Country music and the folk heritage from which it emerged tells timeless stories of heartbreaks, heroics and happy endings. Jan Howard’s life embodied that legacy.
When Howard passed away on March 28, 2020, at age 91, she had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 49 years and was its oldest living member.
Opry Vice President and Executive Producer Dan Rogers said that Howard was “a force of nature in country music, at the Opry and in life, adding, “We’re all better for having had her in our lives.”
Born Lula Grace Johnson on March 13, 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, her parents and 10 siblings struggled to survive. Her life would continue to be very challenging.
She was raped by a family friend at age 8. As teenager during WWII she worked for food for her family. She dropped out of high school, limiting her future job options as a single mother to the point that she once supported her children by working as a strip club cocktail waitress.
Her four marriages ended in divorce, with one husband being an abuser, another a bigamist and more than one an adulterer. Her house burned, and she narrowly escaped with three young sons. Of her four children, one died before birth, one in Vietnam and one by suicide. She experienced depression and severe health issues, but she survived.
Her singing and songwriting talents were nurtured by her third husband, legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, during their 11-year marriage that ended in 1968, when she caught him cheating.
She had begun her career in music by singing demo recordings for her husband, including the original demo for Patsy Cline’s first No. 1 hit, “I Fall To Pieces,” and Kitty Wells’ hit “Mommy For A Day.”
She had her own Top 10 hit in 1960 with “The One You Slip Around With,” which earned her “most promising country female” honors from the Jukebox Operators of America. In 1963 Howard had a Top 40 hit with “I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again,” but it would be a few years before her career flourished.
Her greatest success came with 1966’s “Evil On Your Mind” and the follow-up “Bad Seed.” In all she had 20 hit singles in the country Top 40 from 1960 to 1972.
It was her collaborations with Bill Anderson in the late ’60s and early ’70s that propelled her to the top of the charts. She appeared on his syndicated television show, toured with him and recorded several hits. “For Loving You” was a No. 1 hit in 1967. Other hit duets with Anderson included “I Know You’re Married,” “If It’s All The Same To You” and “Someday We’ll Be Together.”
Howard was also an accomplished songwriter. She and Anderson co-wrote Connie Smith’s hit “I Never Once Stopped Loving You.” Together with Howard’s son, Carter, they co-wrote their own 1972 hit “Dis-Satisfied”.
She penned the 1966 Kitty Wells hit “It’s All Over But The Crying” and Anderson’s 1970 hit “Love Is A Sometimes Thing,” as well as her own singles “Marriage Has Ruined More Good Love Affairs” in 1971 and “The Life Of A Country Singer” in 1981. She and June Carter co-wrote “Christmas as I Knew It” that was recorded by Johnny Cash.
According to Howard’s website, her proudest composition was 1968’s “My Son,” a moving recitation that began as a letter to her son, Jimmy, in Vietnam. Her plea for his safe return was released two weeks before he was killed. Thousands of letters from soldiers and their parents subsequently poured in to Howard. Four years later her youngest son, David, committed suicide.
Softening the edges of tragedy with her strong faith in God, she went on to tour in every U.S. state and more than 20 foreign countries. She made appearances on dozens of television shows, appeared in the movie “Changing Hearts” with her friends Rita Coolidge and Jeannie Seely, accumulated several Grammy and CMA nominations and earned countless acknowledgements for her charitable contributions.
Over the years Howard’s work with the armed forces and veteran organizations earned her several honors, including the Tennessee Adjutant General’s Distinguished Patriot Medal and the Medal of Merit from the Commander in Chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Her candid 1987 autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow proves she lived her life in keeping with her personal motto, “Never Let Yesterday Use Up Today.”
“You can’t change the past,” she concluded, advising, “so learn from it, cherish the good and go on from there. This is not a rehearsal. This is the show, and there are no retakes.”
This copyrighted story by Claudia Johnson was originally published in Country Reunion Magazine and Country Reunion News.