Remembering a Songwriter’s Songwriter

You could stock a jukebox or your mp3 player with Harley Allen songs and never grow tired of listening.

Harley wrote songs about the common themes in all our lives – love, longing and desire – without sounding trite or tired. He wrote from the heart, and his lyrics went straight to the hearts of those who listened.

Today, many of those hearts are broken. Harley Allen is gone, far too young, at 55. He died of cancer Wednesday at his Nashville home.

Those unfortunate folks whose only exposure to Harley is his Wikipedia entry will come away cheated. They’ll know he was the son of a bluegrass star, Red Allen. And they’ll read that he was best known “for providing background vocals on the song, I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

But to those in the business, and those who bother to read the fine print on CD jackets, Harley was much more than the son of someone famous and a background singer.

“His songs were always a perfect marriage between lyrics and melody,” Lou Reid told me. “Most, if not all of my albums include a Harley Allen song. He wrote from the heart, always. It was real. That was why it was good.”

Many other bluegrass and country artists joined Lou in recording Harley Allen songs, including Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs, the Grascals, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks and Kathy Mattea.

Harley sang the same way he wrote – straightforward, heartfelt and honest. In many ways, he was the Ronnie Bowman of the early 1980s – handsome, engaging on stage, and graced with a lovely singing voice. But his voice won’t be his legacy.

“While Harley was a fine musician and singer, he was always a songwriter first,” another first-rate writer, Brink Brinkman, recalled a few hours after Harley’s passing. “He was a master at his craft and his songs were crafted like fine furniture. Not a wasted word. He could relate to everyone, as the pictures in his songs hit universal emotions. He had a direct line to people’s hearts.”

He was, as Brink noted, “a songwriter’s songwriter.” Indeed, some of us write song after song, hoping for one memorable line that resonates. Some of Harley’s songs seem to have a memorable line in every verse.

Lou Reid and Brink Brinkman, talking separately, both wrapped up their comments the same way. “We lost one of the good ones today,” Lou said.
Brink put it this way: “We sure lost a good one.”

A look at Facebook entries shows many similar emotions, from well known bluegrassers like Tim Stafford and Don Rigsby to fans who knew him only from afar.

Carl Jackson, a celebrated writer himself, described for us the impact of Harley’s passing.

“Harley was one of the most talented songwriters this town has ever seen. He understood the the marriage of lyric and melody as well as any writer I’ve ever known or worked with. Far beyond that, he was a great friend who trusted me enough to share some of his innermost thoughts and feelings.

My heart broke this morning to hear the sad news.”

Many of the messages, like Harley’s songs, came from the heart. They represented, as Harley Allen wrote in High Sierra, one of his best known songs, “so much passion turned to pain.”

UPDATE 12:45 p.m. – We just received this comment from Tom T. and Dixie Hall…

“Harley was and always will be loved by fellow writers and music fans alike.  He was, is, and will continue to be the stuff of legends, and history will make ‘note’ of it!”