Country's songwriters -- Rafe VanHoy, Deborah Allen, and Harlan Howard are some of the genre's best

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.

But why Nashville? Why not glitzy music centers like New York or L.A. ? Local support, for one thing. ”There are no creative communities like this,” says songwriter Pat Alger. ”If you went around to some (Nashville) bars in the course of a week, you’d probably meet a dozen famous songwriters.”

As a result, collaboration is rampant in Music City. ”Let’s get together and write” is the Nashville equivalent of ”Let’s do lunch.” Alger, who cowrote ”The Thunder Rolls” with Garth Brooks, says, ”There are only a couple of guys like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter who did it all, so it’s really the tradition of American songwriting to be a collaboration.”

Such sharing of talents has broadened the focus of country writing these last few years. Today’s songwriters are as likely to drop names like Ernest Hemingway as they are Hank Williams. Musically, too, it’s more than just fiddles and steel guitars. Deborah Allen and her husband, Rafe VanHoy, who wrote Patty Loveless’ ”Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way),” have written a new song with ex-Fleetwood Mac member Billy Burnette called ”Chain Lightning” that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bangles album.

They’ll all tell you that the basic country song uses a couple of verses, a chorus, and a contrasting middle section called the bridge. Beyond that, asking writers to describe composing is like a tourist asking the natives for directions; you wind up lost any way you go. Jon Ims, who has written No. 1 hits for Reba McEntire (”Falling Out of Love”) and Trisha Yearwood (”She’s in Love With the Boy”), offers this: ”Country songs are about one thing, and one thing only. They are deceptively simple. There is no fat on the songs at all.” Alger, who was an architecture student at Georgia Tech, acknowledges this simplicity, saying, ”You take this structure that’s very confining — the basic four walls, a roof, a front and back door. The challenge is to create something interesting in that restricted format.” Hugh Prestwood, who has written hits for Kathy Mattea (”Asking Us to Dance”) and Travis (”Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart”), says, ”I’m trying to design a shirt; it must be a rack shirt that a medium guy can put on.”

The staggering volume of songs in Nashville is the result of a compulsive work ethic. Alger offers a possible motivation: ”Show me a songwriter who writes from inspiration only, and I’ll show you a broke songwriter.”

Harlan Howard admits, ”I’m doodling all the time. I got a little computer right here” — he taps his gray temple — ”that’s thinking of song ideas continually.” Long after his peers have quit the game, Howard is still writing and, as always, is not terribly impressed with himself. ”I’ve written about 4,000 songs, he allows, ”but I’d say only about 2,000 work.”

The Best Country Song Titles. Ever.
Sometimes the title says it all: ”If You Loved a Liar (You’d Hug My Neck).” Sometimes, it merely intrigues: ”Your Wife Is Cheatin’ on Us Again.” And yes, sometimes country song titles are corny enough to make a 12-year-old wince: ”Four Scores and Seven Beers Ago.” In country music, very few titles are written purely as jokes; the best ones have always come from honky-tonks, where friends gather in low places to enjoy a refreshing wallow in unadulterated misery. In bars with doors that have never been darkened by the pallid sunshine of self-esteem, the country songwriter has elevated despair to an art form with black humor as its voice. Here, a sampling of some of the best titles of all time.

”You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often”
Tex Ritter, 1945

”You Took Her Off My Hands (Now Please Take Her Off My Mind)”
Ray Price, 1963

”You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too”
The Statler Brothers, 1967

”You’re So Cold I’m Turning Blue”
Hugh X. Lewis, 1967

”In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”
Dolly Parton, 1968

”I Wouldn’t Change a Thing About You (But Your Name)”
Hank Williams Jr., 1968

”What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)”
Jerry Lee Lewis, 1968

”Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”
Kinky Friedman, 1973

”Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer”
Johnny Russell, 1973

”The Letter That Johnny Walker Read”
Asleep at the Wheel, 1975

”She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)”
Gary Stewart, 1975

”I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)”
Johnny Paycheck, 1977

”Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”
Barbara Mandrell, 1978

”If I Said You Have a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me”
The Bellamy Brothers, 1979

”Your Daddy Don’t Live in Heaven (He’s in Houston)”
Michael Ballew, 1981

”She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)”
Jerry Reed, 1982

”If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)”
Vern Gosdin, 1983

”I Don’t Mind the Thorns (If You’re the Rose)”
Lee Greenwood, 1985

”If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me,”
Jimmy Buffett, 1985

”Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares),”
Travis Tritt, 1991