NASHVILLE — Grand Ole Opry star Jan Howard, 91, singer-songwriter-author, died from a bout with pneumonia at her home, March 28, 2020 in nearby Gallatin, reported her last surviving son Carter Howard. She was a near-50-year member of the historic WSM program (seen at right with DJ Eddie Stubbs).
Among her early hits were songs supplied by her husband of 10 years, Harlan Howard: “The One You Slip Around With,” a 1960 Top 20 indie release, and “Evil On Your Mind,” a 1966 Top Five for the vocalist. Fans probably best remember her association with Opry artist Bill Anderson, who penned her Top 10 “Bad Seed” solo, and for their duets together “For Loving You,” a #1 by Steve Karliski (1967), Anderson’s “If It’s All the Same To You” (#2, 1969), “Someday We’ll Be Together” (#4, 1970), and “Dis-Satisfied,” which she and Bill co-wrote with her son Carter.
Born Lula Grace Johnson, March 13, 1929 in West Plains, Mo. (also birthplace to her Opry pal Porter Wagoner), she was the eighth of 11 children born to hard-luck farmers Rolla & Shirley Johnson during the Great Depression.
It wasn’t until her 1987 tell-all auto-biography “Sunshine & Shadows” that Jan revealed she had been a victim of rape at age 8 (the pedophile being a friend of Rolla’s). This traumatic incident she kept from her family, then barely making ends meet as her father toiled under the WPA (Works Progress Administration).
“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,” she penned so poignantly in her book.
At sweet 16, dropping out of high school, Lula became a bride to Mearle Wood in 1945, and by her early 20s was mom to three sons: Jimmy, Carter and David. She was 24, when she divorced their dad, whom she said beat her and was both immature and self-centered. A second brief marital ceremony occurred in 1953 with Lowell Smith, another GI, before finding out her groom was still legally attached to his first wife. Still, they had a daughter together, Jan Louise, who died shortly after her birth.
Following a move to Los Angeles, she became friends with singer-musician Wynn Stewart, who soon introduced her to struggling songwriter pal Harlan Howard, who was delighted to find she possessed a fine vocal talent. He gave her the stage name Jan, which sounded more professional than Lula, and the couple were wed in a civil ceremony, May 10, 1957, in Las Vegas.
Before too long, she was helping him record “demo” songs to pitch to potential female artists-of-note, including country queen Kitty Wells, who liked what she heard in “Mommy For a Day,” which Harlan and fellow Bakersfield composer Buck Owens initially penned as a Daddy ballad. Nonetheless, it became a 1959 Top Five for Kitty.
Speaking of Wells, Jan demo’d Harlan’s “Heartbreak USA,” which became a four-week #1 for Kitty in 1961, and was succeeded on the chart by Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” a two-week #1, also co-written by Harlan (with Hank Cochran), and demo’d by Jan. Word had it, Jan was irate upon hearing Cline recorded the song, which she thought Harlan had decided to save for her. In no uncertain terms, she expressed her disdain for his giving that star-making song away, yet in retrospect, recalled in an interview, “Patsy did a great job on it, and I guess it was meant to be.”
Of course, Howard proudly did his bit to promote Jan’s career, initially on the indie Challenge label (owned by movie cowboy Gene Autry) in Nashville. He also helped her land a singing spot on Town Hall Party, a popular syndicated TV series from the coast.
The Howards made their move to Music City in 1960. Incidentally, her first duet charting, “Yankee Go Home” was with Wynn Stewart in 1959; however, that disc didn’t jell with DJs, who preferred the B side, “Wrong Company” with Wynn, as written by Harlan and that became Jan’s first Top 20 record. Meantime, another Harlan solo, “The One You Slip Around With,” earned her the Jukebox Operators of America’s Most Promising Country Female honor in 1960.
Several seasons later, Jan had a brief encounter with the major Capitol label, but scored only one Billboard chart single for them: Harlan’s “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” (#27, 1963). After that venture fizzled, legendary producer Owen Bradley took a chance on Jan, and again Harlan furnished her first charting for their Decca Records release, “What Makes a Man Wander?” (#25, 1965).
She also began making appearances with label pal Whisperin’ Bill Anderson on his syndicated TV series, and soon was out on the road touring with him. Although Harlan had adopted her sons (after she suffered miscarriages), she didn’t think he was enough of a family man, so they divorced in 1967. Though ’tis said they remained friends, thanks to the boys.
In 1968, her elder son Jimmy was drafted into the military, and she was inspired enough by their exchange of letters, to write a tribute tune “My Son,” only weeks later learning of his death in a landmine explosion. Jan’s subsequent single of their song charted 14 weeks on Billboard (#15, 1968), and it was Grammy nominated. Because of its memories, she couldn’t bring herself to sing it live.
Kitty Wells later recorded Jan’s composition “It’s All Over But the Crying” (1966); Jean Shepard cut Jan’s “Wherever You Are”; and later friend Connie Smith scored with Jan and Bill’s “I Never Once Stopped Loving You.” In those years she was also friends with Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters, touring with them in the Johnny Cash Show. She and June Carter co-wrote “Christmas As I Knew It,” and it’s Jan’s vocals heard on Johnny Cash’s #1 ’68 hit “Daddy Sang Bass,” warbling the words “. . . and Mama sang tenor.”
Finally in 1971, after many guest shots, the Opry invited this titian-haired beauty to join permanently, an honor Jan appreciated to the end. Come 1973, however, yet another tragedy confronted the pioneer performer, when her youngest son David, 21, committed suicide, after having been heavily involved in drugs.
It proved another deeply challenging time for the artist, who admitted she was herself battling suicidal instincts. Howard bared it all in the afore-mentioned “Sunshine & Shadows,” tome published by Richardson & Steirman in New York.
In 2002, Jan landed a cameo in a Faye Dunaway film “Changing Hearts.” It was in 2005 that Howard was inducted into her home state’s Missouri Country Music Hall of Fame.
Following her sons’ deaths, she pulled out all the stops, performing in benefits and making appearances to aid various military and community health programs. In 1992, she was the recipient of the Tennessee Adjutant General’s Distinguished Patriot Medal in recognition of her charitable contributions. She also treasured her four BMI writer awards for her compositions.
Jan even tried marriage again, this time with Dr. Maurice M. Acree, Jr., a former Navy pilot in the Korean War. He had been a pathologist at Baptist Hospital and Pathlab, Inc. in Nashville. The couple exchanged their vows at Nashville’s Calvary Methodist Church in August 1990. Acree died in April 2013.
The singer is survived by son Carter Howard, his wife Pamela; grandchildren Mitsi Lindsay and Anita Simpson; and great-grandchildren Cole, Alli and Charlie. According to Dan Rogers, Opry honcho, “Jan Howard was a force of nature in country music, at the Opry, and in life. 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.” – Walt Trott