Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard famously boiled the philosophy of country songwriting down to a simple phrase: “three chords and the truth.” The meaning of the oft-repeated slogan may seem self-evident, but there’s more than meets the eye behind those five monosyllabic words. Howard made half a dozen albums between the early 1960s and early ’80s, but he earned his place in history by penning country classics, not performing them. The truth he spoke of capturing in song wasn’t autobiographical accuracy; he and his peers were after stories and sentiments that would ring true emotionally when someone else delivered them, which is a very different thing.
Throughout most of country’s existence as a commercial genre, creative labor, and profit derived from it, has been divvied up in a way that’s treated singing and songwriting as separate professions. Despite the thoroughly casual culture of Nashville songwriting, pros hired to write for Music Row publishing companies were expected to be reliably productive, churning out quality tunes that could be pitched around town to label A&R people, producers, managers, and artists. Writers with solid reputations and professional relationships stood a better chance of their songs receiving consideration, but there was also a merit-based mentality to song selection: “The best song wins.” If it won once, it might even score back-to-back victories; when an artist had a big hit, it wasn’t at all uncommon for a slew of other acts to immediately record and release their own versions of the same tune.