Jan Howard is absolutely an American treasure in the country music world. She was one of the hottest female vocalists in country music and named as The Classiest Lady in Country Music. She was not only a successful recording star but is also a hit writer.
But what people did not know is that Jan Howard is a survivor of a difficult life. She has been through as many hardships and heartbreaks few people have been.
The Early Life of Jan Howard
Jan Howard was born as Lula Grace Johnson on March 13, 1930, in West Plains, Missouri. She was the eighth of eleven children born to a poor family during the Great Depression. Her father was a brick mason who received employment assistance from the Works Progress Administration and their family frequently move as her father found work and better housing.
Howard revealed in her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow: My Story, that she was raped by a family friend when their family briefly returned to West Plains. “My body was violated and my mind was damaged in a way I wasn’t to know the full extent of for years to come,” Howard wrote on her autobiography as she recalled her experience. She kept it a secret from her family.
Howard had a life she compared to a “great soap opera.” When she was 15, she married her high school boyfriend and had three sons before she was 21. After a divorce from her first husband and an annulment from her second, she moved to Los Angeles, hoping for a new start. There, she met Harlan Howard, a young songwriter. After dating for a month, the two quickly married in Las Vegas.
Jan Howard’s Path to Becoming a Country Star
The beginning of her career sounds like the American Dream. Did you know that she was discovered while washing dishes?
“Well, I was married to Harlan Howard at the time. We’d been married a year and he’d never heard me sing, because I didn’t sing in front of anyone, I was very very shy. I was singing in the kitchen and I didn’t know he was there. And he said ‘was that you?’ and I said ‘yeah” and that started the whole thing. And it was good. I believe that things are already mapped up for us. We’re in the right place we’re supposed to be at the time we’re supposed to be there. So evidently that was the time,” Howard said in an interview.
He asked her to sing the demo for a song he’d written titled “Mommy For a Day.” The song became a big hit for Kitty Wells, and Howard became her husband’s demo singer.
“I did the demos because Harlan wrote the songs and he and I were married at the time. I did all of the demos. Ray Price recorded ‘Heartaches By The Number’ and Harlan wrote ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down.’ Ray got it first but he gave it to his friend, Charlie Walker, since he felt he deserved a hit song,” Howard said.
Jan Howard continued recording for Harlan, at the same time sang for Buck Owens and Tex Ritter and she sang the demo for the Patsy Cline smash “I Fall to Pieces” too, which was supposed to be her first song.
“Yes. Well, it was right after we moved to Nashville. We were living in a little rented house, it was hot and it was humid and there was no airconditioning. When we first moved here, I hated it. And Hank Cochran came over one day and said he had a great idea but he couldn’t put it together. So he came in and Harlan and I, we had a little room we turned into where we could do a demo. We went back there and I set on a desk listening to them as ‘I Fall To Pieces’ was being written,” Howard shared in her interview.
And I said ‘oh, I love that song!’ Now I don’t like that song. But anyway, I said ‘that’s my song’ and he said ‘yes, that’s your song’. So I made the demo on it. And then Harlan came home one day and said ‘guess who’s gonna record I Fall To Pieces?’. I said ‘I am’ and he said ‘no, Patsy.’ I can’t repeat here what I said, but it was not good. And I said I should have divorced him then, but I didn’t. But Patsy did a great job on it and I guess it was meant to be.
But Harlan knew his wife could be a star in her own right, so he had written Howard what’s going to be her first big hit as a recording artist. “The One You Slip Around With” went to #13 in 1960 on Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. And this has been the start of her success as a country singer.
This has landed her an opportunity to sing the Grand Ole Opry. Billboard named her Country Music’s Most Promising Female Artist too. Artist. Her next hit came in 1963, with “I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again,” which cracked the top 40.
In 1965, Jan Howard signed up with Decca Records and released her first records. It was on this label that she was able to achieve her greatest success, starting with “What Makes a Man Wander.” Howard’s 1966 recording of “Evil on Your Mind,” became her biggest solo hit for her entire career as it made it to top 5. The hit became her signature song. Her next release, “Bad Seed,” also made it into the top 10.
Few more years later she had another hit, a remake of Lulu Belle’s “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again”— one of her trademark up-tempo tunes. And between 1965 and 1972, she and Bill Anderson collaborated and produced more hit songs like “I Know You’re Married but I Love You Still” (1966), “For Loving You” (1967) and “Dis-Satisfied” (1972).
But in addition to her successful singing career, Howard has also written several hits, not only for herself but as well as for other singers. She penned Kitty Wells’s hit “It’s All Over but the Crying” and Anderson’s “Love Is a Sometimes Thing.”
