She’s been an Opry member for three decades, and by the time of her induction, she was already a presence on the Nashville music scene for eleven years. Jan Howard’s biography could have been its own country song, and even was at times, but her talent has always been coupled with grit.
She was born in Missouri, and only fifteen when she married. Three children and two divorces later, she moved to California with her sons. In Los Angeles, she met a young songwriter named Harlan Howard. They quickly married in Vegas, a union that would last for ten years. One night, she began to sing while washing the dishes, and he discovered she had a vocal talent she’d been too shy to share. He asked her to sing the demo for a song he’d written called “Mommy For a Day.” The song became a big hit for Kitty Wells, and Howard became her husband’s demo singer.
While she continued to record demos for Harlan, she also sang them for Buck Owens and Tex Ritter, and she sang the demo for the Patsy Cline smash “I Fall to Pieces” as well. Harlan knew his wife could be a star in her own right, and he penned her first big hit as a recording artist. “The One You Slip Around With” went to #13 in 1960 on the Challenge record label.
It was a good enough beginning to get her a spot performing on the Grand Ole Opry. After her first show, Patsy Cline flew into her dressing room and cussed her out for not introducing herself to “the Cline.” Howard retorted that where she came from, it’s the people already in town that are supposed to make the new folks feel welcome. Cline let out a rip-roaring laugh, and told her that anybody who’ll talk back to the Cline was alright in her book. They became good friends, remaining so until Cline’s death in 1963.
Howard’s recording career was uneventful until 1966, when she scored her biggest solo hit, “Evil On Your Mind”, and followed it up with the second and last solo top ten of her career, “Bad Seed.” The latter song was written by Bill Anderson, and most of the hits she would have in the following years would be duets with him. Together, they scored four top five hits in five years, including the four-week #1 “For Loving You” in 1967 and “Dis-Satisfied” in 1971, which the two co-wrote with Howard’s son, Carter.
It was for her son Jimmy that Howard wrote her most personal song, “My Son.” She wrote it in 1968 after she dreamed he’d died in battle in Vietnam. She had such difficulty recording it that the producers stitched together the song from multiple takes. She was hesitant to put it out as a single, but she realized that other parents with children overseas could make it their own. Tragically, her son was killed in battle only two weeks after the single was released.
In 1971, Howard became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. While her solo career had cooled by then, she was still having hits with Bill Anderson, and she’d also penned singles for Kitty Wells (“It’s all Over But the Crying”), Connie Smith (“I Never Once Stopped Loving You”) and Anderson himself (“Love is a Sometimes Thing.”
The Opry milestone was followed by another tragedy, when her youngest son David committed suicide. She was devastated, and was helped greatly by Johnny Cash & June Carter, who coaxed her back on to the stage by inviting her on their tour. She would later tour with Tammy Wynette as well, but her home base was always the Opry.
In 1979, after she found herself on the verge of suicide, she sat down and began writing a song called “My Story.” It would later grow into her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, which helped her come to terms with both the challenges and the blessings in her past. Howard remarried in 1990, and has remained an active and vibrant member of the Opry cast.
- “The One You Slip Around With”, 1960
- “Evil On Your Mind”, 1966
- “Bad Seed”, 1966
- “For Loving You” (with Bill Anderson), 1967
- “My Son”, 1968
- Evil On Your Mind (1966)
- This is Jan Howard Country (!967)
- For Loving You (with Bill Anderson) (1968)
- Jan Howard (1969)