from school or the streets – nothing was safe from becoming a potential song. Whenever he could, he hopped on a bus to Nashville, relishing live performances at the Ryman Auditorium and tirelessly networking in Music City, even though results were scarce.
After leaving the military, Harlan took factory jobs in different cities – Detroit, Arizona, Los Angeles – yet his songwriting remained a constant. Though he managed to catch the attention of Johnny Bond and Tex Ritter, they never recorded his songs. Like many aspiring artists, Howard faced more closed doors than open ones, more reasons to quit than to persist. But giving up was not in his vocabulary; he continued writing about life’s observations.
The turning point in Harlan’s journey arrived one night at a smoky West Coast honky-tonk. A lovers’ spat unfolded before his eyes, culminating in a man’s exclamation to the departing woman: “Well, you can just pick me up on your way down.” The line lingered in Harlan’s thoughts, and by morning, he had crafted an entire song around it.
Converting a lovers’ quarrel into a country music classic took Harlan only a few hours. However, he lacked the connections to turn it into a hit. But fate had other plans. A friend in Nashville, working for Pamper Music Publishing, offered to promote the song. Harlan, though unfamiliar with the publisher, trusted his friend and sent the song.
True to his word, the friend championed Harlan’s song. A demo was made, and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” circulated in Music City. It eventually landed on the desk of Ray Price’s golfing buddy. Unlike many unknown songs, this one got its chance.
Charlie Walker, a San Antonio disc jockey with a deep love for country music, recognized the potential in Harlan’s composition. Columbia released Walker’s rendition of “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” in late fall 1958, and it soon began its ascent on the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2 for an impressive four weeks. Although Charlie Walker had only one other major hit in his career, this song marked a significant milestone.
The release of “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” wasn’t just a triumph for Charlie Walker; it also opened doors for Harlan Howard. His career as a prolific songwriter had only just begun, with an astonishing 147 of his 400 compositions becoming hits. In 1961, a record-breaking fifteen of his tunes simultaneously graced Billboard’s country singles chart, a feat still unmatched today.
While the first hit didn’t immediately prompt Harlan to quit his Los Angeles job, his second blockbuster, “Heartaches By The Number,” solidified his belief in songwriting. It propelled Ray Price to #3 on Billboard’s country chart and Guy Mitchell to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, leading Harlan to finally make the move to Nashville. In doing so, he left an indelible mark on Music City.
In 1997, Harlan Howard received a well-deserved honor, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, joining a select group of non-performing songwriters. His legacy continues to inspire aspiring songwriters and underscores the enduring power of determination and creativity in the world of country music.
Artist: Charlie Walker
You were mine for just a while now you’re puttin’ on the style
And you’ve never once looked back at your home across the track
You’re the gossip of the town but my heart can still be found
Where you tossed it on the ground pick me up on your way down
Pick me up on your way down when you’re blue and all alone
When their glamour starts to bore you come on back where you belong
You may be their pride and joy but they’ll find another toy
Then they’ll take away your crown pick me up on your way down
They have changed your attitude made you haughty and so rude
Your new friends can take the blame underneath you’re still the same
When you’ve learned these things are true I’ll be waiting here for you
As you tumble to the ground pick me up on your way down
Pick me up on your way down…