But her most personal work was her son “My Son,” in 1968 which was produced by Owen Bradley. This song began as a letter to her eldest Jimmy, serving in Vietnam. It is actually a mother’s prayer for the same return of her child.
“It was not a song, it was a letter I wrote to my oldest son who was in Vietnam. His name is Jimmy. And my middle son was home before he was going to in Vietnam, because he was also in military. And I wrote this letter and for some reason it was more than a letter and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Jan Howard said. I read it to my middle son, his name is Carter, and he said ‘mom, you need to put that to music.’ He said Jimmy would be so proud. It took me a couple of weeks and I sang it to Bill Anderson and he said ‘you need to do that’. It took a long time and then I finally did, but I couldn’t seem to get through it. I knew it was more than a letter. I recorded it one time, one take.”
Unfortunately, Jan Howard’s son Jimmy died before he could write back. “And I got a 7 and 1/2 real tape at that time and I sent it to Jimmy. I said ‘I have a surprise for you’ and I sent it to him. And he was killed right after that. I never got to hear from him. But one of his friends said he used his tape recorder to play it and that he was so proud and he cried. ”
And her song, “My Son,” became very special in Vietnam and ever since then, Howard has been an outspoken advocate for veterans group across the nation. “I understand they played it every day in Vietnam like the national anthem. And I still get so many requests for it, but I can’t do that. I do it once in a great while only for a special thing like Veterans’ Day.”
Unfortunately, as her career was peaking, her marriage to Harlan was crumbling. The couple decided to go separate ways and divorced in 1968. And four years later, her youngest son David committed suicide at age 21.
Forever A Grand Lady of the Opry
Jan Howard became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1971. And ever since then her trumpet-like tones became a fixture on the Opry stage for more than four decades thereafter.
“I appeared on the Opry for 11 years prior to becoming a member. The first time I performed there was August 6, 1960. I am honored to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. I am proud to have walked on that stage and stood on that circle where so many people I have admired and respected have stood. It is an honor to stand in that center circle. Sometimes, it feels unreal.”
Despite playing the Opry for so many years, Jan Howard never lost the butterflies whenever she performs.
“No, it should never be a routine. Minnie Pearl told me one time, I asked her if she ever got nervous and she said ‘Nervous? No. But butterflies? Yes! ‘Cause that’s adrenaline and anticipation.’ And she said ‘When you lose the butterflies, you need to quit. Because that means you’re taking it for granted.’ I mean I may quit someday, but I’ll never lose the butterflies,” Howard said.
“To me the Opry is more than a building. And it’s not a building. It’s the people. But standing on the center circle, where so many great artists have stood, is always an honor. And it will continue to be an honor. I may quit tomorrow, I don’t know, but that will never leave the honor of being a member of the great institution. I’m very honored to have been there for all these years. As of now, I’ve been a member for 43 years, but I appeared there 10 years before I actually was made a member. Everybody thought I was, Bud Wendell, when he became the manager of the Opry, he thought I was until I told him I wasn’t. He said ‘well, you are now, so be there Saturday night’. That’s how I was made a member. It was great.”
The Classiest Lady in Country Music.
Howard was warmly known as the “Classiest Lady in Country Music.” Throughout her career in country music, Howard was nominated for two Grammy awards for “Best Country Vocal Performance, Female” for “Evil On Your Mind” and “My Son”. She placed 30 titles on the country hit parade and issued 15 albums between 1960 and 1986. In 2005, she joined the Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame.
Jan Howard “passed away peacefully” in Gallatin, Tennessee at the age of 91, just 15 days after she celebrated her birthday last March 13, 2020. The Grand Ole Opry shared a tribute to the late country legend and a treasured member of its family. The March 28, 2020 broadcast of the program has been dedicated to Howard.
“Jan Howard was a force of nature in country music, at the Opry, and in life,” Grand Ole Opry Vice President and Executive Producer Dan Rogers said in a statement on behalf of the Opry. “We were all so lucky so many nights to hear her voice on stage and to catch up with her backstage. We’re all better for having had her in our lives.”
Jan Howard has definitely lived a colorful life and her success was something every country singer could look forward to. But for Howard, the word success deals with contentment in life. “Money does not bring happiness. Things like awards, silver, and gold are not that precious to me. It’s my family and friends. Success is where you are in your life. That is success to me,” she said.
Howard concluded, “I would like to get a hole-in-one in the golf course someday. That would be a success, since I never had one. I have come 11 inches from a hole-in-one. I play the best I can since I am competing against myself. If I enjoy it, it’s a good game.”
Jan Howard is survived by one of her three sons, Carter A. Howard and his wife Pamela, two grandchildren, Mitsi H. Lindsay (Keith), Anita H. Simpson (Travis), and three great-grandchildren, Cole, Alli and Charlie.