We all experience money problems, but maybe not as severe as the narrator in “Busted,” recorded in 1963 by Ray Charles and written by one of Nashville’s early professional full-time songwriters, Harlan Howard. The song is about a poor farmer having trouble feeding his family, bemoaning his unpaid bills, and asking his brother for help, only to find out his brother is in the same boat. The farmer decides to pack up his family and hit the road to look for a better life. “Busted” won the 1963 Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording for Charles, whose two previous albums had been covers of country songs, even though “Busted,” written by a country writer, was on an album called Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul.
The lyric may have sounded semi-humorous to an urban population with lines like I got a cow that’s gone dry and a hen that won’t lay and I hate to beg like a dog for a bone, though anybody who was really broke would have been able to identify with it. And it was probably a very real sentiment to some rural families, or veterans of the Great Depression or Dust Bowl survivors who had actually experienced hopeless poverty. The song was based in some ways on Harlan Howard’s own poor upbringing, according to his widow Melanie Howard, who today runs the business associated with his catalog.
“He talked about all his songs and ‘Busted’ in particular,” she said, speaking from the Nashville office of Harlan Howard Songs, Inc. “He loved things like the story of The Grapes of Wrath, and his own family had migrated from Kentucky to Detroit, where he was born, to look for work. He talked about it a lot, and he really loved Ray Charles’ version of it.”
The song has been recorded by numerous other artists, from country/bluegrass songstress Patty Loveless, to rock band Nazareth, to country singer John Conlee, whose everyman voice and delivery gave him a top 10 hit on it in the 1980s. Howard himself recorded the song as the lead track on his 1965 album Harlan Howard, All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter. The song is almost perfect rhyme all the way through, with the first two lines also having inner rhymes with the words The bills are all due and my baby needs shoes/ But I’m busted/ Cotton is down to a quarter a pound/ But I’m busted. Where most other versions – like the Johnny Cash version, which actually came out shortly before Charles recorded his – end cold at the conclusion of the third verse, Charles threw in a whimsical touch with his own ad-lib, saying I’m broke/ No bread/ I mean, like nothin’/ Forget it/ It’s over.
It’s difficult to find the original Ray Charles version of the song on a streaming service, as there apparently are licensing issues that have kept the recording, from Charles’ tenure on ABC Records, from being posted. But it can be found online on the album Genius — The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection, and there’s also a live version online of the song with Willie Nelson from the posthumous Charles album Genius & Friends. For the most recent rendition of “Busted” — which Melanie Howard said she likes — check out the version from Iowa-based Americana artist William Elliott Whitmore’s new album Kilonova.